Complementary Therapies for Horses

Perhaps Shakespeare said it best: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." Certainly a significant number of horsepeople are becoming open to the idea that "conventional" veterinary medicine might not be the only way of dealing with the complex health issues of today's equine athletes. Alternative therapies, such as homeopathy, chiropractic, acupuncture, and herbal treatments, have been generating phenomenal interest in recent years, and many people believe these modalities might provide an adjunct to veterinary medicine, as well as provide help for conditions which the veterinary community has had little or no success.

One of the problems with alternative approaches to horse health is the fact that they are less regulated than veterinary medicine. While techniques such as chiropractic and acupuncture have certification courses and professional associations, there are many active practitioners in these fields who have no professional qualifications--and some of these modalities are so new (at least to the Western world) that there are no recognized governing bodies or courses available. It can be very difficult to separate the hocus pocus from what might be legitimate therapy.

In an effort to help horse owners sort through the hype, the University of Guelph's Equine Research Centre (in Guelph, Ontario, Canada) recently hosted a two-day seminar on Complementary Therapies for Horses and invited speakers who are certified practitioners and leaders in their fields to illuminate some of the important points of five different modalities.

Kelly Counsel, communications coordinator for the ERC, said she first came up with the idea of the seminar almost two years ago. "I'd noticed that there was a growing interest (in alternative medicine) in the horse industry, and I felt there was a need for reliable information. It took me a little while to sell (ERC Director) Andrew Clarke on the idea, as it's a little off the scientific beaten path! But he could also see the demand, among equine practitioners as well as horse owners.

"I spent a lot of time searching for speakers who were, first of all, practicing veterinarians, and who were both using these therapies and could knowledgeably discuss them. I think we managed to present a really good cross-section of some of the more prevalent modalities out there."

Madalyn Ward, DVM, of Austin, Texas, began the seminar on complementary therapies with an overview of the principles of holistic horse care, a school of thought which emphasizes the "wellness" of the whole horse--physical, emotional, and mental. Coming from a "traditional" veterinary education, she explained that about six years ago, she became dissatisfied with the results that her methods of treating illness and lameness were producing.

"I was looking for other options," she said. "I'd medicate and shift the symptoms around, but I was seeing a lot of chronic problems that kept coming back. I wanted to see healthy horses, and I wasn't seeing that."

This feeling prompted a major shift in her focus.

"It's not that we don't need conventional therapies," she emphasized, "but we're missing the boat, I think, by suppressing symptoms with conventional drugs. When I first came out of school, I was very high on applying everything I'd learned--all the latest therapies and diagnostics. But as I started to change my thinking, I approached my clients and asked if they would be willing to let me experiment with some alternatives. Now, I rarely use medications, and the horses are happier and are performing better. Sometimes we get to thinking too scientifically and miss what's right in front of us.

"Alternative therapies are not just a replacement for drugs," Ward said. "They're a whole different way of thinking."

One of the alternatives Ward has explored is acupuncture, a Chinese system of medicine with a history going back more than 3,000 years. Certified by the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society, she finds that acupuncture techniques have many applications.

Research has demonstrated that there is a measurable effect from the stimulation of acupuncture points, which are aligned along 14 energy meridians throughout the body. The focus is on bringing all of the horse's systems into balance. Ward notes that not only does acupuncture stimulate the release of endorphins, it can also "decrease muscle spasms and increase blood cortisol levels and white blood cell populations." The real structure of an acupuncture point, Ward said, is a small, dense collection of arterioles and venules, fine nerve endings, and mast cells, which have decreased electrical resistance. She likens it to a "breaker" in an electrical system, or in some cases, a dimmer switch.

When treating horses with acupuncture, Ward said she generally sees significant improvement in one to four sessions, and noted that most horses really enjoy the process.

"It's not a quick fix," she stressed. "You must be patient to see the results. But acupuncture is a great fit along with chiropractic, and it can be safely used in conjunction with traditional medicines."

Chiropractic was the subject of Huntington, N.Y., practitioner Sue Ann Lesser, DVM, CAC, who provided some common sense analysis of back problems in the horse.

"The horse, saddle, and rider," she said, "are analogous to a stifle joint. The rider represents the femur, the saddle the patella (kneecap), and the horse the tibia. If any one of the three bones fails to move in concert with the other two, then over time, the whole joint fails to function. Bad riding, or a poorly fitting saddle, can subluxate the horse's vertebrae, which pinches nerves and creates muscle atrophy or spasm. In the long run, it can also affect organ function and overall mobility."

Contrary to conventional wisdom that the horse's spine has little or no capacity to move, Lesser said it very definitely moves both laterally and dorsally-ventrally, as is easily demonstrated by a rodeo bucking horse or Grand Prix jumper. She noted that when a horse's vertebral mobility is compromised, the result is limited limb mobility, soreness, and frequently "attitude."

Chiropractic adjustment restores mobility to the joints, allowing the horse to move more freely. To counter the argument that humans should be incapable of shifting joints in an animal as large as a horse, Lesser holds up an equine spinal process and asserts that of a horse's 250 joints, none are bigger than a human hand. So, the correct amount of force, applied with the knowledge behind it, can definitely achieve adjustment.

Some of the problems Lesser has observed in her practice includes saddles that are too far forward and pinch the shoulder muscles, saddle gullets that are too narrow and pinch the spine, and what she calls "crooked butt disease." The latter is diagnosed if, when viewed from behind, the horse appears to have one hip higher than the other. Such a horse will also typically "pop" the shoulder opposite to the higher hip on turns, and eventually, his saddle might twist and poke him in the scapula on the hip-high side. The sciatic nerve is pinched in a hip-high horse, and he will usually be restless, shifting from hind foot to hind foot to try and relieve the soreness, and might have a tendency to kick. A patch of hair on the haunch that doesn't lie down, often chalked up to "he slept on it that way," might be a symptom of a pinched nerve somewhere else, said Lesser.

Nancy Spencer, CFI, an equine kinesiology practitioner from Virginia, added some very practical information on equine flexibility and suppleness to the seminar by discussing stretching exercises owners can do with their horses. She pointed out that fitness in a performance horse is as dependent on flexibility and freedom of movement as it is on cardiovascular conditioning, and that poor flexibility is responsible for nearly 80% of soft tissue injuries that occur during activity. Passive stretching, in which the handler helps the horse stretch various muscles, can increase blood flow to muscles and both guard against injuries and serve as a valuable rehabilitative technique for horses recovering from injury or illness. While the idea of a human "stretching" a 1,000-pound horse might sound formidable, Spencer has developed techniques that are not only safe for the handler, but also easy enough for any owner to learn.

Two of the more mystical modalities covered in the Complementary Therapies seminar were homeopathy, discussed by Madalyn Ward, and Chinese herbology, presented by Cindy Lankenau, DVM, who practices in New York state. Both are based on the use of herbs and natural products as remedies, but their applications are vastly different. Lankenau emphasized the extensive knowledge needed by a practitioner in order to safely prescribe Chinese herbs. Ward described the basic homeopathic remedies as having a wide safety margin and no side effects, making them ideal for a horse owner's first-aid kit.

Homeopathy originated about 200 years ago with experimental physician Samuel Hahnemann, who theorized that "like treats like." In other words, the symptoms of a condition could be best treated with a substance that would produce those same symptoms. The active substances used in homeopathy are sometimes toxic (poison ivy and arsenic are two common remedies), but they are diluted to the point where toxic effects are impossible--in fact, they are generally diluted to the point where there is no detectable molecule of the active substance left in the solution! The more dilute the solution, the more potent the remedy; this is based on the idea that the water molecules retain a "memory" of the active substance. Despite the fact that no one has been able to prove or disprove the theory behind homeopathy, it is well accepted in many parts of the world.

"Homeopathy is 'energy medicine,' " said Ward. "It doesn't do well in the laboratory. All you can measure is anecdotal results."

Homeopathic prescriptions are based on matching individual symptoms to individual remedies. Generally, a remedy is dropped onto a small sugar globule, which can be taken orally. For horses, Ward dissolves four or five sugar pellets in a 12cc syringe of distilled or spring water and squirts it into the horse's mouth; it can be absorbed by the mucous membranes and does not need to be swallowed. Common applications of homeopathic remedies include colic, anaphylactic (allergic) responses, inflammation, and even panic responses or anxiety.

Chinese herbology, on the other hand, is a complex form of medicine that can do considerable harm in the wrong hands, and considerable good in the right ones. Cindy Lankenau reported one of the few veterinary practitioners in the United States who is well-versed in the use of these herbs, cautioned that before you can understand the applications of Chinese herbs, you must understand the Eastern philosophy behind their use--a process that can take decades.

"You must start with a mental leap," she said, "that the body has an internal energy system, and that you can manipulate it. Chinese herbology is based on balancing that Qi (energy), and not on treating individual symptoms as Western medicine tends to do."

Diagnosing a condition (or "disharmony") is an involved process of evaluation based on the Eight Principles: first, an animal must be described as more yin or more yang (although it will always have elements of both); then the disease or individual will be determined to have characteristics that are cold or hot; third, the disease must be described as internal or external; and finally, the problem will be defined as being due to an excess or deficiency.

The aim of prescribing herbs is to rebalance the system by using plants whose effects counter the pattern of disease. Generally, herbal mixtures are prescribed, for it is rare that one herb will have all the qualities required. The interaction of the herbs is also an important element of prescribing.

According to Counsel, the Equine Research Centre is currently working toward making a network of resources on alternative therapies available for veterinarians and horse owners around the world.

About the Author

Karen Briggs

Karen Briggs is the author of six books, including the recently updated Understanding Equine Nutrition as well as Understanding The Pony, both published by Eclipse Press. She's written a few thousand articles on subjects ranging from guttural pouch infections to how to compost your manure. She is also a Canadian certified riding coach, an equine nutritionist, and works in media relations for the harness racing industry. She lives with her band of off-the-track Thoroughbreds on a farm near Guelph, Ontario, and dabbles in eventing.

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