Using lavender to reduce horse stress makes a lot of scents, results of trial suggest

A bee collecting pollen from lavender.
A bee collecting pollen from lavender. © T Taylor (Own work), CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Aromatherapy may have benefits for horses, the findings of a recent trial by an undergraduate student suggest.

Research suggests that inhaling certain scents may reduce stress in humans, but aromatherapy remains relatively unexplored in veterinary medicine.

New research presented this week at the American Physiological Society’s annual Experimental Biology conference in Chicago raises the question of whether aromatherapy may help horses when it comes to coping with the stresses of transport.

Trailering can be disturbing to horses. The loud noises and confined spaces of a horse trailer, as well as the unfamiliar territory of a new venue, may cause an increase in heart rate and higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Stress may also provoke unpredictable behaviors and an unwillingness to perform.

Stress reduction therapies are highly regulated among competition horses, which often rules out the use of sedatives and some herbal treatments.

Kylie Heitman, 17, of Albion College, Michigan, observed eight horses across two trips in horse trailers.

During each trip, the horses were individually hauled for 15 minutes.

In one trial, the animals were exposed to an air diffusion of lavender oil during transport. In the other, the horses received a diffusion of distilled water.

Heitman measured heart rate and blood cortisol levels before and after each animal’s hauling.

She found that cortisol levels were significantly lower when the horses were exposed to lavender. She also found a small, yet not statistically significant, decrease in the post-transport heart rate when the horses were exposed to lavender.

The horses’ heart rate increased slightly after spending time in the trailer without aromatherapy.

The results show that further study is warranted into lavender as another means for stress reduction in competition horses.

Last Wednesday, Heitman presented a poster session, “The Use of Equine Lavender Aromatherapy to Suppress Stress” at the conference, which draws more than 14,000 scientists and exhibitors from six sponsoring societies and multiple guest societies.

The Albion College website provides more information on Heitman’s research, revealing that her horse Lena, who can be a little fractious and nervous in difficult or unusual situations, was part of the reason for her aromatherapy research.

Heitman has been a horse lover and rider since she was five and she has long dealt with the stress many horses experience when their daily routine is interrupted.

About a year ago, Heitman launched into her lavender oil research.

Her faculty sponsor, biology professor Brad Rabquer, gave her the OK. She also got two grants to help with the work, as well as permission from the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee.

Heitman said she was pleased with the results, but understood there was still much more research to do. She acknowledged that to find more definitive proof would require a lot more analysis and a far larger sample size.

She said her ultimate goal was to have her work published in a peer-reviewed journal.

After Albion College, Heitman plans to take a gap year and work for a professional dressage trainer. After that, she has set her sights on graduate school studying in a biomedical science program involving veterinary medicine or in molecular physiology.

“I’d love to work with horses and science,” she said. “It would combine my two loves.”

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