Based on a study conducted by the Equine Research Centre (ERC) in Canada, echinacea has positive benefits for horses, writes Karen Briggs in the September edition of The Horse
. A common ornamental garden plant also known as the purple coneflower, echinacea is a popular ingredient in equine supplements.
The study used an echinacea preparation called Echi-Fend, manufactured by Quinte Botanicals, and looked at its effects on eight horses. Each horse ingested 30 milliliters of Echi-Fend twice a day for 42 days and an inactive placebo for another 42 days. Blood samples were drawn every seven days and subjected to complete hematology and biochemistry screens as well as a phagocytic function test.
Hematology characterized the effect of echinacea on the red blood cells (which transport oxygen throughout the body) and white blood cells (which are largely responsible for immune function). The biochemistry screens were used in identifying any other effects the treatment might have. The phagocytic function test quantified the ability of isolated neutrophils (a type of white blood cell) to consume foreign particles (in this case, the researchers used yeast).
The study revealed that the horses, while on Echi-Fend, showed a significant increase in the size and the number of circulating red blood cells, as well as an increase in the level of hemoglobin (the molecule that transports oxygen to the cells). The improvement in blood quality was most noticeable from the 28-day mark on. This hematinic effect is something no other studies--whether performed on horses or humans--have so far investigated. It might have particular significance for performance horses.
In addition, Echi-Fend was shown to increase the number of lymphocytes in the blood. These immune cells are involved in recognizing and attacking pathogens, so an increase in their populations might improve the horse's defenses against microscopic invaders to which the horse has had previous exposure. This response is similar to one previously observed in lab mice.
Along with the increase in lymphocytes, the ERC researchers noted a significant decrease in the levels of circulating neutrophils in the blood. Although that sounds negative, in fact it reflects increased recruitment of these immune cells out of the blood and into tissues, where they are primed to target opportunistic infections. Neutrophils isolated from the blood of horses on Echi-Fend also were shown to consume more yeast particles than those taken from horses while they were receiving the placebo, indicating that the neutrophils have an increased ability to defend the body against pathogens.
Demonstrating that echinacea acts as an immuno-stimulant and a hematinic agent in horses, the results provide a unique scientific rationale for feeding this popular herb as a supplement to both improved immune function and overall blood quality.