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Competition scents for horse and rider

February 22, 2008

by Catherine Bird

Essential oils are a tool you may not have considered to add to your preparation before going to compete at your dressage competition. They are something you can use, purely for their scent, to help you and your horse maintain a calm focus and avoid the anxiety attacks.

Aromatherapy, the use of essential oils work with our sense of smell. We get attracted to a scent, inhale and then the physiological reaction via the olfactory nervous system suggest to the hypothalamus gland to instruct the body to release various neurochemicals. It is the release of these neurochemicals that make us feel happy, euphoric, focused, stimulated or calm.

Molly was nervous during her first dressage test, so sought out Lyn Palmer to get a sniff of calming oils.

With horses, their sense of smell is keen and they operate primarily on what we term in ourselves, the old brain. It is the old brain or our limbic system that holds our memories and emotions and governs the flight - fight response. By accessing this response with the use of aromas, we bypass the conscious mind and often eliminate this response before it becomes dangerous. Aromatherapy will not replace good training or positive reinforcement techniques with your horse, it will however help you bypass blocks you have previously fond difficult to overcome.

In this article I will address the use of scent. The essential oils also have a physical action if applied directly to the body, however this needs to be in a carrier which is not attractive when performing a dressage test.

To get the most out a scent from an essential oil, you can decide on some of the qualities you and your horse need on the day and then waft the bottles under your horse's nose. He is the best indicator. After you have wafted the scent draw the bottle slowly away form his nose, if he follows with a definite interest, this is the oil your horse wants. You then place a drop or two onto the palm of your hand and warm and allow your horse to inhale to begin the release of the neurochemicals throughout the body.

Your Basic Essential Oil Kit


The dressage horse and rider always benefit from a quick sniff of basil before a test, as it sharpens the mind and helps retain focus on the task at hand. Basil is useful if you and your horse are nervous where you both can't keep your mind on the test ahead. It is also useful if you have scheduled a third test and fatigue is setting in. Basil will help draw on inner strength and access your memory to help you and your horse through your test.


Bergamot is a favorite for dealing with "butterflies' in the tummy nerves. It eases away anxieties and clears the air so pre event jitters do not incapacitate you. It encourages you and your horse to overcome the stress of competition and allays frustration.


It is traditionally the 'tantrum' remedy in small children and will calm your horse in minutes if he is being the difficult demanding child. Chamomile gives patience, peace and calms the mind. It is highly sedative so do not use on a mild behavior, keep it for the serious 'refusal' or difficulty in getting your horse back on the trailer to go home.


It is also an essential oil that freshens up an environment and useful to have around for horses that are confined in stables for long periods of time as it lifts the spirits and creates a 'bush' feel in the stables. For the dressage competitor it is useful to use with a horse that performs to his best in the morning and has drawn an afternoon test. It is believed to have an uplifting action on low biorhythm patterns.


This is the 'fear' essential oil and useful when you can feel a heart beat rise between your legs when you most need your horse to compete. It can alleviate fear of the future and worth you inhaling if you are prone to worrying excessively before each test. Your thoughts do affect your horse so clear those in yourself and your horse is less likely to show this behavior. Frankincense also clears feelings of indecision.


This essential oil balances hormones and its moods. I like using this on young, moody, and sometimes-temperamental fillies, though it's very useful with mares at a dressage competition if they are on the brink of going into season and being 'mare-ish'. Geranium is also useful when you need to negotiate a dispute and a very useful oil for judges or scorers to have wafting around the clubhouse if a competitor disputes their marks.


Lavender will take the heat out of emotionally steamy situations. When stress is causing disruptions to preparations during a competition, have lavender on a tissue or as a perfume, it will help minimise heated altercations between competitors and grooms. It will calm anxiety that expresses itself with sharp angry words. It will also calm a sensitive horse.


This oil is a favourite to burn at home when learning dressage tests, or to sniff while walking the course the day before a cross-country event. It helps you retain your learning. Lemongrass is a good essential oil to have on hand if you or your horse are not a morning person and have drawn a test at the beginning of the day.


Vertiver is not usually a favorite amongst riders, though horses gravitate to it when they need a good solid grounding essential oil. It addresses debility as well as physical and mental exhaustion. If you are a competitor caught in the trap of using sedatives, vertiver will help you ease your horse off them and then you will find your riding improves naturally.

Using Essential Oils

How I have described the use of essential oils here for their aroma is safe for you and your horse. As your horse's skin is much more sensitive than your own, NEVER apply essential oils to his skin undiluted.

If your horse does have a reaction to essential oils or you accidentally get some in his eye, never use water to wash them off. Water will increase the irritability of essential oils to the skin, use your vegetable base oil or milk. The albumen content of milk will help dilute the essential oils and sooth the skin.

If you are competing at a level where you are tested for prohibitive substances some horse associations list essential oils such as eucalyptus and peppermint as performance enhancing and do restrict their use. When you apply a physical application to the skin of your horse, some oils are active enough to show in urine tests within four hours.

Your horse will be the best guide as to the essential oils that can help him most. If he shows no interest, then he is unlikely to need calming or to focus. If he shows a great deal of interest, allow him to inhale the aroma until he has had enough. Sometimes this will be for as little as four seconds, other times he will try to lick your hands to get more. Be mindful these substances are up to seventy times more intense than if you were using the originating plant, so don't allow your horse to lick toxic essential oils.

The reason you are using essential oils and their aroma is to make life easier when competing and training, so relax and enjoy them. The more fun you have with them, the more 'good' memory associations you have to stimulate each time you and your horse play with the scents.



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