Connecting with Horses

CharleyOf all the animals I’ve encountered in my lifetime, it is the horse that has provided me the knowledge of real connection. I’ve been blessed to have had so many equine teachers that have guided me along new paths of thinking and for that I am truly grateful.

Horses don’t make it easy for you if there are lessons to be learned, they can push you into a mind space that can be very challenging. I read a book the other day and one of things that stood out to me was that when life is frustrating or hits an all-time low it is actually a good thing, providing us with a lesson that leads to new ways of thinking and acting. When we choose to ignore these precious lessons, they will be repeated. We just have to be open to the challenge!

Horses have helped me in my work as an animal herbalist and massage therapist, I often think that they get sick so that I can learn new ways to cure them. This is certainly true of one of my current horses who initiates a daily conversation with me concerning her issues.

“There is a poo in my stable, I couldn’t possibly eat in here.” “Scratch me here, no not there a bit further up, get it right!” This is amusing but just the surface stuff. The real connection starts working when you begin to understand their language. For this you have to ignore your own and concentrate on theirs, you have to learn to think like a horse, breathe in its energy, and be in the moment. Horses have been trying to teach us silly humans for so long and all we’ve repaid them with is ignorance and selfishness. Many have remained stoic in their nature and put up with the bullying and gadgetry involved in our inability to control them. Saddles that don’t fit causing pressure in the back, girths that are too tight stopping the ribs from expanding properly each time the horse takes a breath, nasty painful bits and bridles that put pressure on sensitive nerve endings, the list goes on. Then having put up with all that they are pushed to jump even high jumps, have people leaping on and off them, regular whipping if they don’t perform to our arrogant requirements, etc.

Connection is born out of respect, it has to be earned and there is no better teacher than a horse if you are willing to take the first step. It needs a huge amount of patience and openness, you cannot be governed by your own desires for instant results, but when you break into that zone you will be repaid with a lifetime of trust and companionship.

I believe that there are different levels of connection, in the beginning it is about noticing the everyday needs, most horse lovers have got to that level. From there on the levels become more complex and for some can involve a lifetime journey to gain more and more knowledge. There are a lot of experts in the equine world with a range of extraordinary skills ranging from psychological, physiological, muscular skeletal issues, biomechanics, nutrition, natural therapy, chiropractic etc. but it is how we use this knowledge that will define our connection with these wonderful beings.

Horses have worked with humans for thousands of years, fighting in battles, pulling heavy loads and competing in dangerous sports, surely we owe it to them by learning the language of equus!

Happy New Year Folks

Les Rees

Animal Naturopath and Massage Therapist

Horsetail herbs


Investigation into the use of Phenylbutazone in Horses


Phenylbutazone (Bute) is prescribed for a wide range of inflammatory conditions and is routinely used as a means for the long-term management of pain associated with musculo-skeletal issues in horses. It has had a successful reputation for decades but recently, research has thrown a shadow over this as findings suggest that many horses cannot tolerate this drug throwing doubt over its safety.

Bute can be an effective medicine when used for a short period of time, however it can have some nasty side effects, particularly with long term use, associated with gastric ulceration and kidney dysfunction.

The problem is further exacerbated by horse owners who keep Bute in their medicine cabinets to enable them to admister the drug without veterinary advice on dosage and its safe use for their horse. There are pre-existing conditions when this drug should not be prescribed including blood disorders, gastric ulcers, congestive heart disease and kidney problems. Serious long term issues can occur when horses are overdosed with Bute and there is a relatively small window before it can have a toxic effect.

Recent findings by researchers from Louisiana State University reported that prolonged administration of Bute caused low albumin and white blood cell blood levels during the first three days of treatment, increased arterial blood flow to the right dorsal colon, and decreased volatile fatty acid production in the colon. These signs show that major metabolic pathways, digestion, and systemic blood flow, particularly to the large colon were markedly impacted. There were also two horses that developed colitis during the twenty one day study.

The study authors stated “These results demonstrate that there is extreme variability in how horses tolerate Bute administration. Some horses cannot even tolerate short-term administration of the drug.” They also recommended the running of routine blood tests as early as the first three to five days of treating with Bute stating that “even in mild cases of abnormalities that the administration of Bute be decreased or discontinued to avoid debilitating and life-threatening adverse effects.”

Personally I find this frightening but times are changing and thankfully, vets have been lowering the dose and shortening the duration of time for the use of this drug.

Another U.S. study found that horses on the maximum four-gram-per-day oral dose for only four days began to lose their appetite, became depressed and developed intestinal and kidney problems, stating that the drug appears to decrease the flow of blood to the kidneys, causing retention of water and sodium, which poses added risks for horses with a congestive heart condition.

Other studies have also linked Bute to ulcers in the mouth, stomach and intestine because there is evidence that it suppresses a form of prostaglandin that plays a role in protecting the gut lining. So it’s easy to see why vets are now being cautious about their dosage rates and are keen to drop the dose quickly to the minimum effective rate!

If you see any of these symptoms having administered Bute to your horse, ask your vet to do a blood test to check for falling protein levels:

  • Loose stools or diarrhoea
  • Appetite loss
  • Depression
  • Mouth ulcers

The take home message here is to if you’re tempted to use the Bute in your equine medicine cabinet, always get veterinary advice first!

The good news is that there are herbal anti-inflammatories that can be very effective, especially when combined with other herbs that help support the whole body and aid it to restore its balance. A good herbalist will make up a blend that’s suited to your horse’s individual needs.


Les Rees Equine Naturopath and Sports Therapist

Horsetail Herbs



The Benefits of Equine Sports Therapy

The development of sports therapy has produced some excellent results in recent years due to the increasing demands of therapeutic services for equine sports. This has created a whole field of interrelated health services that provide a range of specialist treatments for the industry aiding better performance and the reduction of injury.

Massage involves the assessment of the soft tissues and joints and the treatment or prevention of dysfunction within them. It can be used as a treatment for specific problems or injury, maintaining the health of soft tissue and joints and as a preventative of future injury. However, there are many other aspects that have remarkable effects that trigger reactions leading to psycho-physiologic self-regulating balancing within the whole body. It achieves this because massage stimulates the nervous system by activating triggers within the body that determine its physiological functioning. As these responses take effect, they can also lead to positive changes in behaviour as the body returns to normal function.

Massage affects the muscles, skin, tendons, ligaments, blood and lymph vessels, and nerves that lie near the surface of the body, however it also affects the deeper areas of the body via blood flow, nerve conduction and the subsequent release of chemical messages that activate various systems within the body.

As a sports therapy, massage is also used to rehabilitate sites of specific pathology or injury promoting rapid responses and subsequent recovery. This often involves other therapies working together to gain complete balance within the body and promoting a happier, healthier disposition in the horse. It is also used to keep the horse supple and flexible optimizing its potential in sporting activities. Its strength lies in an understanding of equine biomechanics in which muscular, joint and skeletal function work, especially when under the pressure of performance. Stretching used for therapeutic purpose and can easily be used as an aid to maintaining muscle health, flexibility and range of movement. This also acts as an aid to prevention of injury and can be achieved by a series of exercises that address the whole body. Benefits also include the reduction of tension and subsequent pain, by increasing circulation and warming up the muscles in preparation for work and improving the overall balance of the whole body.

The benefits of Equine Sports Massage Therapy have significant effect on the health of our equine friends. Its non-invasive techniques can be used to promote, maintain and rehabilitate the function of structures anywhere in the body aiding the balance of health within the systems that control it. It has a profound effect as a preventative therapy that aids increased flexibility, mobility and suppleness improving performance as well as having a positive effect on behavior. Its techniques safely effect the whole body by regulating co-dependent functioning and aiding balance to both body and mind. It has kept pace with the changing demands of performance sports and as is highly thought of as a therapy in the fore front of equine health, combining well with other therapies as well as providing valuable back up to veterinary procedures.

Given the continuing growth in popularity of Equine Sports Massage Therapy, our horses are beginning to see some significant psycho-physiologic benefits and as our knowledge expands, so does our respect for the incredible feats they willingly perform for us opening up a deeper connection and increasing our mutual trust.

 Les Rees

Equine Naturopath & Sports Therapist


Heat Stress in Horses


Hot weather can have some devastating effects on our horses and can cause life threatening consequences, particularly during hot and humid conditions.

For equines, sweating accounts for two thirds of heat dissipation and therefore plays an important role in thermoregulation. However, high temperatures and humid conditions can have devastating effects on sweat evaporation. The high moisture content of a humid environment slows down the evaporation process as increased sweat forms an insulating layer on the body reducing heat dissipation. As a consequence, sweat glands release more water to speed up the process which ultimately causes dehydration, electrolyte imbalance and failure to reduce core body heat.

Symptoms of heat stress include debility and fatigue, a rise in body temperature, increased pulse rate and respiration, laboured breathing, muscle spasms and tremors, stumbling, dark urine and general debility in overall function and behaviour. This can result in death if left undiagnosed.


Prevention Strategies


  • The provision of adequate shade. When temperatures rose to over 30 degrees I noticed a number of horses were out in the sun without access to adequate shade. Having one tree in a paddock doesn’t necessarily mean that it’ll provide adequate shade throughout the day. It depends on the sun’s position in the sky and when only small areas of shade are available, it’s the dominant horses that get the best spots whilst the others hang around the margins either getting partial shade or none.
  • Horses kept in stables during the day should be provided with a place where there is adequate movement of air flow and water supply.
  • Provision of fresh clean drinking water. Ensure that troughs are cleaned regularly and there is a continual supply.
  • Provision of salt licks. Himalayan salt licks and/or mineral licks should be supplied in an easily accessible place.
  • Add electrolytes to diet. Sodium, potassium, calcium and chlorine are lost in urine and sweat; if they’re not replaced it will cause metabolic problems, and subsequent lack of interest in eating and drinking. It’s not uncommon to find salty layers over their backs, a clear demonstration of the amount of electrolyte loss.
  • Wash horses in the evenings to remove the salt and reduce the risk of attracting flies. Use a sweat scraper to remove the excess salty water.
  • Never over-work horses above their level of fitness conditioning. Have a conditioning program and adhere to it. On hot days it’s better to ride early in the morning or later in the evening when the heat has dissipated.
  • Be aware of your horse’s needs when travelling. Horse floats should have adequate ventilation whilst travelling on hot days. Arrange travel to avoid overly hot conditions and have frequent stops to check on your horse.
  • If travelling horses that are not used to the climatic conditions you need to be extra cautious. When moving horses to warmer areas, give the horse plenty of time to acclimatise before riding and ensure that it receives adequate nutrition to maintain good health.

We add sea salt, seaweed granules, apple cider vinegar and herbs to add valuable nutrients & natural electrolytes to our horses feed, and provide Himalayan rock salt licks. I also make sure that the horses are hosed down in the evenings, rugged and sprayed with our herbal Zap-itch blend of essential oils.


If, like me, you keep an eye on the weather forecast, it’s worth reminding ourselves that a 40 degree temperature is measured in the shade NOT in full sun. So add a few more degrees and ask yourself if you’d like to be stuck in a paddock without shade for the day!!!!!!






Queensland Itch

Queensland itch season has arrived and is already causing problems to those poor equines that have Culicoides hypersensitivity. For them, this season of year represents a harrowing time of torment and continual itching that can cause further damage to the skin as horses continually scratch and rub themselves in order to find some relief.

I came to live here two years ago having brought three horses with me from the cool climate of Tasmania. I can tell you that it was a rude awakening for me as I found that they weren’t coping at all well with life in the subtropics. Since then I’ve been researching the various treatments on the market and developing some ideas by experimentation with my beautiful family of equines all of whom had fallen prey to these nasty biting Culicoides midges.

So what exactly causes the problem?

The answer lies in the midge saliva. When the skin is pierced the midge injects protein rich saliva containing vasodilators, anticoagulants and pro-inflammatory mediators. An onslaught of midge bites in hypersensitive horses causes a defense reaction in the body that sends antibodies, histamine and inflammatory mediators to the damaged area to coagulate the blood in order to restrict flow to the site. But the clever thing about midge saliva is that the proteins send a counter signal that inhibits this process, reversing the effects of the horse’s defense ensuring that the anticoagulants in the saliva will enable a stream of blood to drink.

This can cause extreme reactions in sensitive horses as damaged areas of skin become inflamed causing subsequent itchiness and further infection, due to the horse attempting to attain some relief by constant rubbing. If left without intervention, the horse can develop broken hair and subsequent alopecia, skin erosion and ulceration which can be extremely painful; and in the chronic stages hyperkeratosis, lichification (thick leathery patches) and scaling can develop.

Treatment includes topical creams, oils and sprays and internal medications. There is a vast array available on the market as well as veterinary products but science has yet to discover a way round the counter signal in midge saliva. Therefore we can only address the symptoms and for each equine those symptoms can be varied. That may explain why some products on the market have positive responses for some horses and not others!


  • Addressing diet modification and adding supplements. This may help make the blood less palatable for biting insects as well as supporting the overall health of the horse. There are several herbs that can help support equines with sensitivity issues and it is advisable to have each horse assessed individually.
  • The removal of horses away from marshy areas, still water and streams inhabited by midges.
  • Keeping yards free from manure will help reduce the midges’ breeding ground
  • The use of light rugs, especially over night when the midges are out. A lot of people may not like to use rugs but I’m of the opinion that if your horse is suffering, you need to address it in any way you can to make it comfortable and keep it healthy.
  • Keeping the coat free from sweat, a simple sponge down and the removal of excess water with a scraper will help deter the insects.
  • The use of natural insect sprays, essential oils and creams. The oil based products seem to create a barrier on the skin and blended oils have a number of uses including antiseptic, anti-itch & anti-microbial actions.

I’ve recently developed an essential oil based spray that is working on my horses and has received some positive responses from clients around Australia. If anyone is interested in trying it out please contact me at Horsetail Herbs.

Beware of paralysis ticks (Ixodes holocyclus)

Published in The Nimbin Good Times – October 2016


The tick season is well and truly upon us and I’ve been finding them attached on several horses recently.  Given that ticks can cause some horrifying reactions in some equines, it’s advisable to be armed with valuable information that may help with any important decisions concerning their welfare. Those decisions may save a life!

The saliva of a paralysis tick contains a particularly nasty toxin which is both neurotoxic and cardiotoxic, meaning that it affects the nervous system and heart muscle and can paralyse and kill a horse. They can be found around bushy vegetation and paddocks that are used as wildlife corridors in areas where there’s shelter from direct sunlight. When they need to feed they climb the taller plants and structures and drop down onto passing animals.

They stay attached whilst engorging blood from their hosts from 1 – 7 days during which the toxin spreads with clinical signs appearing around the third day, and toxicity peaking around the fifth day.

The symptoms of tick toxicity include lethargy, falling or lying down, off feed, peripheral nerve dysfunction, lameness, wobbliness in the hind legs or all the legs, reduced muscle tone, difficulty eating, impaired respiratory function, heart and muscle dysfunction, debility and sweating. If any of these symptoms are present you need to act immediately. If you find ticks, remove them and keep the horse in a cool stable away from direct sunlight since the toxins are more readily spread around the body during movement and hot weather.

Veterinary intervention uses anti-tick venom which is very effective if caught in time but as I’ve found, it isn’t always easy to get one when needed. In this case I was able to make a tincture to address the symptoms and was lucky to have caught it early enough to save our pony. Unfortunately, other complications can develop without early intervention, so it’s important to act quickly! A study on paralysis ticks in horses presented at an AVA conference stated that there was an alarmingly high mortality rate of 26% out of 103 horses analysed in the study, and 35% of the surviving horses went on to develop further problems.

It’s important to do a daily search for ticks which are found mostly on the upper body, around the head including the lips, chin, around the eyes and ears, back of the head, neck, in between and around the front and back legs. Just feel around for a lump and if it’s a tick, remove it carefully so that the head is extracted along with the body. Some people turn the tick around 180 degrees to ensure the entire tick is removed. There are several methods but I’ve read that veterinary advice is not to use topical sprays because they tend to promote further production of toxins when the tick is dying!

Prevention strategies include:

  • Keeping horses away from bushy areas and overgrown hedges
  • Ensuring the pasture is kept low
  • Regular use of pyrethrum based insect sprays
  • Daily checks for ticks
  • Herbal dietary supplements to aid the body’s defence

Not all horses will go on to develop these symptoms as many develop an immunity having lived in tick infested areas for some time and those with less body density are probably more at risk. Ponies and foals and are in the risk category but even a large horse can be affected by the paralysis tick, especially taking into consideration the movement of animals from tick free areas and animals with a compromised immune system.

Given that these symptoms are similar to those of the Hendra virus, it’s advisable to be alert and act quickly to avoid a catastrophe.

Les Rees Equine Naturopath

Managing Anxiety and Stress in Horses – Part 2


Last month I discussed anxiety and stress in horses and I would like to expand on with this subject having seen many horses showing stress linked disorders.

Anxiety and stress are created by a set of circumstances that disrupt the physiological processes involved in the functioning of the body. When the mind is in an anxious state it’s capable of causing some devastating effects that can quickly manifest into behavioural issues and subsequent physiological problems.

When the horse is confronted with a situation that evokes a fear response, it responds with a set of physiological reactions that prepares it to meet the threat of fight or flight. These reactions are controlled by the secretion of adrenalin. The presence of adrenalin in the body causes respiration to deepen, speeding up the heart rate and raising arterial pressure. Blood is moved away from the stomach and intestines, stopping digestive function, and is redirected to the heart, central nervous system and muscles. The secreted adrenalin cooperates with sympathetic nerve impulses which send a message to the liver to release stored glycogen to enable the blood to be flooded with sugar which will be directed to the muscles, heart and limbs for the preparation of intense physical activity needed for flight. The blood sugars invigorate tired muscles preparing the horse for action.

Under normal circumstances the increased respiration, redistributed blood and the red corpuscles provides essential oxygen for the removal of waste products. However in extreme circumstances, when the horse is subjected to stress over long periods, the body becomes over adrenalized; as a result the digestive system is unable to take in enough nutrients and the animal becomes thin and wasted, whilst other excretory organs are overloaded and weakened. Even though this is an extreme example it’s important to remember that there can be varying levels of these physiological symptoms present in the body and, given that equine digestive system requires continuous trickle feeding, it’s easy to see the dangers of anxiety and stress in causing potential damage in an animal with a small stomach that accounts for only 8 – 10% of the digestive system and has to cope with small amounts of food travelling through it. Unlike us, the horse produces hydrochloric acid continually so one of the effects of adrenalin in the body is that it shuts down the blood supply to the digestive system potentially causing acidic conditions and other complications.

Considering the interconnectedness of the various systems within the body, it’s easier to understand the viewpoint of Natural Medicine in treating the whole body in order to regain the balance of its function.

When making decisions on medications, it’s important to remember that the individuality of horses is no different from that of humans. Each of us has a unique set of requirements to maintain our health depending on factors ranging from genetic predisposition to acquired physical and psychological symptoms that influence the development of characteristics, behaviour, conformation and general demeanour. These are important factors when formulating treatments and the selection of herbs used for any individual medication should take this into consideration. It’s important to know exactly how each horse reacts under stressful circumstances because that can give me some idea of the medications needed. Some horses react with digestive issues, some with high heart rate, whilst others have a combination of reactions. Natural Therapies work exceedingly well when all these aspects are taken into consideration and can bring about some astounding results in restoring balance in all aspects of physical and mental health.




Managing Anxiety and Stress in Horses – Part 1

merry-4For horses, the role of natural medicine where anxiety and stress form part of the symptoms is to aid the balance of inner and external harmony between the two environments enabling a healthy functioning of the body.

The nervous system is a complex control mechanism that has a profound connection with the entire body and plays an important role between the external and internal environments in the form of sensory perception and psychological interpretation of the external world and the body’s physical reaction to it.

It is the system in the body that has the ability to store and associate sensory stimuli in the memory for future use enabling it to react quickly to changes in the two environments affecting changes in both the physical and mental states of the body.

The ability to react to this information is highly sophisticated in horses as is demonstrated by their remarkable motor coordination skills which are even more enhanced by the fact that horses are equipped with highly sensitive and acute perception, all of which can have profound effects on the physical and mental wellbeing of the body.

Because the horse is essentially a flight animal, it has a high dependence on the nervous system to interpret incoming stimuli and coordinate the functioning of the body to enable fast reactions to potential threatening situations.

Unfortunately, the two environments are often at odds with each other as mental interpretation of external stimuli can become clouded by conflicting information causing mental and physical exhaustion.

This is where natural medicine can be used to powerful effect by gently stimulating and relaxing the neural pathways of the nervous system re-establishing harmony to the system in combination with other herbs that effect weakened functioning of the other organs of the body.

Horses are very good at making associations and because they have an excellent memory, they sometimes cause difficulties for their trainers and riders. They make these associations by the linking of two external events. For example, a rustling in the hedge and a dog rushing out to attack or walking too close to a dominant horse initiates a kick. Learning by forming associations between actions and events prepares the horse for survival in a world of constantly changing situations.

In a herd this is very beneficial for the horse but when it is in a domestic environment, these associations can be the cause a lot of problems for trainers, riders and the horse, as bad responses are formed through associations initiated by a combination of a lack of understanding of how horses learn and bad training techniques.

For example, if the horse has been whipped for failing to comply with a rider’s demands, it will respond with a fear response every time a whip is produced. This experience is stored in the memory together with a set of behvioural responses that not only affect the mental wellbeing of the horse, but also the physical wellbeing causing anxiety for both the horse and any future owners. It is easy to see how behavioural problems manifest a life time of unhappiness as the horse is passed from owner to owner and the physiological state of the horse becomes more and more fragile.

Whilst herbal solutions for anxiety and stress aid in the recovery of balance within the body, it forms only part of ongoing therapy. Re-training, nutrition, chiropractic, massage, stretching and energy work can also be important factors for complete recovery. It’s also important to ensure that saddles and bridles are fitted correctly.

Les Rees