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Feeding herbs as a supplement to the horse’s daily diet sparks more and more of an interest in equestrians. Herbs are usually low in sugar and contain valuable active ingredients which, when used in a targeted manner, can boost the horse’s metabolism. Historically horses were able to forage by themselves in the woods or on grass verges along the fields and pick up a great variety of plants. Excessive use of sprays in agriculture and over-fertilisation of the land to increase yields in recent decades has caused biodiversity to shrink further and further, so that even hay today often contains little or no herbal plants.

Green pastures in the summer
© Adobe Stock/eyetronic

Whereas 50 years ago an average of 50 different plant species could be found in hay samples, the botany in today’s hay samples is limited to 6-9 different plants, most of which are grasses. Grass verges these days are pure monocultures and forest owners are generally not in agreement to see horses forage cross-country through their woodlands.

This ‘lack of herbs’ in the daily feed intake, can be counteracted by the targeted feeding of individual herbs or herb mixtures. Collecting herbs, yourself is becoming increasingly popular. Organised walks to collect herbs, are now offered almost everywhere by experienced experts. The expert will teach and explain about local herbal plants and their traditional use, as well as the necessary preparations while on route foraging. Some active ingredients only unfold when they are boiled, others must be dissolved from the plant with an alcoholic extract or with a cold-water extract. Once enrolled at a herbal course, your attentiveness walking through nature will be quite a different experience, you suddenly discover many local herbs that are able to support your horses metabolism.

Various dried herbs and herbal tinctures
© Adobe Stock / yanadjan

Mugwort, walnut leaves and wild horseradish can be collected and dried to be used as a natural worm remedy in autumn. Rosehips can also be collected, but they should be dried in the oven or on the radiator to prevent them from becoming mouldy. They can support mild arthritis as well as provide high-quality oils some horses happily eat them as treats. Nettles, that can often be found waist-high in in the field, can be mown, bundled, dried, and hung up in the stable to support coat change metabolism – the horses help themselves as required, to stimulate their kidney function. Yarrow is also suitable for drying in bundles, it is particularly popular in winter and is an ‘all-rounder’ among herbs that supports the liver and intestines and thus relieves the immune system. Sage and thyme can be planted in the garden or balcony box, the classics for respiratory diseases. Peppermint is also often eaten by horses; it has a stabilising effect on the intestines and is also suitable for many horses to make not-so-tasty herbal mixtures ‘tastier’. Oregano and marjoram also have a calming effect on the intestines and support the transition from grazed pasture to hay feeding, especially in autumn.

Basket of freshly picked nettles
© Alicja Neumiler / Adobe Stock

Offering bundles of dry or fresh herbs is also suitable for stabled horses, individual stable or open stables. If options for your own design are available natural hedges along the walk to the paddock for example or around the gazing field edges is another way to offer versatility. They provide a habitat for various small animals and the horses always have something to nibble on. Another proven concept tried and tested in open stables is a raised ‘garden’ bed as a ‘herb bar’, the horses help themselves as required. The raised bed should be covered with a grid so that the plants cannot be eaten down to the ground. The horses can nibble off the herbs and the plant can continue to regrow and regenerate repeatedly under the grid. It is interesting to observe which horses prefer to nibble on which herbs and which ones tend to stay put or are only eaten at certain times.

And for all horses who don’t have access to a natural herbal garden, there are still manufacturers of ready-made herbal mixtures, e.g. OKAPI or PerNaturam etc. Herbal mixtures are as close to natural feeding behaviour, wild horses have constant access to what nature has to offer, whereas our domestic horses live in a monoculture. Herbs can be offered in the feed bowl or sprinkled over moistened hay. If horses are used to being fed herbs, you can also fill various mixtures into plastic tins and offer them to the horses. If the mixture is suitable, they can take 2-3 mouthfuls of it, if not, put it away and offer it again a few weeks later. Observe your horse to see which mixtures is preferred to take at which times. You will learn a lot about natural metabolic fluctuations and can often recognise imbalances earlier if you train your eye. For example, horses often eat respiratory-supporting herbs even before we hear them cough. Potential diseases brewing, can then often be intercepted at an early stage before it manifests itself and requires complex therapies and medication.

Horse standing in a green meadow
© bagicat / Adobe Stock

But be mindful herbs contain pharmacologically active substances! Where there is a beneficial effect, there is potentially a side effect as always, the clue is in the dosage. Therefore, we recommend: to start some basic education perhaps on herbal walks accompanied by relevant literature, then collect (buy) and feed.