A Tragic Story with A Happy Ending:
Patterns of Chinese Herbalism and Laboratory Blood Work

by Dr. Joseph Thomas

Printed in: Natural Horse Magazine
Equissentials section
Volume 5, Issue 6

Last summer, my friend Rachel told me about the deaths of three well-loved horses at a therapeutic riding center just north of our farm. She and her family rode there often and had become friends with the center’s director, Patti. One of the horses that died, Ginger, was Rachel’s favorite mount. Patti told Rachel that three of her other horses were also in jeopardy and that the veterinary medicine route was giving her no hope for their survival. Shortly afterwards, Patti called me to see if I could help.

Ribnz - The first horse to dieRibnz - the first horse to die.The story was heartbreaking. Three of Patti’s horses started to act violently, thrashing about, with appearances of being blind, running into fences and other dangerous objects that quite literally cut them up severely. Her vet put them all down and made assumptions about their deaths. The assumptions ranged from encephalitis, hepatitis from moldy corn (Patti never fed her horses corn nor kept feed corn available for any reason) and West Nile virus. This being totally unsatisfactory to Patti she phoned The University of Missouri’s school of veterinary medicine and asked for help. She was able to speak to the chair of the department, who recommended that the three remaining horses have blood tests, specifically to check their GGT (Gamma-glutamyl transferase) levels. He also suggested that Patti examine her property carefully for toxic plants of any kind. The results of the blood test showed elevated GGT levels, indicative of early inflammatory liver disease. Patti found no toxic plants or substances on her land.

Without seeing the horses, the chair of the department made a reasonable assumption that Patti’s horses were suffering from hepatitis. Very little is known about hepatitis in horses. In humans, an elevated GGT is one indicator of hepatitis and may range from 300 into the thousands. The GGT range for Patti’s horses was 84 to 116 (a normal range being 12 to 45), so this was definitely indicative of an acute liver inflammatory disease, if not hepatitis. The liver is a blood filter, first and foremost. An inflammatory condition in the liver, in all likelihood, produces swelling and firmness of the organ dramatically reducing its ability to filter impurities from the blood. Such a condition could account for the death of the first three horses but did not give me enough information to mix herbs for the three remaining horses. In all likelihood there were more parameters involved in the health of these horses than an inflammatory liver disease, as life threatening as that process can be. I needed to know what other organs might be involved and how the horses’ physiological responses were reacting to such a toxic onslaught.

The disease label, such as hepatitis, was really not that critical to me but to mix herbs for Patti’s horses, with any hope of success, more information was needed. I asked Patti to get additional blood work on all three horses, specifically a complete liver profile and a CBC (complete blood count).



In my work, I have found that patterns are better indicators of reality than single events. This idea works for the interpretation of the blood work, as well as mixing the necessary herbal combinations. The sophisticated patterns that result from the careful choice of single herbs, in any herbal blend, should establish the priority of organs to be affected, by the herbs, as well as profile the precise nature of the changes we most want to occur. The particular organ or effect that a single herb addresses is not so important as how the combined single herbs relate to one another in patterns that work in concert to address the health issue needing change. In this situation, for example, it would definitely not be sufficient to give Patti’s horses generic liver herbs and hope that they would make the necessary changes.

Blood Work Profile

The expanded blood work provided me with a good profile of the disease process in Patti’s horses. It was the pattern, comprised of the relevant elements of the blood workup, rather than the emphasis on any single number that gave the most useful information for mixing the herbal solution that would address the health problems of Patti’s horses.

Specific Blood Patterns

There were two patterns that emerged from the blood work that were of great concern. The first was a very severe inflammatory liver disease that was progressing and one that would eventually kill Patti’s remaining horses, if left unchanged.

The second was an aggressive response from the horses’ immune systems in an attempt to deal with the inflammatory liver disease.

Both of these patterns are dangerous. The horses’ immune system response was so overactive that they might not have any reasonable protection from external or internal pathogens, if I treated their livers initially without first supporting their immune systems.

Herbal Combinations

First Herbal Combination

The first herbal combination needed to stabilize the immune system and invigorate the production of red blood cells and the appropriate white blood cell segments, as well as protect the liver, until we could get to the second combination of herbs to treat their livers exclusively.

Patti with her horse ValentinePatti with her lovely horse Valentine and Chris, Patti's husband, with Odie. Valentine and Odie are two of the horses that received Dr. Thomas' herbal program.Herbs communicate with each other in a language that the body understands at an intrinsic level and the body responds appropriately to the messages received. Therefore, the relative proportions of each herb were considered as seriously as the individual herbal elements themselves.

The completed mixture was designed to guide the immune system away from its aggressive response to the liver inflammation yet leave the horses with enough immunity and energy to be able to assist in the recovery of liver function. Incorporated in this blend of herbs were specific instructions to increase the production of red blood cells and white blood cells, which are specific to warding off infections. More than adequate protection of the liver was included in this initial herbal picture, enough protection to begin improving liver function, reducing the inflammation and start lowering the elevated liver enzymes.

For six weeks, Patti gave her horses the first combination of herbs and then did a blood retest. The elements of the blood work that indicated an aggressive immune response were dramatically “backed off.” Patterns involving globulins (fight inflammation) were also reducing and red and white blood cell production was increasing. There was also a decrease in the GGT of all three horses indicating a beginning to the restoration of liver function. The healing process was moving well and it was time to begin the second combination of herbs.

Second Herbal Combination

It was now time to focus on restoring healthy liver function. Hepatitis was suggested by the attending vet for one the first horses that died and hepatitis was also suggested as a possible diagnosis by the chair of the department at the college of veterinary medicine at the University of Missouri . Little is known about hepatitis in horses, but one thing that is known is that it is an inflammatory liver condition that can be fatal. Necrosis, the death of tissue in an organ, is a likely result of liver inflammation of this magnitude, especially with elevated GGT. One way for this necrosis to happen is for blood to be constrained from cells and entire areas of the liver leaving it “hard” and unable to function.

So the second combination of herbs needed to reduce the inflammation, soften the liver, encourage the movement of blood within the organ, nourish the organ, improve liver function and lower liver enzymes.

Skipper having been treated by Dr. ThomasSkipper, the third horse treated by Dr. Thomas' herbal program, doing his very important job at Patti's theraputic riding center.This combination created the herbal pattern necessary to restore the horses’ livers back to healthy function. The liver needed to be softened to take care of the possible and likely necrosis. The combined herbs nourished the blood and encouraged the blood’s movement within the organ. They increased the liver’s ability to function as a blood filter while also fortifying the kidneys. Protection for other organs, e.g. kidneys, stomach, pancreas and lungs, had to be built into this blend since all these organs work in concert with the liver during its healthy functioning, and a reduction in liver function could potentially affect any of these organs as well. And last but not least, elevated liver enzymes needed to be lowered, as they are a direct representation of inflammation and poor liver function.

For two months, Patti gave the second herbal solution to her horses and then did a blood retest. The horses were doing famously according to Patti and the blood work profile was beginning to resemble healthy horses. The aggressive immune response patterns were almost where they should be, the feared GGT and other liver enzymes were well within healthy ranges in two of Patti’s horses and the third was well on her way. Patti decided to end the herbal regimen at this point. More than a year after that catastrophic time when her first three horses died so violently, her three remaining horses are healthy and doing their very valuable work at Patti’s therapeutic riding center. Many wonderful people rallied to Patti’s behalf and donated other horses for her to continue doing her wonderful job.

This summer, a year after this all began I requested more blood work. And I am more than happy to report all is well.


About the Author:

Joseph Thomas, PhD, has been a teacher, consultant, and practitioner of Chinese Medicine for more than twenty years.  Before practicing Chinese Medicine, Joseph was on the research staff of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Psychology and Brain Science. He has devoted his skills and knowledge to the development of sophisticated herbal solutions for horses based on the elegance of Chinese Medicine.