Evidence based chinese herbal therapy for equines

There is a long and vibrant history behind the tradition of using Chinese herbal therapy and therapy modalities in equine medicine.

The use of traditional Chinese therapies such as acupuncture and herbs has long been documented in veterinary medicine. Acupuncture for the treatment and prevention of disease in animals is believed to have been first described before 600 BC in Bo Le Zhen Jing (Bo Le’s Canon of Veterinary Acupuncture).1 The development of Chinese herbal therapy practices, meanwhile, followed along with the development of veterinary medicine – there was a particular focus on equine medicine, since the Emperor’s horses were the foundation for his army’s strength in battle.2

The first comprehensive equine textbook, Yuan Heng Liao Ma Ji (Yuan-Heng’s Therapeutic Treatise of Horses), was created in 1600 AD. It spread widely throughout China and provided recommendations for treating various conditions and common ailments in horses.1

Since the creation of these therapies, herbs and herbal formulas have continued to be utilized throughout China as well as in other countries around the world. Despite the anecdotal evidence supporting these therapies, the literature describing their benefits is limited. However, some case reports and clinical trials are available, and may begin to provide a foundation for evaluating the use of these therapies in Western practice.

Trials and reports

Many equine conditions have been treated with Chinese herbal therapy.

  • Lameness, one of the most common maladies in horses, is well documented as responding to acupuncture,3,4 and it may also benefit from the addition of herbal therapy. A case report describing the response of a ten-year-old thoroughbred gelding to the modified herbal formula Tian Wang Bu Xin Dan, cites the resolution of pelvic limb shifting leg lameness of four weeks duration, and idiopathic head shaking of one week duration, after two months of treatment.
  • Tendonitis, or interosseous muscle desmopathy, is a common injury in performance horses and may play a role in other injuries. The herbal formulas Chai Hu Shu Gan and Bu Gan Qiang Jin San have been described to not only treat these injuries, but to prevent them from occurring in predisposed animals.5
  • The use of Chinese herbal formulas for treating various respiratory diseases in horses is well described. Multiple case studies have suggested success in treating acute and chronic equine respiratory conditions with herbal formulations such as modified Bai He Gu Jin Tang, Ge Jie San, and Si Jun Zi Tang.6 A pilot study involved six horses with recurrent airway obstruction treated with a proprietary herbal blend; they were found to have significantly decreased respiratory rates compared to the untreated horses.7
  • The phytochemical compounds of 23 herbs found in commonly used herbal formulas for respiratory disease were evaluated and reviewed for their biological effects – including specific antimicrobial, antioxidant, antiinflammatory, antihistamine, or antitussive properties – when used alone or in combination. The results supported the use of these herbal drugs for the treatment of recurrent equine airway obstruction and summer pasture-associated obstructive pulmonary disease.8

  • Four reports highlight the promising role of Xin Yi San for treating chronic sinusitis in  horses.9-12 As well, in a clinical trial in which Zhi Sou San was used to treat chronic coughing in 50 horses, clinical signs resolved in 90% of the animals.13 A similar response rate was reported when Wei Jing Tang was used to treat pneumonia. In this study, 19 of 23 patients (14 horses) responded to six days of high-dose administration of this herbal formulation,  although the primary causative agents were not identified.14
  • The use of New Xiang Ru San has been described for the treatment of equine anhidrosis, or non-sweating syndrome, common to horses living in southern states.15 A retrospective analysis of 32 horses revealed that 18 patients treated with acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine had significantly reduced clinical signs associated with anhidrosis, compared to horses that were only treated symptomatically. Although further controlled, prospective studies are necessary to confirm these findings, this integrative approach to equine anhidrosis is often pursued in practice, since no specific conventional therapy exists for the treatment of this condition.
  • Fibrous osteodystrophy or “rubber jaw” can result in difficult mastication, emaciation, lethargy and pain. A prospective, blinded, controlled clinical trial was performed to evaluate the 60-day outcomes of 146 horses with confirmed fibrous osteodystrophy who were treated with Chinese herbal medicine. The recovery rates for horses treated with appropriate herbal therapies were significantly higher than those in horses from the control group. Treatment responses were also greater in horses treated with Chinese herbal therapy when compared to controls (97.03% versus 83.3%), citing resolution of clinical signs and reversal of bone loss.16

Chinese herbal medicine is becoming increasingly popular and requested both by Western-trained equine veterinarians as well as the clients they serve, thanks to an interest in more natural-based therapies with minimal side effects, and the cost of conventional treatment. In contrast to acupuncture and Tui-na (massage) techniques, which make up the other sectors of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine, herbal therapy can be harmful if given in the wrong dosage or duration; if contaminated products are administered; or if the incorrect formulas are prescribed to a patient. Consultation with or referral to a veterinarian formally trained in traditional Chinese herbal therapies is recommended to help you provide your patients with the most beneficial and appropriate herbal treatment options available.


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2Xie H, Preast V. Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine Vol 1, Reddick FL, Jing Tang, 2002.
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of American Association of Equine Practitioners, 2000, 46:80-83. (http://www.ivis.org/proceedings/
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6Shmalberg J. “Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine for Treating Horses”. Vetlearn.com, Compendium: Continuing Education for Veterinarians, 2011.
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15Atria S. “Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine Treatment of Eighteen Florida Horses with Anhidrosis”. AJTCVM, 2010, 5(2):25-35.
16Fu BD. “Pattern Identifi cation and Chinese Herbal Medicine for Fibrous Osteodystrophy in 146 Horses”. AJTCVM, 2013, 8(2):41-48.
17Harman J. “Long-Term Follow-Up of Seizures in Three Horses Treated with Chinese Herbal Therapy”. AJTCVM, 2008, 3(1):47-52.
18 Harris L. “Treatment of a Mare with Behavioral Problems with Chinese Herbal Medicine”. AJTCVM, 2007, 2(1):63-67.
19Zhong X. “Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine Diagnosis and Treatment of Acquired Infertility in Female Horses and Dogs”. AJTCVM, 2014, 9(1):95-100.
20 Wei X. “Therapeutic Eff ects of Yin Chen Hu Gan San (Capillaris Hepatoprotective Powder) for Acute
Parenchymatous Hepatitis of Horses”. AJTCVM, 2012, 5(1):21-28.
21Ortiz-Umpierre C. “Treatment of an Amelanotic Melanoma in a Horse with Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Therapy”. AJTCVM, 2006, 1(1):36-38.