Do you tend to show horses that perform at events such as hunter/jumper shows, dressage events, breed shows or westerns? Have you experienced the problem of extreme anxiety in the horse? Believe it or not, aromatherapy may be the answer.
Horses often exhibit high levels of anxiety when attending shows and other events. This response is natural to their temperament, and is something that, if you want to overcome, needs to be acknowledged as an innate behavior that is hard-wired into the horse’s brain.
Horses are prey animals that do not like being separated from their herd, especially in a new place. They are also claustrophobic and do not deal well with small stalls. Show anxiety is stressful to the horse, so finding a strategy to alleviate the issue is very important. And the best way to achieve this starts at home.
How aromatherapy promotes relaxation in show horses
Horses have very sensitive olfactory centers. Smells can trigger both negative and positive associations. Guidance with aromatherapy can help to promote a positive mental state in your show horse. Grooming is one of the most calming and pleasant experiences for a horse, and so adding aromatherapy as part of the grooming process can help them build confidence. Using essential oils as part of the grooming routine in the stall can help condition your horse to have these associations anytime the smell is present, including at a horse show.
Essential oils to try with your show horse
Every horse is unique and will have a different response to different oils. The process to find the most effective oils for your particular horse may take a little trial and error but you can start with these recommendations:
Lavender: The most calming essential oil, helps reduce tension and anxiety. Will soothe and nurture a frazzled horse. If anxiety has gone to the stage of a temper tantrum, you may choose lavender
Sweet Orange: Promotes self assurance and alertness
Basil, Lemon and Cypress: Provide focus and increase the ability to keep your horse’s mind on task
Patchouli: Will provide solid grounding and keep your horse aware
Ylang Ylang: Can help a moody horse relax and alleviate depression as it helps with the release of endorphins in the brain
Clary Sage: Another mood enhancing oil
Geranium: Very calming especially for claustrophobic horses
Vetiver: A calming and grounding oil
Grapefruit: Helps with performance stress
Bergamot: Lifts the spirits
Science or snake oil?
It’s important to acknowledge that, even if you don’t “believe” in the aromatherapy effects described above, the notion that smells can trigger memories or emotions in humans (and by extension all mammals including horses) is undeniable. It’s not about choosing an oil that will promote a particular emotion in your horse, so much as finding the smell that, for each particular horse, matches that emotion. It’s also possible through regular training to condition the horse to associate a certain smell with the positive feelings you want it to feel.
Usually horses are very relaxed during grooming. Not only is it pleasant, the attention they are getting from the leader of the herd, YOU, in view of their pasture-mates indicates a level of importance and helps with confidence. A horse preparing for a show should be groomed daily, to not only condition their coat, mane, tail and hooves, but more importantly to boost their confidence.
This time presents a wonderful opportunity to condition their mind and emotions using aromatherapy.
How to train your horse using aromatherapy
Before you begin grooming, place a few drops of an essential oil onto a wipe and offer it to the horse to smell. If he or she refuses, try another. There is an endless variety of essential oils available so there is no need to force an oil onto the horse. Never put an oil directly in the nose or on the muzzle. This practice “traps” a horse as it cannot escape the smell. Simply let it smell the vapors and once you receive “yes” signals, create a massage oil by adding a few drops of the essential oil to a carrier oil such as coconut oil, and gently rub behind the jaw, poll, crest, and along either side of the spine. You can also add a few drops to around 8oz witch-hazel and gently spray it lightly across the spine or onto a cloth and wipe it onto the back and face.
Complete the grooming process as usual, and finish off by adding the massage oil/spray to the tail brush as you begin the final grooming of its mane and tail.
Doing this every time you groom at home, will rapidly train your horse to associate the smells of the essential oil with the pleasant, relaxing experience of grooming and its home stall. Do this regularly, and just as with Pavlov’s dogs, you will be able to stimulate these comforting feelings any time you want.
This means that if the horse shows difficulty or anxiety at a show, all you need to do is bring out the massage oil/spay. The smell will remind him or her of grooming and the safety of their stall, and will quickly calm their nerves.
Aromatherapy for everyone
While the above procedure may be necessary to achieve peak performance out of a professional show horse, the principle of helping to improve the health and well being of your horse through the power of essential oils is something that I apply when developing all the products we offer at Equi-Spa. I use essential oils to ensure that all Equi-Spa products are free from artificial fragrances which may fool our human noses, but not the sensitive olfactory glands of our horses. Essential oils also help me harness the healing power of nature to eliminate the need for potentially toxic preservatives, and other chemicals across our range of all-natural grooming products.