Even in the middle of this very wet winter plantago is still growing well, we have the smaller version Plantago lanceolata, it grows close to the ground and has thin spear like leaves that form a rosette. Both the larger, Plantago Major and smaller, Plantago Lanceolata contain very high levels of anti-oxidants that have a positive effect on the health of the horse. Flavonoids and hydroycinnamic acids are two of the major anti- oxidants, both work to restore health and aid in recovery, both protect cells against oxidative damage by free radicals and activate antioxidant enzymes with anti-inflammatory properties, phenolic compounds have been identified as being the main ingredients of many ethno-medical plants, it’s great to have such a powerful one growing wild in the field that the horses can self-select if required.
The roots are high in phenolic anti- oxidants, these are water soluble so if you are making up a mash, soak the plantago in hot/boiling water first, then use the water to make the mash to ensure the horse is receiving his medicine!
The other benefit to a bit of plantago are the high levels of beta carotene a precursor of vitamin A. Synthetic Vitamin A is often added to processed pelleted feeds but between 30-40% of the vitamin A added can be lost in the pelleting process or degraded if stored badly or as the food ages. For those processed foods with added minerals the loss of vitamin A may be even greater as the minerals cause degradation of the vitamin A. Humidity and high temperatures can reduce the content to 2%. A 500kg horse needs around 15,000 IU of vitamin a per day and 100g of plantago will supply 11,000 IU’s, of beta carotene that’s around seven very small plants or one the size of the plant in the image, the beta carotene is converted to vitamin A in the digestion process.
The information on vitamin A in literature seems to be confusing, for instance vitamin A is recommended to be added as a supplement to the equine diet especially for horses stabled, but in a trial, mares fed a low beta carotene hay for 22 months, showed no signs of deficiency. The horse must be manufacturing its own, from food given, as there are over 10 known carotenes apart from beta carotene which may be used to convert into vitamin A without the need for synthetic added extras.
Many of the strongest, best known or most frequently used medicinal plants, such as Ginseng and Boswellia come from Asia, perhaps because Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine is effective and still practised both in their countries of origin and growing in popularity in the West? Ginseng grows in North America, along the eastern seaboard, but over harvesting has diminished stocks and now it is an endangered species, it is possible to grow ginseng in the UK with at least one UK farmer turning to ginseng as an alternative lucrative crop, selling at £50 per kg.
Ginseng and Boswellia feature in many equine supplements, a quick search came up with 30 for Ginseng and 25 for Boswellia, Ginseng used to increase energy and general health, and the Boswellia used to reduce pain and inflammation.
The effectiveness of both ginseng and boswellia is due to the high levels of triterpenes that interact with the immune system to increase the horses defence system particularly against allergies and inflammation. Triterpenes are plant anti-oxidants, higher levels are found in plants that have evolved and adapted to their local environment, a healthy strong young plant in its natural environment will have higher levels of triterpenes than cultivated single plant varieties. Wild plants are more potent and are more desirable, which is reflected in the price per kg.
Is there a UK plant alternative?
An excellent alternative to Ginseng and Boswellia can be found in a soft rush grass called Juncus Effesus, a plant thought to be undesirable in grasslands as it is unpalatable to livestock, but horses seem to love it! We had some analysed as part of grassland research, to find it contained a higher sugar content in the autumn and winter months and a high triterpene content all year around. For horses with ems/ obesity and laminitis, the triterpenes help the horse digest sugar better and for older horses with Cushings the triterpene content will aid recovery from the secondary symptoms such as abscesses, lethargy, muscle wastage and late coat shedding.
Our youngsters have come down to summer grazing from the hills and are have made a bee line into the marshy areas tucking into the young juncus and other wetland varieties of grass/flowers.
Although a number of synthetic medicines are available, drugs of natural origin have aroused great interest. Triterpenes seem to demonstrate adequate properties. Many experiments have shown that these compounds have several antidiabetic mechanisms. They can inhibit enzymes involved in glucose metabolism, prevent the development of insulin resistance and normalize plasma glucose and insulin levels. These natural compounds, in contrast to synthetic drugs, apart from producing a hypoglycemic effect have also been found to manifest hypolipidemic and anti-obesity activity. Triterpenes are also promising agents in the prevention of diabetic complications. They have strong antioxidant activity and inhibit the formation of advanced glycation end products, implicated in the pathogenesis of diabetic nephropathy, embryopathy, neuropathy or impaired wound healing. Until now very few clinical studies have been concerned with the application of triterpenes in treating diabetes. However, due to their great therapeutic potential, these compounds deserve special attention