Herbal Horse Pain Relievers

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Many horse owners can’t imagine why anyone would even consider choosing an herbal alternative instead of a traditional drug to battle inflammation of any type. Bute and other NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) are readily available, proven highly effective and inexpensive. It makes no sense to use anything else. And for short-term use, we agree.

However, at high doses for prolonged periods, the side effects from NSAIDs include gastric ulcers, colonic ulceration, kidney damage and interference with healing. Some horses are particularly sensitive to the gastrointestinal side effects. That alone would make you wonder what other options you have, especially for a low-grade chronic inflammation.

Quite a few supplements, or nutraceuticals as they’re commonly called, claim to help control pain and inflammation. Fortunately, scientific research is starting to uncover a variety of mechanisms that explain how nutrients and herbs traditionally used for the control of pain and inflammation actually work. We’ve included this information and likely effective equine dosing in our sidebar on page 5.

As is often the case, however, formal equine studies aren’t available so we have extrapolated from human data on a metabolic bodyweight basis. This information, especially the likely effective dosages, will help you decipher labels to determine if you’re actually purchasing a product with enough of the active ingredients in it to get the job done. A ”bargain-priced” product might include ingredient levels more applicable to treating inflammation in a gnat rather than a horse.

Good Candidates

Over-the-counter pain relievers, like the ones in this story, should be used as part of an overall plan to keep your horse comfortable. It’s important to know what you’re dealing with and not just ”see if it helps.”

A horse in acute pain should be seen by a veterinarian. Do not administer these products to a horse in intense pain without a veterinarian’s approval. You could actually cause more damage by making the horse feel better than he should, causing him to further injure himself. These products aren’t made to substitute for proper veterinary diagnosis.

Severe pain is not likely to be controlled by these products anyway. Horses most likely to respond are the ones with low-level chronic pain, such as an older horse who needs a little help or a performance horse after a difficult competition or work. Consider it like yourself when you think you need an aspirin to help alleviate a minor pain. These products can be useful for acute, chronic, short-term and long-term pain control.

In addition, if the horse is battling arthritis, we would suggest that you consider trying a joint nutraceutical first. (Note: We’re at work on a series specifically looking at joint nutraceuticals, including ingredients like glucosamine, hyaluronic acid, and chondroitin sulfate.) If the arthritic horse seems to need more pain control than the nutraceutical can offer, consider adding one of these products. An herbal anti-inflammatory relieves pain and inflammation. A joint nutraceutical helps build joint-fluid rejuvenation and lubricate the joint.

Don’t take short cuts battling inflammation. Cold-therapy, wrapping, sweats and liniments remain important parts of your horse’s overall care.

Adjust exercise/work levels to the horse’s level of pain. Remember that pain’s function is to warn the horse (and you) that something isn’t right. It’s nature’s way of ensuring they take care of the problem.

Not For Everyone

If you’re looking toward one of these products thinking it will be easier on your horse’s liver than a drug, think again. Liver toxicity is not one of the problems associated with prescription NSAIDs, and the fact is that all these naturally occurring alternatives are also metabolized by the liver. Several actually have well-documented effects on the drug-metabolizing enzyme systems.

Intestinal-tract ulcerations and renal damage generally aren’t associated with the alternative supplements, but several do have the potential to cause some gastric irritation, especially in high doses. These include devil’s claw, meadowsweet, white willow bark and capsaicin. It’s not likely to be a problem for normal horses, although some individuals may be sensitive and horses with gastric ulceration already present may be more sensitive.

Finally, many of the ingredients in these products should be avoided in horses that will be undergoing surgery because of a potential to slow blood clotting. These include bioflavonoids, green tea, red pepper, celery seed, boswellia and ginkgo.

The effects are dosage-dependent and obvious problems with clotting would be rare, particularly in horses with chronic inflammatory issues that increase clotting tendencies so that the supplements would actually have a normalizing effect. Nevertheless, it would be wise to avoid them close to a surgery, or inform your veterinarian that the supplements have been used so that clotting times can be tested.

Our Trials

We were interested in trying these supplements in a variety of situations where we would commonly choose to use NSAIDs.

Both acute and chronic muscle, tendon and joint (especially arthritis) problems certainly top that list, but wounds, injuries, insect-bite problems, laminitis and even ”stiff all over” older horses are also conditions where analgesic and anti-inflammatory support can help.

When the opportunity arose, we included these latter categories as well. The chart on page 4 summarizes our conclusions as to the overall effectiveness of specific products. We sorted the products into fast-, moderate- and slow-acting responses.

In general, the fast-acting products produce results within roughly the same time frame as you would expect from NSAIDs and have the widest range of possible uses. We also include a ”Bute Equivalent” rating, which is the dose of phenylbutazone that we think would likely give you comparable results.

Bottom Line

Rapid-acting products all had devil’s claw in common. At their effective doses, all these products showed anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects equivalent to about 1.5 to 2 grams of phenylbutazone.

However, when we add the element of cost, B-L Solution (liquid or pellet) is the easy No. 1 pick. And its paste formulation is a must-have for first-aid kits. If you prefer to use a powder supplement, Devil’s Claw Plus was the most palatable.

Pain X was effective in horses where nothing else worked well, but we think it’s too pricey for regular use. We’d reserve its use for horses still being actively worked, with nagging chronic problems that could benefit from some extra help around times they wil l be used more heavily.

Vaxamine EQ piqued our interest for horses battling insulin resistance. Although a bit slow-acting, it warrants further investigation into whether the superior effects we saw with laminitis might actually be due to the known benefits of hops acids on insulin resistance. We used it on a pregnant mare who developed laminitis and had been in pain for two weeks. She had no major rotation. On Vaxamine EQ, she showed an 80% improvement in four days.