Most of a racehorse's life or, so it seems at times, may find part of its anatomy submerged in water. It has long been a worshiped ritual on the backside of hosing or whirl-pooling in boots/tub, your ailing horse's legs for hours on end as if this mindless activity is the gateway to rejuvenation of all ills. I think many grooms like this activity because it involves the minimum of exertion on both their horse's and themselves' part. Perhaps I am a bit cynical here, but hydrotherapy is often misused and always misunderstood. I will discuss all forms of hydrotherapy, how herbs may be added to supplement the healing properties of bathes, and study simple herbal wash formulations which can easily be applied cheaply, quickly to your horse's leg or body on a daily basis within my text, A Racehorse Herbal.
A bath or wash has one thing in common. Its primary component is water. Water is often known as the universal solvent. It is certainly one of the most useful, plentiful, and economical of agents used in dissolving the constituents of plants. Water has the widest range of solvent properties of any common liquid--dissolving both electrolytes and non-electrolytes. The horse's body is made up of approximately 60% water. This body water content is a clue to how vital water is in the living organism and why herbal aqueous solutions can easily be assimilated into that organism. Body parts that contain fatty tissue have correspondingly less water, but race horses tend to be pretty lean creatures.
However, there are a number of disadvantages of water. The hide of the horse is generally impervious to water. One will get very little transfer of water through the epidermis and, thus, any herbal extracts within that water will not have much effect on the system. Water tends to extract from plants: the proteins, tannins, pectins, gums, sugars, and starches which are probably of the least medicinal value in that plant. The alkaloids, resins, volatile oils, and glycosides are characteristically, the constituents of most medicinal value; yet, they are not soluble in water to any great degree. Also, plant material often tend to swell in the water extraction solution (unlike alcohol), to the detriment of the infusion process. As will be seen, a combination of water and alcohol provides the best of both solvents, both complimenting each other.
Simple leg and body washes can easily incorporate herbs for added benefit. It is a common practice to apply something to the horse's legs before doing him up for the day. Traditionally, bandages were never applied dry to the legs, even though there is no veterinary reason why they shouldn't be. I was often told to use straight isopropyl alcohol or Witch Hazel as a general wash when I first started out rubbing for professional race trainers. I suspect this was more for lubricating the fingers during the leg massage than for anything else. You can formulate a wash out of one or more herbs which should be superior and more economical than those two commercial products. Common Plantain makes a nice herb to infuse into a wash. It may pretty much be found from West to East in most temperate zones. Any of an array of other herbs may also be used in washes, singularly or in combination, i.e. yarrow, burdock, cayenne, meadowsweet, lemon balm, self-heal, sage, slippery elm, stinging nettle, prickly ash, horse chestnut, bugle, shepherd's purse, canadian fleabane, purple loosestrife, melilot, catnip, pokeweed, oak, goldenrod, etc.
Most of these herbs are astringents. An astringent describes the action of an herb that reacts with the protein found in the animal by toughening/drying the contacting skin and mucous membranes. This toughening reaction is usually the effect of plant tannins and similar compounds precipitating the protein found in skin, membranes and capillaries. The beauty of astringents are that they react only cell deep without affecting the viability of the contacted cells. . Astringents combine with the outer cell membranes producing lowered permeability which results in inhibited: edema, inflammation, and pain responses. All good properties to have in a leg and body wash. Besides astringents, one my find other modes of action useful in a body wash. Cayenne and black mustard herbs could furnish some counter-irritant action in a wash. Horse chestnut and melilot may be of some use in venous insufficiency, however, it is doubtful much of these herbs' actions would penetrate through normal skin. The above list of suggested herbs also contain those that may produce anti-spasmodic (reduce spasm/tension), anti-inflamatory, demulcent/emolent (skin soothers), circulatory stimulant (i.e. prickly ash), and antiseptic reactions. The usefulness of Herbalogy is that one may harvest herbs in one's region that offer the medicinal benefits desired for your own custom wash. I dare you to find a commercial leg wash with any of these characteristics off the tack shop counter. You can't come close.
A recipe for a simple plantain leg wash goes like this. Pick Common Plantain leaves, ideally around mid-morning when the dew has just left. Place your leaves in any common food processor grinder and pulverize. Next, place the ground leave in a glass gallon jar and place enough of your alcohol/water solution in it to just cover the compressed ground plant matter. Let stand for anywhere from 2-4 weeks. After the elapsed time, filter the solution from the plant material and bottle for use. I mix up an alcohol solution from commonly purchased isopropyl alcohol and tap water. Rubbing alcohol or isopropyl alcohol usually can be bought in bottles of 70% alcohol strength. I only use a 20% solution for infusion purposes (economic reasons), and when I actually use it topically, I reduce it further in half, 10% strength. To reduce common 70% isopropyl alcohol to 20% strength: add 357 ml. (cc.) of water to 143 ml.(cc.) of your 70% stock alcohol for 500 milliliters (cc.) batches. I bottle and store my herbal wash at this 20% strength level. When I am ready to use it in the shedrow, I add the same volume of tap water to a bottle of my 20% concentrate to make two bottles of wash at 10% strength.
Herbs can be added to therapeutic leg bathes. In the simplest form, add freshly cut herb directly into your whirl-pool boots or tub. Let the leave and/or flower agitate around the legs with the water. One can add the filtered alcohol/water herbal washes, previously described, directly to the boots, too-if so desired. There are many variations which can be devised to your particular needs and desires. My book will give you the tools to select your own herbs, process them, and incorporate them into your favored race therapy practices.