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As herd animals, horses are known to be very reactive to their environment and surroundings. This means that activities like traveling in a trailer or being in hectic, loud environments can be very stressful.
A recent study sought to expand on whether aromatherapy could be used to help calm and soothe stressed horses. According to Science Daily, a previous study on the effects of aromatherapy for horses focused on its effectiveness while in the presence of a stressor. The article states that “In one study, horses were startled by an air horn and then provided with humidified lavender air. The horses' heart rates increased in response to the air horn but returned to normal more quickly in those that inhaled lavender.”
In a new study, “Effect of Aromatherapy on Equine Heart Rate Variability,” the stressors were removed as the relaxing effects of lavender were measured. Isabelle Chea, a then-undergraduate honors student at the University of Arizona, and Ann Baldwin, University of Arizona professor of physiology and psychology, wanted to see if lavender could help a calm horse feel relaxed.
According to Science Daily, Baldwin explains, “One of the parameters of heart rate variability is RMSSD, and that represents parasympathetic input, which is the relaxation part of the autonomic nervous system. If RMSSD goes up, that indicates the horse is relaxed. We found that when the horses were sniffing the lavender, RMSSD significantly increased compared to baseline.”
In other words, instead of measuring if aromatherapy could help to calm a stressed horse, they conducted a study to see if aromatherapy with lavender could simply help a horse to relax.
To do this, they brought each of their nine equine subjects out to a small paddock, where they had a diffuser with lavender essential oil set up. They then monitored each horse’s heart rate and heart rate variability for a total of 21 minutes. They monitored for seven minutes before the diffuser is introduced, seven minutes with the diffuser close to the horse’s nose, and then seven minutes after it was removed.
They also performed the same experiment using chamomile and water vapor. Chea and Baldwin found that when the horse actively sniffs lavender, it provides them with a relaxing and calming effect. The horses would display relaxed behaviors such as lowering their heads, licking or chewing. However, once the lavender diffuser was removed, its calming effect stopped.
They believe this can be very helpful for equestrians everywhere when it comes to stressful events or activities for horses. Baldwin tells Science Daily, “Some horses don't like to be shod. So, when the farrier comes and starts banging around with their hooves, it would be good for that.” She even says you don’t need a diffuser, either. You can simply dab some lavender oil on your hand and let your horse have a sniff.
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