The benefits to horses of the common stinging nettle

This article first appeared in The Barefoot Horse magazine (Issue #16).

One of the great things, for me at least, of keeping my horse of an equine track is the chance to ‘play’ with machinery. Big lawn mowers, petrol hedge cutters with extendable bits and petrol strimmers ! I love strimming – just don’t tell Lisa (the track owner) or she’ll stop buying me bottles of Whyte and Mackays as a “Thank you” …. I especially love to strim nettles. As a kid we used to bash them down with sticks in swishing motions but a petrol strimmer is so much better. It swooshes through them and they fall like so many soldiers being mown down in an imaginary battle and the great thing is that this entertainment can go on just about all year as they seem to grow most months of the year now and in the UK up to a height of some 850m. They just rest for a little while in the harshest part of the winter. The other day I was swooshing the strimmer around under the track electric fence areas when I was joined, at a respectable distance, by Chiron Horse and Charlie. They don’t seem to mind the cacophony too much but woe betide anyone out on a hack with them and they get too close to someone strimming as they become a bit ‘prancy’ then. “I wonder if it’s my presence that re-assures them ?” I mused. Answering my own question I said, “I think it’s just that they know there’ll be something good to eat shortly” and there is.

The stinging nettle (Urtica Urens) is part of a wider family termed Urticaceae, and includes the purple, yellow and white dead nettle which aren’t really nettles at all but enough of that, and it can be found in just about all of the UK and indeed it has relatives all over the world. It was thought to have been introduced to the UK by the Romans who used them to lash themselves with in a process called ‘urtication’ in order to create heat in the body when it was cold outside – with this sort of sense how did the Brits at the time ever allow themselves to get vanquished by them ? Its self defence mechanisms are apparent to most and consist of stiff hair like needles on the stem that cause a burning sensation when touched. Many reach for a broad leaf dock at this point to rub on it but Ribwort or Broad Leaf Plantain are probably better or even Creeping Ground Ivy which often grow nearby – isn’t nature wonderful ! Some horses will eat nettles fresh but most would prefer them to be wilted so cutting and allowing them to dry is the way forward for most. All our horses on the track will eat wilted nettles but for one in particular it has a special significance.

Ted and nettles.jpg

Ted doesn't mind eating the nettles fresh when he feels he needs them - I eat them fresh as well but in scrambled egg and omelettes !

Ted has laminitis. It comes and goes like with most ‘lammies’ but when it does come it does so with a vengeance and, possibly, with increasing severity. Nettles for him offer a way to balance sugars in his blood as it helps to prevent ‘sugar spikes’ and so place pressure on the actions that insulin needs to take. The compound in the nettle that helps this is called glucoquinone and has the same benefit for humans with diabetes. Even on our ‘bare track’ he seems to be able to Houdini his head under parts of the electric fence to reach snatches of grass and the wet summer that many of us had caused the grass to grow when it might otherwise have struggled. It doesn’t take much for the robust perennial grass to shoot up despite our best efforts to deter it and the use of the ‘lammy app’ on Smart phones. Poor ol’ Ted. That said nettles have other benefits for a possible laminitic horse in that it contains an anti-histamine compound – ironic really given that its sting creates a histamine reaction when it stings us ! I think most people now realise that laminitis is not one condition, but many that can be seen in a sort of continuum of conditions that will eventually lead to full blown pedal bone rotation and that this all starts, as do other conditions, in the gut of the horse. So it is that when Ted is able to have a feed on high sugary grasses (high being a relative term in his case and the grasses we have) the bacteria in the gut have a sort of party and produce a histamine reaction that eventually leads to inflammation in the body. The anti-histamine compounds in the nettle help to negate this effect and so reduce some inflammation for him. Flowering nettles may also have a beneficial effect on the fat cells themselves in that they help the process of lipolysis (the production of energy from fats). This also helps the fat cells to shrink as well as provide energy through the winter months when energy from grasses may not then be needed so much and so winter laminitis episodes possibly avoided.

These aren’t the only benefits of nettles for the track horses though. Chiron Horse has moderate arthritis around T14/15 and nettle helps to rid the body of uric acid that is associated with that inflammation – it also benefits those humans with gout. Charlie and Amber are no spring chickens, in terms of years, and they may also benefit from this effect to help keep them as mobile as they are. Kidney health is also encouraged by increasing fluid loss slightly which may include toxin removal from the body as it is a mild diuretic. In humans a tea made from the roots has been seen to help prostate problems in men ‘of a certain age’ …. I’ll be back in a minute, I just need to go to the loo …. (again !).

Evve and nettles.jpg

Evee (the Sect A - Emily !!) prefers to eat her nettles slightly wilted after cutting. Either way, the horses have the choice to eat when/how they want to

It’s not just in a medicinal way that nettles are beneficial though it also acts as a general provider of minerals like calcium, iron, potassium and Vitamin C – itself a powerfulanti-oxidant that helps to mop up free radicals that may be released from fat cells in lamintics. At this point some will be shuddering at the thought of allowing a horse to eat a planty thing that has iron in it. Whilst it’s true that most horses aren’t iron deficient this is more likely because they get iron from many other plant sources. Our own track exists in the Kentish Weald where iron production for weapons of war took place during the Medieval times due to the presence of iron ore. This show ups all over the UK and so into planty things that our horses eat – it’s one reason why iron should not normally be supplemented in feed and owners should look out for it on the back of bagged feeds as well. Our last hay analysis saw it have a value of 185 mg/kg against a mean in the UK of some 300 mg/kg and what they considered as a ‘very high’ value of some 500 mg/kg so it’s actually not that bad. That said, of course a good balancer needs to be provided and iron, along with other minerals, should be counted in the round from the whole diet not just from hay. Now, whilst most horses aren’t iron deficient one effect of high sugar levels on gut bacteria is for them to get a liking for iron. Some of those little devils love it. So much so that the horse has to go into ‘iron withholding mode’ in order not to lose too much iron from cells. In this case some dietary iron, in the form of planty things like nettles, may have some benefit for them. Now, please calm yourselves ….

Nettles also make a great fertiliser when added to Comfrey to make a liquid feed for soil or simply used on its own laid out on top of the soil/pasture – they are, after all, an indication of soil health when growing.

Chiron Horse and Charlie aren’t bothered by any of that. They just like the wilted nettles and continue to follow me around waiting for them to lose a bit of their sting so they can eat them. The strimmer needs filling up with petrol again so I’ll leave it there for now. More info on planty things next time – unless you fill up the pages with great features, info and photos instead. You have been warned ! Nettles; great for horses and great for the human herd in a medicinal, nutritive, compostive (I just made that word up !) and culinary way – no, we didn’t touch much on the latter did we but it is …. No Chiron Horse, I can’t scratch your bum right now I need to get some more petrol !!

The next issue of The Barefoot Horse magazine will be out in Jan 2018 and it should contain our article on hawthorn - providing it gets through the editorial process ! Subscribe to get your copy of this great magazine when it comes out ....

Stuart Attwood