Why do nettles sting? It sounds like the beginning of an old folk tale and it’s true that nettles have been used in traditional medicine for thousands of years. However, it’s the science of nettles that’s really interesting. We’ll explain why nettles are a good addition to the horse’s diet.
Those spiny, stinging nettle plants are incredibly high in nutrients and, once the stinging part is dealt with, are easy to digest. They contain large quantities of vitamin C, vitamin E, provitamin A, folic acid, enzymes, minerals and iron. Naturopaths have always admired their qualities for humans. They’re just as good for horses. Nettles are believed to be particularly valuable in treating musculoskeletal conditions, metabolic issues and problems with the urinary tract.
The nettle plant: a natural wonder
Nettle fruits are high in quality protein. They are not very conspicuous, but if you look closely you can spot them as small seeds close to the stem from around the middle of summer. Like us, horses tend to avoid nettles for obvious reasons. The sensitive nose of the horse instinctively retreats at the slightest contact with the plant’s stinging hairs.
However, it’s not what’s in the nettle that’s harmful to horses. On the contrary, the stinging hairs are the way the plant defends itself from being munched up by grazing animals that would benefit from its rich nutrients. Stinging is a natural defence mechanism.
So how can the horse enjoy the goodness of nettles?
Quite simply, by feeding dried nettle. Since they grow abundantly, it’s easy to pick them ourselves. All that’s needed is a stout pair of gloves and a long-sleeved top so none of the acid in the stings can touch the skin while harvesting.
If the plant is wiped from the bottom up (wearing gloves!) most of the stinging hairs will break. Then, the nettles should be hung upside down in bundles to dry, ideally in an airy but shady spot.
The riper the nettles are, the more protein they contain. However, the vitamin content decreases as they get older. Ideally pick the nettles once the nettle fruit is visible, but while the leaves are still juicy and green.
Feeding and dosing
Once the nettle bundles have dried out, they are easily “crumbled”. To do this without losing any, put them into jute or cotton bags. Simply stuff in the plants and knead the entire bag. The coarse stems don’t crumble easily, but some horses will eat them, while others don’t. A bit of trial and error is the way to go when using nettles in the horse’s diet.
Quantities are dependent on the individual horse or pony. As a rule of thumb, approximately 30-50 grams should be fed per day. The dried leaves can simply be added to the horse’s regular feed.
Nettles for osteoarthritis, summer eczema and metabolic problems
The high content of vitamins, enzymes and iron in the nettle acts beneficially on the digestive tract, as well as the bile and liver. It has a blood purifying and diuretic effect. Nettles are also draining and antibacterial, and useful for treating light oedema produced by standing indoors. Dried nettles are usually safe to feed to pregnant mares and may even increase their milk yield.
The silica contained in nettles also has a positive effect on the skin and coat. Feeding nettles can help with summer eczema and itching.
If you want to feed nettles for urinary tract conditions, make sure that the horse keeps up its fluid intake. This is really the only way to excrete uric acid. Nettle also inhibits cytokines. These are the “messengers” in the body that cause inflammation and breakdown of the cartilage in the joint in arthrosis and arthritis.
Nettle is one of the few remedies that provides a useful early intervention in the progression of rheumatic diseases. The entire metabolism is stimulated by the stinging nettle, helping the body to release and excrete the toxins that would otherwise be deposited in the joints.
Nettles can be freely harvested by anyone, but if you don’t feel like collecting them, dried nettles are available from online suppliers.