Aromatherapy and Heaves

Aromatherapy can provide some relief with the respiratory complaint heaves. It will not cure your horse of this disease, however it will provide a tool that improves the quality of his life. Heaves, referred to as broken wind, is a chronic emphysema of the horse that causes difficult expiration and heaving of the flanks. Heaves, also known as equine chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), is a chronic airway disease that is the result of repeated bouts of airway inflammation that occur in response to antigens and dusts commonly found in stables, especially those in poorly-cured hay.

Heaves can be confused with other diseases including severe bacterial pneumonia, pleurisy, parasitic pneumonia (lung worm infections), certain neoplasms or cancers of the thoracic cavity and diaphragmatic hernia. Distinguishing these diseases from heaves is accomplished through careful physical examination of affected animals. In general, horses suffering respiratory distress due to diseases other than heaves look very ill, depressed and with pain. Many animals with these conditions suffer a sudden loss of appetite and have distinct abnormalities in their complete blood counts. The diagnosis of these diseases may be aided by radiographic or ultrasonographic examination of the thorax.

Many drugs have been used in the treatment of heaves. Unfortunately, although most veterinary practitioners and horse owners believe that at least some treatments are beneficial, there is very little published scientific evidence to support this view or to allow us to compare the effects between treatments. Most modern treatments for heaves centre on the use of drugs to decrease the amount of inflammation and the accumulation of inflammatory exudate in the respiratory tract, to dilate the airways, and to increase the rate of clearance of mucus and inflammatory debris from the respiratory tract.

With all this said you can see how important it is to have a veterinary diagnosis if you suspect your horse has heaves.

The word aromatherapy simply means the ‘use of aroma as a therapeutic tool’. Essential oils are extracted from flowers, herbs, spices, woods and fibres, usually by distillation, expression and solvent extraction. An essential oil is a volatile oil (a volatile oil having the odour or flavour of the plant from which it comes; used in perfume, flavourings and therapy).

With a condition such as heaves, we are using aromatherapy to reduce the stress on the body from the condition. Essential oils are chosen to assist with breathing and to also address the stress of not being able to breathe with ease. The use of essential oils is to provide relief only.

There are several essential oils that target the respiratory tract that I have found useful for this condition:

Cedarwood, Cedrus atlantica, is particularly useful as part of mixtures for inhaling the vapours from hot water. This oil is very soothing for bronchial complaints as well as being expectorant. It relieves the spasm often experienced in the airways with this condition. Cedarwood is also calming to the nervous system while working on the physical body. If you look at a cedar tree it is shaped in a similar fashion to the branches throughout the lungs.

Lavender flowers, Lavandula officinalis, have been used as traditional medicines for thousands of years. An infusion of the flowers in hot water was one of the earliest methods of use; this was drunk for various ailments, or it was applied externally as an aromatic “wash”. Compresses were made and applied to relieve spasmodic conditions. A simple warm compress held to your horse’s chest when he is stressed with difficult breathing can be useful. If you do not have the facilities to do this, a few drops placed on the palm of your hand and warmed before holding under his nose, will also have a relaxing effect on the airways.

Frankincense, Boswellia carterii, is rejuvenating to the respiratory tract and a few drops of oil can be added to hot water for inhalation of the vapours. It will address any fears your horse may experience when the heaves are in full swing. Frankincense, as with other essential oils, can trigger the release of neurochemicals as instructed by the hypothalamus gland to launch the endocrine system into action to help the body cope with what pharmaceutical drugs it needs to be on with this condition as well as his state of mind.

These three essential oils can be combined in applications. The first application that I find gives relief to a horse with heaves is a daily chest rub. Simply make it up daily with a tablespoon of aloe vera gel and add 6 drops of cedarwood essential oil, 9 drops of true lavender essential oil and 6 drops of frankincense essential oil. You can apply to your horse’s chest and the underside of his neck to sooth and help bring some freedom to his breathing.

This same combination can be added to a spray bottle, preferably not a plastic one as the essential oils may draw the filler from the plastic. You can add up to a 5 per cent dilution to spring water, however a 2.5% dilution will achieve results with most horses, in the same proportions as listed in the chest rub. To disperse the essential oils throughout the water as they are not water soluble, you can buy a commercial dispersant, or you can add a splash of vodka or a small drop of detergent (dishwashing or shampoo). You just need enough detergent so the essential oils can disperse through the water evenly. You can then spray your horse’s stable throughout the day as many times as you wish. This helps protect your horse from possible allergens as well as assist his mood with this debilitating disease.

Other essential oils you may consider using with a respiratory complaint depending on the horse’s individual expression of the disease are basil, cypress, eucalyptus, lemon, pine and sandalwood.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace professional veterinary care.

First published Natural Horse Magazine Volume 4 Issue 2 2002

Photo by Priya Karkare on

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