Medicinal cannabis: There was a time when horses had a high old time on dope

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Medicinal marijuana is gaining acceptance in countries around the world, but a century ago some horses were having a high old time on the drug, ostensibly as a treatment for colic.

Author CuChullaine O’Reilly discusses the historic use of cannabis for treating horses in his just-published three-volume Encyclopaedia of Equestrian Exploration.

O’Reilly, in a chapter on colic, explains the risks of the potentially fatal condition on the trail, and deals with “quack cures” that have featured throughout the long history of horseback riding.

However, does marijuana fall in the category of a quack cure?

O’Reilly points out that natural ingredients were the norm in bygone days. For 300 years, marijuana was an important part of the medical kit for Long Riders – those who undertake long journeys on horseback.

The earliest recorded example known to O’Reilly of equestrian travellers using marijuana can be found in The History of Four-Footed Beasts. Written in 1607, the author Edward Topsell, claimed that mixing hemp seeds with a horse’s regular ration encouraged rapid weight gain.

He has since explored the subject further, and found that François Rabelais, a doctor, writer, monk and Greek scholar during the Renaissance, also recommended cannabis for colic.

Francois Rabelais.
Francois Rabelais

Rabelais, who lived from 1494 to 1553, had studied medicine at the University of Poitiers and the University of Montpellier. In 1532 he moved to Lyon, one of the intellectual centres of France, and in 1534 began working as a doctor.

He wrote a book describing how cannabis could ease the pain of gout and cure horses of colic.

“If of its juice you put in a bucket of water, suddenly you will see the water thicken, as if it were curds, so great are its virtues. And the water thus curdled is the immediate remedy for horses with colic.”

Its use for colic appears to have endured through the centuries for, as O’Reilly points out in his encyclopaedia, it appears to have been a standard treatment for the dangerous condition.

Before cannabis was outlawed in the United States in 1937, American veterinarians routinely prescribed equine colic medication which contained high doses of marijuana.

O’Reilly notes that the Parke Davis pharmaceutical company was one of the United State’s leading suppliers of top quality “liquid cannabis”.

The company, having collected hemp seeds from India and Nepal at the start of the 20th century, began growing high-grade marijuana in Michigan and the Blue Ridge mountains.

O’Reilly describes how the dried flower tops of the hemp plant were gathered and brewed in a method not dissimilar to making coffee in an industrial-sized percolator. The concentrated oily resin was extracted and mixed with alcohol.

Cannabis Americana was offered as a cure for colic in horses.
Cannabis Americana was offered as a cure for colic in horses.

A booklet published by the company assured doctors and the public that, “From the planting of the drug to the final marketing of the of the finished product, Cannabis Americana is created under the supervision of experts.”

The US War Department had no hesitation in recommending its use for colic. Its 1915 Manual for Farriers, Horseshoers, Saddlers and Waggoners recommended giving colicky horses “One teaspoon of liquid Cannabis Americana mixed with one tablespoon of olive oil.”

There were options for horse owners who didn’t want to mix ingredients. The 1912 Parke Davis catalogue of veterinary products advertised a ready-made cure for flatulent and spasmodic colic. The ingredients comprised 60.5% alcohol, 12.5% liquid cannabis and 25% chloroform. The label asserted that “one dose usually cures.”

“This was no idle boast made by hippy chemists,” writes O’Reilly, “as the powerful fluid hemp extract produced a strong sense of relaxation, which diminished the horse’s abdominal pains and reduced chances of the animal rupturing itself.”

Cannabis also had the backing of General William Giles Harding Carter, a US Cavalry officer who served in a range of conflicts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

General William Harding Carter.
General William Harding Carter.

In his book, Horses, Saddles and Bridles, General Carter describes Cannabis indica as an antispasmodic and anodyne. “It is recommended in colic, acute indigestion, impaction and constipation. It relieves pain and irritability without interfering with the secretions of the stomach and intestines; dose, one half to one dram.”

Parke David & Co., in a veterinary catalogue, described Cannabis Americana as a narcotic, analgesic and sedative. “May be often used in place of opium with the best results, especially in spasmodic disorders and in genito-urinary irritation: also in persistent cough and in hysteria, as well as in such painful affections as flatulent and spasmodic colic, pruritus and neuralgia, and to relieve spasms of chorea: also to quiet refractory animals for standing operations.”

This American-grown cannabis was in every respect equal to the expensive East Indian drug, it assured prospective buyers.

“The advantages of using carefully prepared solid and fluid extracts of the home-grown drug are apparent when it is considered that every step of the process, from the planting of the drug to the final marketing of the finished product, is under the supervision of experts.”

Other online reports also discuss the use of cannabis in treating horses, with the American Veterinary Association holding a lengthy discussion on the subject in 1914.

Its use in treating colic in the US appears to date back to 1880, with efforts made by a man named H.C. Wood to find strains of Cannabis indica with a more hypnotic and less deliriant effect.

Wood found that his extract was effective in small quantities for colic, and its use appears to have grown in the US from his work.

The Parke Davis Tincture Room, where Cannabis Americana would have been processed.
The Parke Davis Tincture Room, where Cannabis Americana would have been processed.

The drug was being recommended for the treatment of colic in US cavalry horses from as early as 1895.

While the pain-killing and relaxing effects of such cannabis-related preparations were undeniable, the more modern development of effective muscle relaxants, analgesics and the like for horses may well have dulled any veterinary desire to properly assess the effectiveness of cannabis for treating colic.

However, the use of cannabis in companion animals has piqued the interest of researchers at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine.

An online survey of pet owners explored its use last year, with the findings yet to be published.

The school notes: “Despite the growing interest in medical cannabis for humans, very little is known about the use and role of cannabis in pets.

The author CuChullaine O'Reilly passes cannabis growing wild in Pakistan during an 1100-mile ride through the country in the early 1980s.
The author CuChullaine O’Reilly passes cannabis growing wild in Pakistan during an 1100-mile ride through the country in the early 1980s.

“Very few veterinary researchers and/or schools of veterinary medicine have conducted any significant research into the subject.

“The Equine and Comparative Neurology Research Group is beginning to lead this charge with an anonymous survey to gather information on this topic.

“The data will then be used to educate the public on the growing role of these products in the pet population and potentially lead to future research.”

Learn more about the Encyclopaedia of Equestrian Exploration here.

One thought on “Medicinal cannabis: There was a time when horses had a high old time on dope

  • September 2, 2018 at 3:13 am
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    A fantastic, historical piece on a subject of which I’d not known previously. But this is typical of CuChullaine O’Reilly who, before writing anything, extensively researches his subjects on equine matters. His material continuously spurs delightful surprises in the equine world. (This is but one of hundreds of well-researched pieces coming from the phenomenal publication, the EEE).

    About this author: And anyone who could survive the passage through Pakistan, let alone on horseback, in the early 1980s with Russians looming next door during the Soviet-Afghan war, where “distrust” of white skin was the word of the day, where government corruption could cause innocent victims to be forever locked away in horrific gulags, I think, develops a special sense of noting details and applying them. (Phew, that was the longest sentence I’ve ever written). This guy is one hell of an individual whose experiences round-out his need for all the facts.

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