Tack n' Talk

Online Equestrian Resource

Zoopharmacognosy: Helping your horse self-medicate

Leanne Wrentmore
of Naturally Animals and Natural Horse Solutions

Have you ever wondered why your horse eats a particular plant or makes a bee line for the hedgerow whilst out on a hack? Then Zoopharmacognosy may provide the answer.

Zoopharmacognosy was coined by Dr E Rodriguez, a biochemist and professor at Cornell University and is derived from zoo (wild animal), pharma (drugs) and cognosy (knowing). It refers to the process by which wild animals self medicate and deviate from eating primary metabolites (food) to eating plants higher in secondary (medicinal) metabolites.

Zoopharmacognosy is an evolutionary process which has enabled animals to maintain their health in their natural environment and has been transferred into working with domesticated animals by Caroline Ingraham.

M Huffman is one of the pioneers of this exciting work. By observing chimpanzees scientists have concluded that wild animals exploit medicinal plants as and when required. An ill chimpanzee made a quick recovery from an illness after eating the bitter pith from a Vernonia tree. From this tree, Huffman isolated a compound known as veronioside B1 which they found to possess anti-parasitic properties and when they analysed the chimps dung after eating the plant they found it was infested with parasites.


As herbivores, horses have evolved to roam and graze on a wide range of natural forage in order to obtain all the fibre, nutrients, minerals and vitamins they need to stay healthy. In the wild they would naturally have 20 to 30 medicinal plants in their immediate environment. Wild pastures would contain hundreds of species, including grasses, herbs, hedgerows, trees – all of which combine to provide the range of herbs and medicinal plants required to keep horses healthy. Today, horses are not quite as lucky and are taken away from their natural habitat where the grasslands and herbs suited their constitution. Most current pastures have a very limited range of plants and hedgerows, hence many horses are unable to find what they need to self-medicate and keep themselves physically and emotionally healthy.

Animals have an inherent ability to heal themselves, however are only able to do this if presented with a suitable selection of secondary compounds (natural medicines) found in essential oils, clays, vitamins, algae, minerals and herbs. Zoopharmacognosy facilitates the enhancement of a domesticated animal’s environment by offering them a variety of plant medications in order to heal and rebalance their own health and well being.

As a behavioural science, the key to the success of zoopharmacognosy is the observation of subtle changes and reactions in an animal when offered various plant medicines and noting their chosen route of administration. Horses may chose to inhale a particular medicinal compound, ingest either sublingual or buccal as well as indicate that they want a particular compound topically as is often the case with wounds.

Zoopharmacognosy can help with a multitude of problems ranging from emotional and behavioural to training and health issues. Encompassing zoopharmacognosy into your stable management is of benefit to both you and your horse. Mixing natural medicines in feed, often in the form of ready made supplements, can hide the smell and taste of plants and stop a horse selecting. Many supplements and balancers fed routinely to horses contain animal by-products and artificial compounds that would never be selected by wild herbivores. Even those purely herbal may contain the wrong combination for an individual. Allowing your horse to select what it needs is a much more cost effective way of managing and maintaining your horse’s health as well as treating any current problems they may be facing.

Indeed many herbs are free if you know what to look for and what time of year they grow. I often recommend many owners to take their horses out for a hedgerow walk purely to see what herbs and plants they chose to eat. What a wonderful way to build a bond with your horse.

One particular case I have been to recently was a yard of about 4 horses all infested with pinworms which are notoriously difficult to eradicate. The owner had noticed that her horses had been eating acorns. Although thought to be toxic to horses in some circumstances, acorns contain a high level of tannins which are known to have anti parasitic properties. As their immediate environment was not enriched with many plants, these horses were selecting the next best thing to try and eradicate their worm burden. During the applied zoopharmacognosy, these horses selected various medicinal compounds for detoxification and blood purification to counter act the toxic effect the ingestion of acorns were having on their system. This included seaweed, dandelion root powder, plantain and wormwood. As well as being beneficial for toning the liver, wormwood is also classed as an anthelmintic herb or a vermifuges due to the high concentration of tannins. This means that it causes the expulsion of certain parasites from the body and so therefore is nutritionally beneficial to the body for parasite control, including lice and pinworm.

Once these horses were allowed to self select wormwood in the quantities they needed, they no longer selected acorns.


To conclude, zoopharmacognosy is a non stressful and natural way of allowing your horse to tap into its evolutionary instincts of foraging on plants in its immediate environment in order to optimise health and well being on an emotional as well as physical level. It can be mutually beneficial; as an owner, using zoopharmacognosy equips you with the knowledge that the medicinal compounds chosen are needed by your horse and gives you the confidence you are offering what your horse truly needs and not causing secondary issues by over supplementing. This process can be cost effective in the long term as you are not feeding remedies your horse may not require and will also build an amazing bond with your horse as they will sense that you are trying to facilitate the use of their natural instincts for self selection.

For more information go to www.naturallyanimals.co.uk


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