BY JESS CLAWSON
Equestrians of all stripes worry about their horses’ comfort, from turnout safety to saddle fit to emotional wellbeing.We invest a lot in our animals, and prioritizing their welfare is key to good horsemanship.
Chrisie Van Cleef, a New Jersey-based hunter rider, found herself extremely concerned for her gelding Caprioso’s welfare a few years ago when he fell ill with a tick borne disease. Casting about for ways to help him stay relaxed and emotionally healthy during his recuperation, she looked to her lavender field for answers.
Five years ago, Chrisie’s husband planted a lavender field on their farm as a birthday gift for her. She had observed that Caprioso loved flowers in general, especially lavender. “He’s always sticking his head in flower beds,” she laughed. “He’s a funny horse. He’s very clean, keeps a tidy stall, and loves the smell of flowers.”
So Chrisie brought some lavender to him. She tied a bundle to his halter, and saw an almost immediate change in his demeanor. Throughout his recuperation, she kept lavender hanging in his stall or spread throughout his bedding. The relaxing effect was evident.
Caprioso wasn’t the only horse who benefited from the relaxing influence of the flowers. After weaning her foal, Deja Balou, she noticed it again. “It helped the mare and foal so much,” she said.
Though horses seem to love the taste and the smell of lavender, it is a prohibited substance under USEF and FEI guidelines. As Chrisie continued to experiment with its therapeutic effects on her own horses, she looked for a practical way to use it that would not be in violation of the drug rules.
“Ingesting lavender and putting oil on their skin would both result in a positive drug test,” Chrisie explained. “Even though ingesting lavender doesn’t have any relaxing effects. Horses have to smell it to benefit, and it has to be close to the nose.”
With this knowledge, Chrisie found herself in her tack room crushing lavender and putting it into pouches that she could attach to the horses’ noseband. No ingestion and no contact with the skin, it didn’t break any drug rules but had all the aromatherapy benefits. Bingo.
HorseScents was born. Chrisie wanted to make her relaxing solution available to everyone, including competing horses, so she underwent a rigorous three-step process to ensure that her product would work.
First, she shared it with fellow equestrians to use on their own horses and provide testimonials to its effects. Users reported back that it helped their new imports handle the first few days of stress well, kept their thoroughbreds quiet in the stall, and even helped a six year old stallion relax in turnout instead of worrying about mares. Jockey Club Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito used it while shipping a young racehorse, and found that it helped the filly stay relaxed throughout the process of interstate travel and settling into a new farm.
Next, Chrisie wanted to ensure in writing that USEF, the FEI, USDF, and AQHA all approved it for use. She asked the organizations to review the product and determine whether it was permitted so she could assure customers that they could safely use the product as instructed—for inhalation versus ingestion—on competition horses without testing positive in a blood draw.
“As an added precaution, I used it on one of my horses for a month straight and then had the vet do a blood test,” she explained. “The test came back clean. I didn’t think I could do too much to be safe with this.”
Finally, Chrisie wanted scientific evidence that her product worked. She turned to Ann Baldwin, a doctor of physiology at the University of Arizona’s College of Medicine, and asked her to test the products. Her study, concluded in June 2019, confirmed the effects of lavender on the equine nervous system.
Baldwin used HorseScents lavender ScentSacs on eight horses wearing heart rate monitors during turnout to measure the effects on the parasympathetic nervous system. This nervous system decreases blood pressure, relaxes muscles, and oversees conservation of the body’s energy. According to Baldwin, “the HorseScents lavender noseband caused a significant relaxation response within 14 minutes, as measured by increased beat-to-beat changes in heart rhythm (greater adaptability), in six out of eight horses of varying breeds.”
Baldwin had previously done research for a study published in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science on diffused lavender essential oil with student Isabella Chea, in which she determined that smelling the essential oil had similar effects on the parasympathetic nervous system. However, lavender oil can’t be on the horses’ skin under USEF and FEI rules, so users would need to be cautious in their use. The HorseScents ScentSac solves this problem by preventing any contact exposure while still using the benefits of lavender.
Baldwin’s studies aren’t the only science behind lavender’s relaxing outcome. A 2018 study in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science showed that lavender aromatherapy relieved stress in trailered horses. Researchers from Albion College and the Ottawa Animal Hospital found that aromatherapy reduced cortisol serum levels in the horses. Cortisol is a stress hormone that can be harmful if unregulated in stressful circumstances. The research all indicates that lavender aromatherapy can be a great tool for managing equine stress.
HorseScents ScentSacs are not only effective, they’re locally produced. “We’re still using the lavender that we grow,” Chrisie explained. “It’s 100% organic, and a mix of English and French varieties.” Chrisie picks the lavender herself and hangs it to dry, and then crumbles it. At that point, she sends it to an Amish leather worker in Pennsylvania who produces the ScentStrap and ScentSac out of burlap and buffalo leather.
The ScentStrap is a leather halter attachment that allows the user to attach the lavender-filled ScentSac directly to the noseband. They come standard in brown buffalo leather, but options for sheepskin or black leather to suit dressage tack are also available. The ScentSac lasts for 30 days before the dried lavender loses its potency, but Chrisie has developed a subscription service to have refills shipped automatically every month.
Chrisie values interacting with consumers. “I like for everyone who buys from HorseScents to talk to me or one of my two sales people about how to use it,” she emphasized.
She especially loves seeing the ScentSacs used in the weaning process. “We have two different breeding farms using it now with their mares and weanlings,” she said. “Our sense of smell is keenest when we’re young, and that’s true for horses too. It’s very effective with the weanlings.”
One breeder used HorseScents on two out of their three dams and fillies. She found that the horses with lavender were much more relaxed in the first few days of weaning, but the dam and filly who didn’t get a ScentStrap were more upset.
ScentSacs can help horses handle a crowded warm-up ring as well. Because their use is most effective over a short period of time to prevent the horse from becoming over-acclimated to the soothing effects of lavender, strapping the ScentSac to the noseband during warm up and removing it before competition can help horses stay relaxed and focused instead of worrying about what’s going on around them.
Chrisie’s farrier, Yancy Russell, found that the ScentSac is useful for difficult horses. “After putting the ScentSac on and giving it a little bit of time, the horse was more relaxed and easier to handle,” Yancy said.
It’s also helpful for horses during veterinary appointments, braiding, or other potentially stressful situations. Matty O’Rourke, owner of Equine Transport Company, uses HorseScents in his business. “I’ve added HorseScents to my quiver of proactive stress reducers for my clients. I’m very happy with the results,” he said.
HorseScents lavender ScentSac is an effective and practical solution to helping horses in stressful situations, which is good for them and good for us. Go to https://horsescentsinc.com to learn more.
About the Author: Jess is a professional historian and educator who lives in northwestern Virginia. They completed their undergraduate degree in English at William & Mary, and did their masters and doctoral work at the University of Florida. Jess is an event rider with a passion for thoroughbreds, and has extensive experience in community organizing around queer identities, racial marginalization, and labor.
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