By Justine Griffin
As the stigma behind marijuana use in humans continues to evolve in the U.S. and other countries through recent and sweeping decriminalization laws, some equestrians are exploring cannabis-based products for the health of their horses.
Options include using hemp, a non-psychoactive ingredient of the cannabis plant, as an alternative to wood shavings for stable bedding or even as an oil-based supplement for nutrition. Companies that have invested in hemp-based products early on are seeing a surge in demand and interest from pet owners, especially equestrians.
“In the past four years, business has really boomed so I hope it’s not a fad,” said Juliette Butler, sales manager for Aubiose Ltd., a company that’s part of La Chanvriere in Europe which grows hemp, and has been in the U.K. for the last 30 years. “The benefits are endless. The hemp plant is used for a whole manner of things including textiles, fibers, concrete, oil, milk, fish food, cigarette paper, burning fuel, cosmetics and of course animal bedding. The whole plant is used.”
No, your horse won’t get high from ingesting hemp. But there are some factors to consider before deciding if hemp bedding or hemp oil included in grain could be a good option for your horse. For example, will hemp affect a routine drug test at a competition?
Dorothy Russell, a partner at Elite Three, a Canadian company that produces and sells hemp oil products, says absolutely not.
“There’s no THC (the component in marijuana that causes a high effect) in it. But even if a horse did test positive, there are no elements in it that are banned or even looked for at a rated event,” Dorothy explains.
Hemp bedding has grown wildly in popularity recently, explains Juliette from Aubiose. French international event rider Astier Nicolas is among the company’s ambassadors and users.
Cost is typically a bit higher than wood and straw shavings.
“A lot of horse owners now need a biodegradable bedding which rots down quickly as shavings and straw are far too bulky,” she says. “A lot of farmers will no longer take it away so Aubiose is great for that. Hemp is six times the absorbency of wood-based products, and up to 12 times the absorbency of straw, so you use a lot less and it’s better for the horse. It’s also dust free, unlike other beddings.”
Feeding hemp is a little more complicated.
Elisha Hill, an international event rider based in Alberta, Canada, uses Elite Three hemp and fiber oils for equine nutrition. She says all 12 of her horses are on hemp oil as opposed to other supplements because it’s a cost effective way to keep her horses healthy. She’s seen it increase stamina, calm some of her hotter horses and aid in digestion and weight management.
“I’m not a supplement person. Supplements are expensive and so much is wasted, I think. I tried the hemp oil on a whim just to see what it would do, and I was totally amazed,” said 28-year-old Elisha.
She started adding two pumps of hemp oil to her preliminary-level Thoroughbred eventer’s feed as he was recovering from a trailer accident. Elisha said she was astonished at the results.
“I couldn’t believe how quickly he came back. I absolutely think the hemp oil helped,” she says. “So now all my horses are on it. It helps with weight gain, so all my thoroughbreds, even the sales prospects that come in off the track, look great after getting on the hemp oil.”
Even if a horse did test positive, there are no elements in it that are banned or even looked for at a rated event.
Elisha says she stopped routine injections on her 18-year-old eventing mare’s joints because the results from the oil in her diet outweighed what she saw in her mare’s performance after injections.
While there have been some scientific studies on the pros and cons of using cannabis products on animals, the jury is still out when it comes to veterinarian endorsements. Colorado’s governor signed the Industrial Hemp Animal Feed act into law earlier this year, a state where marijuana is legal for recreational use in humans, and has commissioned a group to study the feasibility of using hemp in animal feed.
While cases of overdoses seem rare, proper dosage for animals seem to be the biggest concern among the scientific community.
“Veterinarians and owners are left relying on anecdotal reports, trial and error and companies’ claims,” writes Dr. Narda Robinson in an article for VetStreet.com. “If the tolerable and safe dose, whatever that might be, is exceeded, an animal may land in the local emergency clinic, and there are no antidotes for THC poisoning.”
Most vets don’t recommend hemp products as a replacement for more traditional medicinal care, but some recommend it as an alternative aid.
“Some vets I know sell hemp oil products at their clinics, but not many of them,” Dorothy explained. “It’s still very much an educational process. There’s still this stigma that this is weed and it’s illegal, which just isn’t the case.”
However, some vets have been outspoken about other more common oils and ingredients used regularly for nutrition in horses, like soy or even flax.
Dr. Mark DePalo, an equine veterinarian in Texas, writes that the levels of manufactured soy found in most common brands of grain for horses often contributes to allergies, endocrine dysfunction, digestive problems, hormone imbalances, among other issues. That was reason enough for Jennifer Soltys, a nutritionist and owner of Natural Won, another Canadian distributor of hemp oil, to explore cannabis as an alternative.
“Hemp is indeed a superfood,” says Jennifer, who has been feeding hemp to her own horses for 16 years. “Simply, horses source their fatty acids from grass naturally. Hemp is only slightly second to soy in protein quality and does not need to be heated or chemically processed to be edible, like soy.”
When considering hemp for your horse, do your research. Ask a vet who already knows your horse about it and contact a nutritionist for further advice.
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