Demystifying hemp and CBD in the equine

Hemp is a buzzword for many reasons. We clear up the confusion surrounding the different types of hemp products available for horses.

Hemp is all the buzz these days, and for good reason. It’s a plant with literally thousands of uses. Hemp is used for clothing, fuel, paper, and everything in between. It is a weed and capable of growing in many different conditions with little additional fertilizer or other inputs. Hemp is nutritious and can have medicinal properties. This article will help clear up the confusion about the different types of hemp products available to horses.


First, a few definitions to clear up the confusion between the different uses and types of hemp:

  • Hemp is known by the Latin names Cannabis sativa or Cannabis indica. There isn’t a clear botanical differentiation between the two species, despite some claims otherwise. Hemp is a cannabis plant that contains no detectable level of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the ingredient that can make the animal “high”.
  • Marijuana is the same basic plant but does contain THC and can make the animal “high”.
  • Cannabinoids are the medicinal compounds shown to be medically useful for many conditions. These are found only in the leaves and buds of the plant. The acronym “CBD” is commonly used for medicinal preparations, but in reality, there are over 100 different cannabinoids in a hemp plant. Active compounds called terpenes work synergistically with CBDs.
  • Endocannabinoid system is the receptor system for cannabinoids found in all mammals and in most body systems.
  • Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids are found only in the seeds of the plant. Omega 3 is an essential fatty acid that cannot be made in the body, so needs to be ingested.
  • Industrial hemp is generally grown for its fiber (stems) and seeds. The plants are grown close to each other to promote tall, stemmy, fibrous plants with lots of seeds. Industrial hemp contains very little, if any, CBD.
  • Medicinal hemp is grown to enhance leaf and bud growth, with high levels of CBD and no Omega 3 or 6 fatty acids.
  • Bio-accumulator is a term used for plants – of which hemp is one – that takes up the contaminants and toxins in the soil in which it grows. So when feeding hemp in any form, it’s important to use organically-grown hemp.

Important note!Hemp CBD

Hemp buds and flowers with a high content of cannabinoids (CBDs) are among the most interesting new herbal medicines to come on the market. The medicinal properties of CBDs in animals, especially horses, are just beginning to be explored. Several years of clinical observations and data indicate that horses are very responsive to CBD, in ways that are similar to other species, including humans.

Hemp seeds

Hemp seeds are the most nutritious part of the plant used as food. They contain about 20% protein, 6% carbohydrates, and about 73% healthy fats. They also have significant amounts of calcium, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, and vitamins A and E. Most diets contain an excess of Omega 6 (inflammatory), but hemp contains a healthy balance of Omega 6 to Omega-3 linoleic acid (an anti-inflammatory compound). Feeding hemp oil is a great way to give horses these benefits (be sure to keep it refrigerated in warm weather).

Hemp oil from seeds also contains the Omega 6 fatty acid, gamma- linolenic acid (GLA), a compound not frequently found in food. It offers excellent anti-inflammatory properties, cancer-fighting immune support, and support for insulin resistance (IR).

Hemp protein is highly bioavailable, although it is not a complete protein for replacing all other sources. One ounce of seed contains 9.2 g of protein. Hemp seeds and the protein that comes from their processing are now available; they are a fabulous way to give horses protein without feeding them genetically-modified corn and soybean.

The hemp leaf is an excellent source of fiber, magnesium, calcium and phosphorus. It also contains antioxidant polyphenols to help protect cells from free radical damage, as well as more beneficial chemical compounds such as flavonoids.

Separating the nutritional properties of hemp from its medicinal ones can be complex, since many nutritional compounds are good for horses because they enhance health.


Cannabinoids are compounds that come from either endogenous sources (endocannabinoids) or herbal sources (phytocannabinoids). Medicinal hemp contains over 100 different phytocannabinoids in varying concentrations. Some of the cannabinoids present in smaller amounts include cannabigerol (CBG), cannabichromene (CBC), cannabidivarin (CBDV), and tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV). Hemp contains many other compounds important to the body’s regulatory pathways, such as terpenes and flavonoids. Plants like hops, flax and Echinacea share some of these compounds.

The endocannabinoid system

The endocannabinoid system in vertebrate animals is thought to have been in existence for over 500 million years. All mammals have receptors in most of their internal organs for the cannabinoids found in hemp. These are important in the regulation of many body functions.

Endocannabinoids are compounds released internally in the nervous system to bind to receptors and transmit information. There are two main types of receptors that occur in different tissues, CB1 and CB2. The CB1s are primary in the central nervous system with some in the external organs, while the CB2s are mostly in the immune system, in B cells and natural killer cells, with some in the spleen and tonsils. The complex interactions between the cannabinoids, the immune system, and the inflammatory pathways create a vast array of biochemical functions affected by those cannabinoids.

Very little endocannabinoid research has been done on domestic animals, horses included. Because the endocannabinoid system is present in all mammals, phytocannabinoids have the potential to affect the health of any internal organ with endocannabinoid receptors. For example, the gut, liver and brain all contain receptors for CBDs.

Feeding cannabinoids to horses

Hemp can be fed as a supplement in a variety of ways. The most common form available is an oil extract. It can become quite costly for horses but works great for small animals. Hemp can be fed to horses in the more economical form of powdered biomass or pellets (which may contain a filler). The amount to feed ranges from about 25 mg to 50 mg twice a day. Sensitive horses need a much lower amount, and it’s always a good idea to use less to begin with.

Products contain variable amounts of CBDs and often do not have full analyses, so actual doses may vary greatly from product to product. The hemp industry is not yet regulated, so there are many companies with questionable quality control. All products fed to animals should have a Certificate of Analysis (COA) available on the company website.

Clinical effects in equines

Taking the lead from the small animal and human studies, CBD products have shown positive effects for a number of equine conditions.

  • Issues that center around pain are common in horses. Cannabinoids have action in both acute and chronic pain by modulating pain signals in the central and peripheral nervous systems and acting similarly to an anti-inflammatory.
  • Laminitis is very painful and can be helped with cannabinoids. CBDs can have a positive effect on the metabolic pathways often compromised in insulin-resistant horses.
  • Musculoskeletal pain in the form of various arthritis conditions is responsive to CBDs, with many horses back to performance and remaining sound. This is true for old horses as well as young performance horses.
  • Cannabinoids cross into the brain and can be helpful for horses that have experienced trauma, mental and physical. Human research has shown success with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Similar symptoms are common in horses and in many cases the response to CBD has been dramatic. However, it is not the cure for every horse with mental issues.
  • Cannabinoids have potential benefits for most body parts, reducing inflammation and behaving as an antioxidant. Inflammation is now considered one of the leading causes behind many chronic diseases, from skin disease to arthritis.
  • The immune system is another area where CBDs are helpful. They have a direct effect on many of the complex immune pathways in the gut (where a large portion of the immune system resides). They also directly affect the cells of the immune system.
  • Lyme disease is a serious chronic problem in horses around the country, and especially on the east coast. Lyme suppresses the immune system, causes pain and inflammation, affects temperament, and causes many more and varied symptoms. Cannabinoids are beneficial as a major part of treating Lyme disease in this author’s practice.
  • The eye is another area where CBDs have an affinity, with some human data to back up their use. Horses with uveitis and chronic ulcers respond well to CBDs as a part of their treatment.


Hippocrates once stated: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” In the case of hemp, it’s very true! Hemp in all its forms is a worthwhile addition to a horse’s diet.


Dr. Joyce Harman graduated in 1984 from Virginia Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine. She is certified in veterinary acupuncture and chiropractic and has completed advanced training in homeopathy and herbal medicine. Her practice in Virginia uses holistic medicine to treat horses. Her publications include The Horse’s Pain-Free Back and Saddle-Fit Book – the most complete source of information about English saddles.


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