MSU researchers find aromatherapy calms stressed horses

MSU researchers find aromatherapy calms stressed horses
Published: Feb. 21, 2013 at 2:38 PM CST|Updated: Feb. 21, 2013 at 2:59 PM CST
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Medical research with animals has saved lives, from a polio vaccine with monkeys to skin grafts with pigs and insulin from dogs. In part one of this special Healthcast series, 7News looks into the transfer of health discoveries from animals to humans and humans to animals to see how local researchers are playing a role in these breakthroughs.

It is the start to another day at the McNeese State University farm. Horses, pigs, goats, chickens, even gators all live in unison here where professors and their students are working toward a greater goal of scientific discoveries.

The first project we are diving into with Edward Ferguson, Ph.D., an associate professor in agricultural sciences, involves a staple to south Louisiana: horses.  "We used seven horses and we did a switchback study," he said.

Popular from racetracks to rodeo arenas, it is critical to keep the colts and mares in tip-top shape, healthy and not stressed. Enter a popular relaxation remedy for humans: aromatherapy.  "I let the students pick one of several different aromatherapies that we could use," said Dr. Ferguson, "and lavender was the one they were most familiar with."

Lavender is a highly concentrated essential oil that is thought to work by stimulating smell receptors in the nose, sending messages through the nervous system to the part of the brain controlling emotions.

The lavender is diffused into the humidifier and there is a humidifier with pure water vapor.  "Each horse received lavender treatment or just the water vapor," said Dr. Ferguson.

The "stressor" to push the horses' heart rate is an air horn.  "We put the horses in a stall and blew an air horn twice to get their heart rate up," said Dr. Ferguson, "it was just to get the fight or flight syndrome activated in the horses."

After the air horn was blown, each horse had one minute to calm down. Then their stressed heart rate was taken. After that, it was time to either administer the lavender therapy or the controlled water vapor.

Equine student, Abby Berzas, says there was a big drop in stressed heart rates - about 10 beats per minute for those breathing in the lavender versus pure vapor.  "You could see it steadily drop," said Berzas, "it went from 40 to 36 to 32 and so on."

"You'll see them start to relax," said Dr. Ferguson, "they'll lower their head, their bottom lip will start lowering and you can tell that just breathing in a little bit, they start to relax."

Horses that breathed in lavender first, vapor next, were clearly agitated when they did not get another round of aromatherapy.  "They constantly bit the humidifier, hit it with their nose, you could tell they wanted that smell again, they remembered it," said Dr. Ferguson.

This research team says the aromatherapy offers a non-chemical sedative without side effects - something that could be used for performance horses in recovery.  "If we can relax them immediately after their performance," said Dr. Ferguson, "maybe that will speed up their recovery time."

The next study this spring will involve 20 horses and try other calming scents like chamomile and eucalyptus. There are also plans to try citrus scents, to see if they will liven up the horses.

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