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Cordyceps sinensis; Rebuilding & Enhancing the Horse

Lack of energy, breathing problems, poor recovery and stamina, and impaired healing are all symptoms that often plague the equine athlete. Cordyceps sinensis is a long time, well-revered and cherished herb for overall health and vitality.  It is viewed as being a re-builder of health on many levels, supporting energy and recovery in humans.  Considering that the horse is not much different than us, enduring much wear and tear, not to mention ongoing stress upon their system, Cordyceps sinensis could be an extremely beneficial herb that could dramatically impact the horse’s overall recovery, vitality, and even longevity.  Let’s take a look at what Cordyceps could potentially offer your horse.

Cordyceps sinensis in the Horse
Cordyceps sinensis in the Horse

We’ve talked about adaptogen usage in the horse in prior articles, which are specific herbs that are used to counter the stress response and aid in rebuilding the body back to a state of health.  Cordyceps sinensis is one of those adaptogens, being a medicinal mushroom of sorts, although it is not quite classified as a mushroom.  Cordyceps has been a well-revered herb in Traditional Chinese Medicine, often viewed as a ‘cure-all’ of sorts, positively impacting many health conditions.  Given its high level of admiration, combined with difficulty in harvesting and growing, Cordyceps has become quite expensive at times, not to mention hard to find in it’s purest form.

History and Cordyceps 

In September 1993, there was marked controversy involving the National Games in China.  It was noted that in a single week, several women’s world track records were broken, involving some female Chinese athletes.  Of course, the initial thoughts revolved around drug use, doping, or other methods of illegal performance enhancement, but all blood and urine tests on these female athletes were negative.  It was soon revealed that the athlete’s were using a medicinal mushroom by the name of Cordyceps sinensis, which was a part of their daily regimen. (1)

The medicinal wonders of Cordyceps sinensis have been known in China for over a thousand years, being viewed as an herb, a mushroom, which can enhance energy and vitality.  Legend has it that herdsmen in Tibet and Nepal noticed that their animals consumed some strange plant high in the mountains which resulted in increased energy and endurance, despite the high elevations.  Upon further investigation, it was discovered that the animals in the herd were consuming Cordyceps, which soon became a part of the herdsmen’s daily regimens.  In further time, Cordyceps became well revered by the Chinese Emperor, and it became law that all harvested Cordyceps must be turned over to his empire. (1)

In the world of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Cordyceps is highly revered for its ability to impact health, energy, stamina, and vitality.  Cordyceps sinensis (Dong Chong Xia Cao) is viewed as a sweet and warm herb, targeting the lung and kidney.  Going further, Cordyceps is viewed as having these therapeutic actions in Chinese medicine.

  • Tonifies Kidney Yang and Augments Jing
  • Tonifies the Lung, Stops bleeding and Dissolves Phlegm

In Chinese medicine, given the 5-organ system, the kidneys are one of main importance, housing the Yin and the Yang within the body, and aiding in the generation of energy or Qi.  The kidneys are not only involved in urine production and waste removal from the body, but serve as a vital source of overall energy and vitality.

In horses, long-term and intense training and competition can literally drain energy from the body at a core level.  This is also common in horses that are older or aging, or have long-term medical conditions or health problems, including COPD, metabolic conditions, and laminitis.  This ongoing stress and energy drain impacts their kidneys, from a TCM perspective, draining them over time. This kidney drain can impact the Yin or Yang component, the Jing, or sometimes all three.  It is not just a fact of aging in the horse, but also their lifestyle, ongoing stress, diet, and ongoing training which accelerate this process.  As their kidneys are drained of their energy, their bodies then manifest clinical signs such as fatigue, urinary and kidney issues, immune compromise, infections, back pain, weakness, low energy, impaired healing, recovery, and even reduced fertility in mares and stallions.

Given the extreme importance of the kidneys in the realm of Traditional Chinese Medicine, it becomes obvious why ‘tonification’ or support of this organ is so well revered and respected.  Cordyceps sinensis was just one of many herbs used for this purpose, which resulted in improvement in a variety of health complaints and enhanced energy for many people in the past and current.  These same benefits can be transferred to the horse in a variety of situations.

Cordyceps and Research

Cordyceps sinensis is not actually a mushroom by traditional sense, but is produced as a combination of a decaying caterpillar and a fungus.  It is about a symbiotic relationship between the two which then produces the vital substance which is often referred to as the mushroom.

Traditional healers in ancient times viewed Cordyceps as a cure for ‘all-illnesses’, a tonic and supportive agent to help reinvigorate the body.  They claimed it increased energy, appetite, libido, stamina, endurance, and sleeping patterns.  It was consumed daily by both genders to increase sexual energy and desire.  Cordyceps was also used traditionally for many health ailments including diabetes, wasting disease, cancer, bronchitis, asthma, erectile dysfunction, prostate concerns, and liver ailments. (2)

Cordyceps sinensis is viewed as being a primary adaptogen, helping the body to recover from illness and stress, rejuvenating energy and vitality.  This adaptogenic property is what then benefits the body and recovery from illness, helping to restore balance and the original state of health.

In evaluating research, the pharmacological benefits to Cordyceps sinensis appear to revolve around the active polysaccharides, including beta-glucans, nucleosides, cordycepin, and even cyclosporine-like metabolites found within the mushroom.  It has been well researched, demonstrating a range of biological effects on many organ systems within the body, including the immune response, sexual function, performance, and cancer. (2) Cordyceps has also demonstrated marked potential with anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, antioxidant, and anti-microbial properties. (3)

  • Literature indicates that Cordyceps enhances cellular energy in the form of ATP (3)
  • Impacts cardiovascular health by lowering blood pressure, stabilizing abnormal heart rhythms, improving cardiac output/contractility, lower blood thickness or viscosity and impact myocardial infarctions. (3)
  • Demonstrated to have the ability to improve memory impairments and neuroprotection in cases of cerebral ischemia (4)
  • Anti-cancer and anti-metastatic effects via Cordycepin (5)
  • Impacts male reproduction and testosterone production (6)
  • Demonstrates anti-stress and anti-fatigue properties (7)

Cordyceps and the Horse; Usage and Guidelines

So, I’ve presented the history and current day research on Cordyceps sinensis, but likely you still have questions.  In most situations, an owner or veterinarian may read that information and still wonder how Cordyceps is used in the horse, what benefits could be offered, and more so, are there any side effects?  Let’s look at how we use Cordyceps in our rehabilitation facility for horses recovering from a variety of issues.

As a veterinarian and herbalist, I tend to view Cordyceps as having two major functions, which impact a variety of issues in the horse.

  • Enhancer of cellular energy and vitality
  • Enhancer of the immune response

Now, while these two functions may seem somewhat vague, they actually interconnect with a variety of issues in the horse, whether if they are recovering from an ailment, struggling with age-related problems, or the owner is just looking to enhance their overall performance.  Keep in mind here that every cell in the body, from those involved in the immune response to those in the hoof, tendons, or even the lungs, all require cellular energy to be produced.  This then implies an overall need for an enhanced cellular function, which is vital to energy production, but also tissue repair and regeneration, not to mention proper immune function.  It’s all based on energy on a cellular level!

Given the nature of the horse, being very similar to our own being, and subject to body fatigue and drain, Cordyceps can often help us to regenerate and rebuild their body.  Here are situations where I will personally utilize Cordyceps as a part of a greater regimen in the horse.

  1. Immune dysfunction or compromise (EPM, infections, allergies, Lyme)
  2. Lung dysfunction (inflammatory airway disease, COPD)
  3. Generalized fatigue (low energy or depressed nature)
  4. Spontaneous sweating (especially over the lower back/kidney region)
  5. Urinary issues or reproductive problems (mare or stallion)
  6. Ongoing stress with obvious draining on the system/fatigue
  7. Reduced performance times/ low energy
  8. Reduced recovery times
  9. Poor overall healing of wounds or injuries
  10. Chronic injuries coming from competition, racing, or training (tendons, foot ailments)

All of these health situations in the horse revolve around a reduced cellular energy output, which is then impacting cellular function on many levelsCordyceps sinensis can greatly assist us in helping the horse to rebuild and regain function and balance internally.  To give you an idea of energy output, in a small trial with barrel racing Quarter Horses using Cordyceps in combination with another herb called Astragalus membranaceus, run times were reduced dramatically, as were recovery times.  Thus, the Cur-OST EQ Revive formula has become quite popular in the Quarter Horse and Thoroughbred racing industry!

Cordyceps sinensis can offer real benefits to the horse, but as with anything, we have to ask if there is a downside?  Are there side effects?

Cordyceps sinensis is generally a well-tolerated herb both in human research and in our clinical usage with horses.  However, keep in mind that all herbs have ‘energies’ to themselves.  In Traditional Chinese Medicine, Cordyceps sinensis is viewed as a kidney-yang tonic, helping to ‘warm’ the kidneys, generate energy (Qi), support vitality (Jing), and also benefit the lungs.  So, in plain terms, Cordyceps tends to help the kidneys and lungs back to a state of health, increase energy in the body, and also slightly warm the body.  This ‘warmth’ is noted by the ‘yang-tonic’ phrase, as Cordyceps is mildly heating to the horse’s body.

Given this, there are two aspects of Cordyceps which can work against you in helping your horse, if the situation is not right.

Caution should be used in using Cordyceps in higher doses when:

  • Your horse is very high strung, full of energy and hard to handle
  • Your horse is easily over-heated or tends to be rather hot-natured

In most cases of the average horse that is drained due to competition, training, recovering from a long-term illness, or just suffering the wrath of aging, these two conditions are generally not a factor. In all instances of health, your desired goal is to restore balance back to your horse.  Keep in mind that there are both Yin and Yang aspects to health, with Yang being more warm and Yin being cooler in nature.  In most cases, Cordyceps can offer real benefit to the horse, so the ‘side effects’ can be minimized or balanced by reducing grain intake (heating to the body) and increasing the high quality forage, which is green and cooling in nature, being more Yin.  This helps us to restore balance if needed to the Yin-Yang aspect of their recovery.  Most horses with long-term draining are actually cooler by nature and could benefit from the ‘warming’ aspects of Cordyceps.

In the average horse suffering from an ongoing medical condition or failing to properly recovery from an injury, Cordyceps sinensis can be a real life-saver!  Even in those horses that are competing and training, with no apparent problems, Cordyceps sinensis can help to support their overall health, energy and vitality, boosting them to a new level!

Cordyceps Formulas to Benefit Your Horse:


Author:  Tom Schell, D.V.M, CVCH, CHN




  1. Halpern, G.  Healing Mushrooms, Square One Publishers, 2007
  2. Panda A, Swain K.  Traditional Uses and Medicinal Potential of Cordyceps sinensis of Sikkim. J Ayurv Integ Med, 2011, Jan-Mar, Vol 2, Issue 1
  3. Tuli H et al. Pharmacological and Therapeutic Potential of Cordyceps with Special Reference to Cordycepin. 3 Biotech, 2014, 4:1-12
  4. Kim Y et al. Neuroprotective and therapeutic effect Cordyceps militaris on ischemia-induced neuronal death and cognitive impairment. Saudi J Biol Sci. 26 (2019) 1352-57
  5. Nakamura K et al. Anticancer and antimetastatic effects of Cordycepin, an active component of Cordyceps sinensis. J Pharm Sci. 127 (2015) 53-56
  6. Chen Y et al. Functional study of Cordyceps sinensis and Cordycepin in male reproduction; a review. J Food Drug. 25 (2017) 197-205
  7. Koh J et al. Antistress and antifatigue effect of the hot-water fraction from mycelia of Cordyceps sinensis. Biol Pharm Bull. 2003. 26(5) 691-94





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