The topical application of essential oils is a simple and effective method for your horse to get a variety of benefits, from supporting skin and muscles to whole body systems. Find out some of the science behind it and three ways to apply the technique.
As with humans, a horse's skin is actually an organ with many important jobs, such as regulating temperature, excreting toxins and acting as a protective barrier to the body. Check out this great article for an in-depth look at the 4 types of hairs and the various cell types and layers that make up the skin: https://en.wikivet.net/Equine_Integumentary_System_-_Horse_Anatomy Essential oils are comprised of tiny molecules that are lipophilic in nature, which means they dissolve in fat. For an in-depth look at what essential oils are, click here.
When essential oils are applied to the skin surface (epidermis), the volatile molecules travel down the hair shafts and into the pores to the dermis (the deeper layer of the skin). At this point the essential oil has access to the blood capillaries and lymph nodes, and is distributed throughout the blood stream.
Not all of the essential oil will make it into the blood stream. Some will also penetrate the subcutaneous tissues (the hypodermis layer), which effectively keeps the essential oil at that specific location for some time.
Benefiting aromatically while applying topically
When you apply an essential oil to your horse's skin, he will also benefit from the inhalation of the oil. For more information on the science the behind aromatic use of essential oils, click here. For a great article on how to use essential oils aromatically on and around your horse, click here. This can be very beneficial, for example, in using lavender essential oil as a first aid to help address a wound. The lavender essential oil acts restoratively on the skin while also helping to create a sense of emotional calm for the horse emotionally. Click here for a whole article on lavender essential oil for horses!
Caution with citrus oils
Citrus essential oils can have many wonderful benefits but they are also known to make skin more photosensitive. This is less of an issue with horses than with humans, since hair covers most of the skin surface of a horse. However, please do avoid direct exposure to sunlight for up to 12 hours when applying citrus essential oils on your horse. Citrus oils are best applied at night, or during the daytime to an area that isn't typically exposed to sunlight such as the underside of the belly.
4 Effective ways to apply essential oils topically on your horse
1. Apply essential oils neat (without dilution)
Some essential oils can be applied neat; this means straight onto the area of concern without first diluting the essential oil. Always read the label of your oil to see whether it can be applied neat or should be diluted. Research suggests that this is the quickest way for an essential oils to be absorbed. However more of the essential oil will also evaporate into the air since its volatile compounds are not bound up with a carrier oil. Essential oils like lavender, copaiba and frankincense can be applied neat but some of the "hot" oils like oregano, thyme or cinnamon should be diluted first.
2. Use water to dilute an essential oil before applying topically
Diluting essential oils with water can help cover large surface areas of your horse. This would be useful when applying a homemade bug spray or using peppermint essential oil to help cool a horse after a hot ride. Another great application for apply essential oils diluted with water is on wounds that should not remain moist.
Simply add the essential oils of your choice to a glass spray bottle and top with distilled or pure water. Shake before each use. Now use the spray nozzle to apply a thin even layer to the desired area. The water will evaporate and the essential oils will be absorbed into the skin, thereby supporting the location of application, and also entering the blood stream for whole body support. Instead of a spray bottle, you can also mix the essential oils in a bucket of water and use a soaked and wrung out sponge to lightly wash the area.
3. Use a carrier oil to dilute an essential oil before applying topically
Diluting an essential oils in an oil base is handy when you want to keep the area moist. The carrier oil will also allow for more of the essential oil to be absorbed since the volatile compounds are now bound up with the more stable compounds of the carrier. Diluting like this does slow down the absorption of the essential oil, leaving more of it to work locally at the area of application. This great when you are addressing specific skin concerns or want to target certain muscles or ligaments, for example.
As a base or carrier oil we recommend fractionated coconut oil because of its long shelf life and its liquid state at room temperature. Coconut oil also has its own therapeutic properties so you may want to investigate these, to make sure it is the best option for your horse. If you need to use different carrier oil, definitely do your research on potential side effects and also check the oil's purity.
Here is a bit of our research on some other common oils:
- Avocado oil has been found to contain a chemical called Persian, which is toxic to horses and some other animals. (pg 79 ADR II)
- Almond oil creates a protective film so it is not so great as a carrier oil but there are possible benefits as an ingredient in a salve
- Flax seed oil goes rancid quickly without additives and is quite sticky
- Grape seed oil is found in many kitchens but its need for refrigeration limits its use in the barn as a carrier oil
- Mineral oil is a petroleum product and not recommended for your horse
- Olive oil is generally well tolerated by horses and found in most kitchens. It is great for a second choice in your apothecary but due to the greasy coat it leaves on horse hair, you may find it is not helpful in every situation
Coconut oil comes in many forms:
- Raw: never exposed to heat
- Virgin/unrefined and pure: can be exposed to high heats during extraction
- RBD: refined, bleached, deodorized = please do not use this version!
- FRACTIONATED Coconut Oil (FCO): made by removing the long-chain fatty acids and leaving the medium-chain fatty acids; leaving no lauric acid and higher levels of capris and caprylic acid, which have their own health benefits. This is the carrier oil of choice.
- Liquid coconut oil is FCO plus lauric acid added back in
- MCT: this is basically FCO, but the high end brands make this with young organic coconuts using a slow process of cold chilling to separate and remove fat while cheaper brands will use heat and or chemicals. MCT is intended as a human grade food supplement.
We could write a small book on all the available carrier oils out there but generally fractionated coconut oil is the best option since it is stable, has no odour, leaves no greasy residue, does not change the chemical composition of essential oils and causes very few adverse reactions in both horses and people.
4. Add essential oils to a poultice or ointment
When treating a specific concern on your horse, poultices or ointments can be very effective. For example, more severe skin issues or muscular/ligament injuries can benefit from poultices, salves or ointments. These can help draw out toxins and promote healing over an extended period of time as the poultice stays on the skin and interacts with its cells. Adding the appropriate essential oils to a poultice or ointment can make them more effective. As always, consult your veterinarian when dealing with a medical issue regarding your horse.
Where to apply essential oils topically
Essential oils are applied directly to the location of the issue you want to support (a wound, infection, soreness, rash, etc). If you would like to support the entire horse or multiple body systems, essential oils can be applied on pulse point areas such as the poll for quicker absorption into the blood stream.
A single oil can be applied topically or you can combine a number of oils to get a synergistic effect. For example, frankincense is a great oil with multiple health promoting properties and bonus - it will also increase the effectiveness of any essential oil it is combined with. For skin issues, for example, you can apply frankincense and lavender together to achieve a more therapeutic effect.
Different therapeutic effects are also achieved when you combine all the essential oils first and then apply them topically (called blending) versus applying a number of essential oils separately, one after the other, onto the same area. This technique is called layering.
We hope this article has given you some insights into applying essential oils topically on your horse. Remember to ensure you're using only the highest quality essential oils for the best results. (Click here to read more about purity.) Now tell us which essential oils you use topically on your horse and why? Or let us know what concerns you might like to address with topical application of essential oils. We'd love to have your feedback! Just reply in the comments section below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to hearing from you!
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Melissa Shelton DVM, The Animal Desk Reference II Essential Oils for Animals (Melissa Shelton, September 2018)
Carole Faith, Essential Oils for Horses A Source Book for Practitioners and Owners (J. A. Allen, 2002)
Nayana Morag, Essential Oils for Animals (Off The Leash Press, 2011)
Peter Holmes LAc MH, Aromatica Volume 1 (Singing Dragon, 2016)
The Essential Life 6th Edition (Total Wellness Publishing, 2019)
Modern Essentials 8th Edition (Aroma Tools, 2016)
Advanced Oil Magic (Oil Magic Publishing, 2019)
dōTERRA, Essential Oil Specialist course 2020