Holistic practitioners say that while therapies like chiropractic and acupuncture are still largely misunderstood in the veterinary community, they are gaining popularity with a growing number of horse owners who are looking for options beyond Western medicine.
“Acupuncture and chiropractic are excellent, particularly in performance problems with horses,” said Joyce Harman, DVM, MRCVS, owner of Harmany Equine Clinic Ltd. in Flint Hill, Va.
Many performance issues that horse owners present to Dr. Harman are nondescript. Owners typically come to her for the horse “not being quite right, not being quite sound,” she said.
An overtly lame horse may need conventional medical intervention, but it’s the subtle lameness problems that originate in the back, spine or soft tissue that Harman said are great candidates for chiropractic or acupuncture.
For example, a horse may appear stiffer when turning in one direction than another; might not pick up leads properly, or it won’t swap leads out, or it can’t maintain a lead; it might not be good at coming out of the starting gate; it doesn’t travel straight; it has a bad attitude.
All those issues could stem from the same problem.
“The underlying issue is pain,” Harman said. “The question is, ‘What is the origin of that pain?’”
Western practitioners may treat the pain by masking it with painkillers, but alleviating the source of the pain is needed to achieve long-term revitalization, Harman said, and that is when chiropractic or acupuncture, or both, can be the therapy of choice.
“They may actually respond better to acupuncture and chiropractic than to conventional therapy,” Harman said.
Harman recently worked with a warm-blooded foal training to be a jumping horse.
A farm manager saw the horse trip into an accidental flip. The 6-month-old evidently caught its feet, somersaulted and landed against a fence post.
Afterward, the foal was staggering. A veterinarian was called in and diagnosed the foal as having a fracture in its head bones. The veterinarian administered anti-inflammatory medicine as well as corticosteroids immediately post-trauma, Harman said.
But the foal continued to walk around with its head tilted, and the owner began to fear that it was no longer capable of being a performance horse, Harman said.
“From a Western perspective, they gave the foal a reasonable chance of being a pleasure horse,” she said.
Then Harman was called out. Because she didn’t know if there were fractures in the neck, she proceeded cautiously.
“I just did very, very gentle chiropractic,” she said, adding that goal was to loosen up muscles, tendons and ligaments.
“The change in the foal was very dramatic in the next week,” Harman said. “A lot of the head tilt went away.”
It was later confirmed that the horse had a crack in the C5 vertebrae, but it was not displaced, so Harman again worked on the horse gently.
“It basically had normal motion, with the foal volunteering to stretch its neck around when I finished,” she said.
She also performed acupuncture to eliminate muscle spasms.
“My prognosis for this horse is a full return to performance,” Harman said. “There’s no reason this horse will have any restriction long-term in its ability to perform.”
Without chiropractic, she said, the majority of the head tilt may have subsided when the skull fracture healed, but there would still have been stiffness that would have severely limited her ability to be a good jumper.
“Her coordination has come back 100 percent,” she added.
Ed Boldt, DVM, owner of Performance Horse Complementary Medicine Services of Fort Collins, Colo., said it’s not uncommon for him to be consulted as something of a last resort.
“Often we are asked to look at a horse when other therapies have not been fully successful,” said Dr. Boldt, who primarily treats performance horses. “At least in my practice it’s some form of poor performance. This can be anything from the horse not necessarily being lame, but just not moving as it should – not taking a lead well, not going around a barrel well, not stopping as it should.
“In some situations, I’m asked to look at a horse when the routine veterinarian may have a question about where the issue may be – in other words, they may feel that the issue could be the hock, stifle or back, and they want my opinion based on an acupuncture-chiropractic exam.”
Boldt also sees horses as a preventive measure.
“The owner or trainer will have me go over the horse to make sure it isn’t developing an issue,” he said.
Like Harman, Boldt often uses chiropractic and acupuncture together.
“I find that the two modalities work best in conjunction with each other,” Boldt said. “However, I go over the whole horse during my exam and then decide what is best for the horse.”
Whether considering chiropractic or acupuncture, or both, whatever you do, just don’t call it “alternative,” Boldt said.
“One of the things I most detest is the use of the word ‘alternative’ in reference to these therapies,” Boldt said.
He prefers “complementary medicine.”
“It should be looked upon as adjunct therapies, not alternative,” he said. “In my view, if a horse needs a joint injection, fine. Do it and then we can use acupuncture-chiropractic to help the horse with any residual issues.”
Harman said a simple way to look at the modalities is to envision a joint that has a chip in it, and the pain is localized to the chip. Then you have a specific location of pain, which can perceived from a Western standpoint.
“We can X-ray it, we can localize it, we can surgically remove it, we can inject it, whatever,” Harman said.
Less exact in location are muscle spasms in soft tissue surrounding that joint, microtears in the tissue, tension in the joint capsules or any of the soft tissues that surround the joint.
“The types of pain that respond best to chiropractic or acupuncture therapy are often much smaller, harder-to-define sources of pain,” Harman said.
She may find an area, for example in the neck, and ask the horse to bend left and the horse has no problem, but it cannot perform a normal range in the other direction, she said.
“You can palpate that neck all day long and you may not find a localized single spot,” Harman said. “And if you did, and you inject it or block it or whatever, you actually would not be restoring motion to that area or you would not be removing pain because the pain is result of the loss of motion of the joint.”
Some practitioners use acupuncture as a stand-alone therapy.
Rhonda A. Rathgeber, Ph.D., DVM, with Hagyard Equine Medical Institute in Lexington, Ky., uses only acupuncture, which she describes as a highly flexible therapy.
“Acupuncture can be used for any condition that you would call your regular veterinarian for,” Dr. Rathgeber said.
While it’s most commonly used for lameness and back soreness, acupuncture can be used for medical cases as well, she said.
Rathgeber’s list of treated ailments is extensive: diarrhea; ileus; colic; eye issues; nerve paralysis; performance issues; bleeders; heaves; laryngeal hemiplegia; reproductive infertility in both stallions and mares; emergency resuscitation and behavioral cases.
One success she recalled was a reproduction problem in which a mare would go into renal failure whenever she was pregnant.
“We treated her throughout her pregnancy and got a beautiful live foal,” she said. “There are other mares that have not been able to get in foal or carry a foal to term that have responded favorably to acupuncture. I have also treated severe cases of stringhalt with acupuncture when they were not responsive to any other treatment.”
“Acupuncture is looking at the horse from Chinese medical paradigm,” Harman said, a balance in the flow of qi or energy.
“In a simple way, this is just like another set of electrical pathways, the central nervous system,” Harman said.
When there are imbalances, they can manifest as pain.
For example, musculoskeletal pain is often treated with acupuncture, she said, and if musculoskeletal pain is looked at from a Chinese medicine perspective, it is considered a lack of flow of energy, or qi.
The same horse can be looked at with a thermography machine and a lack of blood flow, or a lack of healthy nerve function—referred to as reflex sympathetic dystrophy, in which the nerve pathways are not firing normally—can be detected, she said.
Acupuncture can be used to treat behavior or performance problems, she said.
“Many performance problems in a horse are really related to pain,” Harman said, echoing her early statements.
“The horse would be willing to do it if he could. With acupuncture we are often treating behavior problems, but really what we are treating is pain and pain is coming from this lack of energy flow, lack of blood flow, muscle spasms, pain, bad fitting saddles, bad riding—a lot factors that all contribute to what the client is saying is a behavior problem.”