Whilst the quick action of drugs is often necessary to relieve an acute condition symptomatically and in the short term, the negative side effects and contraindications for their use in the medium to long term are well known and documented.

All horses with acute injuries and illnesses that have received immediate veterinary attention will benefit from herbal remedies as soon as the prescribed drugs have done their valuable work. Herbal treatments can also be given in conjunction provided they are prescribed and dispensed by an accredited equine herbal practitioner. Find out more here ..


For horses with chronic injury or illness, especially those which are not responding to a repetitive regime of drugs, herbs are the obvious choice.

Ideally any horse with a serious injury or illness should receive immediate herbal and practical first aid, to be immediately followed up with veterinary treatment and prescribed drugs.

Time is of the essence!  The sooner an injury or illness is set on the path of healing, the better the result.  The wait and see attitude will always result in further damage to the horse.

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The benefits of holistic herbal treatments are that they treat the cause as well as the symptoms while stimulating the relevant body systems to make the healing process quicker and more complete than if the body had been left to its own devices.

Drugs can cause depletion of minerals, antagonism of vitamins, impaired absorption, decreased transport and utilisation of nutrients and have a negative effect on the storage of many nutrients.

The joys and pitfalls of commonly used drugs such as corticosteroid hormones, anti-inflammatories and antibiotics are worth studying, so that informed choices can be made.


Corticosteroid hormones are commonly used to treat itchy skin allergies, inflammation of joints and chronic lung conditions.

Known side effects of corticosteroids when used in the medium to long term include suppression of the immune system, weakening of muscles and loss of muscle mass, mood swings, weakening of bones and degeneration of joints and tendons. (Veterinary Notes for Horse Owners)

I have researched and developed herbal formulas over 25 years in practice to effectively treat itchy skin allergies, inflammation of joints and chronic lung conditions.

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The non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as phenylbutazone (bute) provide a high degree of relief from pain where serious injury or illness is present.  However this can lead to the masking of serious underlying conditions, such as infections or fractures, which require different or additional treatment. The common practice of using “bute” for virtually every problem, especially minor ones is absolutely not necessary and causes damage.

“Inflammation draws our attention to a spot, be it a joint that has been over extended or a muscle that has been wounded by either blunt or sharp injury. If we choose to use “bute” we must ensure that the inciting cause has gone. Then we must ensure that we don’t overdose. If we are treating a joint we should take great care, because while the joint is becoming less painful, it is not actually otherwise enhancing the function of the joint, in fact most long term anti-inflammatory treatment just removes the pain while joints deteriorate.” (Dr Joanne Watkins, Herbal Medicine for Horses, Horse Deals, August, 2000)

“Long term use or use in very sensitive horses can cause irritation of the lining of the stomach and intestine and occasionally severe intestinal malfunction. Blood and bone marrow abnormalities may sometimes be associated with phenylbutazone therapy.” (Veterinary Notes for Horse Owners)

Another side effect is internal bleeding in the lungs and associated structures including small and large blood vessels.

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The pathogenic organisms which antibiotics have been designed to fight, are becoming increasingly resistant to these drugs. The abuse of antibiotics by their momentous over prescribing, especially for minor conditions, is increasing the degree of resistance. And to make matters worse antibiotics are non-selective, they kill off good gut flora at the same time.

Other undesirable side effects include liver and kidney toxicity, skin rashes and suppression of normal bone marrow functioning.

Problems are commonly caused when drugs are administered by injection, with muscle pain at the site of the injection which can complicate into infection or abscess. The skin is a protective organ and when it is pierced, it is quite natural for the body to register a reaction.

Horses may react severely to penicillin injections to the point of anaphylactic shock which can cause death. Once a horse has had an allergic reaction, it must never be given a penicillin injection again. Symptoms include highly elevated heart and respiration rate, sweating, veins standing out, usually accompanied by blind panic and flight. If a horse has to have a penicillin injection, or any injection for that matter, administer Rescue Remedy FIRST, ensure he is in a safe confined area and hopefully get someone exceptionally strong to hold the horse just in case.

“Reactions to injection of foreign substances (earlier vaccines, drugs) may be severe (anaphylaxis), with widespread swelling (oedema). There may be oedema of the eyelids and elsewhere, while released fluid in or about the respiratory tract may cause respiratory distress. The sudden appearance of extensive oedema should be regarded with concern and veterinary advice sought immediately.” (Veterinary Notes for Horse Owners)

Professionally prescribed herbal medicines are extremely non-invasive to administer – being syringed over the tongue – which promotes easy and quick absorption by the body. Horses quickly start to look for and relish their herbal dosages, whereas they react badly to constant injections and get very muscle sore and wary of their handlers.  Topical applications of herbs are completely safe both for the handler and the horse. If a drug to be applied topically to the skin of the horse has warnings about preventing contact with your own skin, then keep it away from your horse’s skin as well.

The risk of reactions to herbs is virtually nil, especially if prescribed and dispensed by professionally qualified practitioners.


“It is obvious that we should change our focus from antibiotics and strong toxic treatments to looking after the body, the immune system and the vital force. We must change our thinking from the notion that there is a drug to fix everything and nurture the body instead, be it animal or human. We should use vitamins, antioxidants, pure food that is unadulterated by chemicals and feed in a regime that suits the digestion of the species we are dealing with. It is sad to note that performance horses suffer from gastrointestinal ulceration due in part to feeding practices. We should be re-charging the immune system so much that powerful drugs are not needed. And in time of health challenges reach first for herbs, homeopathics, nutritional supplements and body therapies such as chiropractic, acupuncture and muscle therapy – all treatments that enhance the body’s own remarkable ability to heal itself.” (Dr Joanne Watkins, Herbal Medicine for Horses, Horse Deals, August 2000)


Anabolic steroids, synthetic derivatives of the male hormone testosterone, are commonly used in the Thoroughbred racing and breeding industry.  They are used for performance optimisation in racehorses and for presenting over developed yearlings in the sale ring to attract higher prices.  The steroids used in fillies contain lower levels of testosterone. They are a banned substance which will produce a positive swab.

“The mode of their action is to promote protein synthesis, they antagonize the effects of naturally occurring glucocorticoids in the body and so prevent muscle tissue from being broken down in times of stress, like the stress of vigorous athletic training. They increase red cell production and also have central nervous system effects. Performance may also be increased in anabolic steroid users secondary to increases in the red blood cell production hormone “erythropoietin” (EPO) which therefore enhances the oxygen carrying capacity of blood.” (Dr Joanne Watkins, Herbal Medicine for Horses, August 2000)

There are a number of herbs which when combined enhance the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood and at the same time promote optimal blood profiles and boost the immune system, a preferable and more holistic outcome.

“Their effects include the acceleration of recovery of weight lost due to debility or under nutrition; an increase in muscular development and tone; the speeding up of tissue regeneration to help the resolution of bone and tissue injuries; assisting in recovery from infectious diseases; and increasing the efficiency of protein utilisation.  These hormones should not be used without a specific need or for long periods because sudden withdrawal after prolonged administration often results in a marked loss of condition in the treated animal. They may produce male-type behaviour in some fillies and mares.” (Veterinary Notes for Horse Owners)

The adverse effects of anabolic steroids are well known in the equine world. It is very common to see and hear of ex-racehorses literally falling to bits when they come out of training.  Weight loss is extreme, muscle tone drops alarmingly, the horse is lethargic and feed conversion rate is severely compromised. A common practice is to “chuck them out in the paddock” and let them detoxify without any help.  Until the liver is regenerated they will not put on weight – no matter how much feed they consume.  Whilst a good spell in the paddock is necessary, a lot of time and money can be saved by treatment with a herbal liver detoxification program for a full blood cycle, combined with a VF Natural Diet.


“The reproductive effects are serious if the androgenic (testosterone) anabolics are used. In males human, equine or canine, sperm production will be reduced with increase in numbers of abnormal sperm and reduction in the size of the testes. In females normal ovarian activity can be reduced and sterility may result.” (Veterinary Notes for Horse Owners)

© Victoria Ferguson Dip.Herb.Med.