A Serene Horse Is A Sniff Away

I Cat Nihem

Aromatherapy and the use of essential oils date back several thousand years. The first written records suggest that the Sumerians and Babylonians used fragrant plants medicinally more than 5,000 years ago. The Egyptians were known to use perfumed oils in 3000 B.C.E., and it is well known that the ancient Greeks and Romans used aromatic baths and products for beauty and health purposes.

In more recent history, essential oils have seen a resurgence. They are known to lift your mood and make you feel calmer with just a whiff of their fragrance. Research has shown that they can decrease stress and are capable of positively affecting the nervous system.



The oils work by stimulating smell receptors in the nostrils which then send messages through the nervous system to the limbic system — the part of the brain that controls emotional patterns and socialization. The horse as a species is a prey animal. Their survival highly depends on having a sensitive limbic system and feeling limbic activity in fellow herd members. It is part of what stimulates the "fight-or-flight" response when a horse feels threatened or to relax and rest when there is no danger.




A 2012 study by the Department of Agricultural Sciences at McNeese State University and published in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science looked at the effects of aromatherapy on acutely stressed horses. The study concluded that "lavender resulted in a significant decrease in heart rate and also a shift from the horses' sympathetic system (fight and flight response) to the horses' parasympathetic system (rest and digest)."


In 2017, The Department of Science at Albion College experimented to determine the effect of lavender aromatherapy to relieve stress on trailered horses. They found that the horses that received lavender aromatherapy had suppressed cortisol levels. They concluded, "...lavender aromatherapy has positive effects on horses during stressful situations."


A 2018 study at the University of Arizona published in the Open Journal of Veterinary Medicine found similar results on horses' heart rate variability concluding "lavender is effective as a calming agent for horses."




As one of the researchers said, "The research has direct implications for horsemen and horsewomen who may be looking for new or natural ways to calm an anxious or nervous horse. Traditional tranquilizers often have long-lasting effects, while lavender can be used precisely and exactly when needed. Some horses don't like to be shod. So, when the farrier comes and starts banging around with their hooves, it would be good for that. You don't need a diffuser, really. Just put a few drops of lavender essential oil on your hand and let your horse sniff." - Ann Linda Baldwin, University of Arizona.


Just like with people, your horse may prefer one scent over another. As Marie Pruden of Horsemanship Through Mindfulness explains, "I think it is important to find out what oils a horse prefers when they are calm. If you offer them to them, they will tell you if they can benefit from them. If they don't, they will turn away or not even attempt to smell them. Once I have the ones they like, I know that offering the oil will help soothe in a stressful time. It is important not to offer oils you are not sure they would prefer when they are anxious. It is more about the association."


Try it when your horse is relaxed and happy. Mix some oil with distilled water, and just let your horse breathe it in. You can try one at a time or even make your own blend. These oils have calming effects:


💮 Lavender

💮 Frankincense

💮 Roman Chamomile
💮 Jasmine

Lavender is a prohibited substance under USEF and FEI guidelines, so do not put it on your horses' skin or allow your horse to ingest it. Essential oils should never be taken internally.


Pay attention to your horse's feedback. If you'd like to grow your confidence & improve your connection with your horse, try a few drops next time you are at the barn. Find the right scent, and you have an easy-to-use, built-in toolkit to calm your horse in stressful situations!


Let us know how aromatherapy helps you and your horse. We love to hear from our equestrian community!


Happy riding,

The Equestrian Journal Team

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