Selecting an Alternative Practitioner

We give you an overview of the non-conventional treatments you're most likely to encounter in your horse's life, along with experts' viewpoints and resources for obtaining more information about chiropractic, acupuncture, herbal remedies, and other "complementary" therapies, in Alternative Therapies: Quality Or Quackery. We hope you'll use the information to make informed decisions about what treatments your horse receives--decisions that prove to be both medically and economically sound.

After you make those decisions, your duty as a responsible horse owner isn't over. Let's say you decide to give an alternative therapy a try. How do you find a competent practitioner? Equine publications are filled with advertisements from all manner of therapists. Some are experienced, trustworthy professionals; others have little or no training. We know which ones you'd rather have work on your horse, so we'll give you some tips for finding the qualified people and avoiding the seat-of-the-pants practitioners. We'll also tell you how to assess your practitioner's technique, and what actions should serve as red flags that he or she might be harming your horse.

Find A Card-Carrying Professional

An alternative therapy practitioner also should be a licensed veterinarian or work under a veterinarian's supervision. The various national professional associations (see Associations for Alternative Veterinary Medicine on page 44) offer comprehensive veterinary training courses in acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy, and even Chinese herbal medicine. DVMs who complete courses successfully are listed on the associations' membership rosters, says well-known holistic practitioner Joyce Harman, DVM, MRCVS, of Washington, Va. Three areas of alternative therapy--equine massage therapy, herbal medicine, and nutraceuticals--don't have corresponding veterinary certification programs. Comprehensive, non-veterinary courses are available for massage therapists, and many of the best herbalists and nutraceuticals experts are employed by the manufacturing companies, she adds. Harman advises asking the practitioner about his or her certification and training. Beware the therapist whose "training" amounts to a weekend or a week-long course. "About 500 hours of training is ideal for a massage therapist, with at least some of that time spent in equine-specific courses," she says.

But even veterinarians who enroll in the professional level courses might receive only 120 to 150 hours of training on top of their four or more years in veterinary school, says Kevin Haussler, DVM, DC, PhD, of Cornell University.

The state in which you live might affect who's able to work on your horse, points out Haussler. In his state of New York, for example, the law states that only veterinarians and veterinary technicians may treat horses. Haussler, a human chiropractor with extensive training in the field, would be unable to adjust horses if he weren't also a licensed veterinarian. In California, non-vets are permitted to work on horses, but only under a veterinarian's supervision, Haussler says.

Unlicensed practitioners are likely to promote their services through testimonials and self-published literature rather than as a complement to their professional certification, says David Ramey, DVM, author of Consumer's Guide to Alternative Therapies in the Horse. A provider's own testimonials are inherently suspect, he says--especially if that provider offers only a single form of therapy. Brochures and other literature probably are biased, unlike results of scientific studies published in respected, peer-reviewed veterinary journals.

Most alternative therapy practitioners are honest, well-meaning people who have your horse's best interests at heart. Thankfully, in the horse world there appears to be only a few "quacks;" the self-promoting types who knowingly sell you a useless or potentially harmful product or service. However, an improperly or insufficiently trained practitioner can produce the same unwanted results, no matter how good his or her intentions. Check any practitioner's credentials thoroughly, and don't hesitate to ask questions and to make sure all claims of association membership and training are legitimate.

The Responsible Practitioner

If your alternative therapy practitioner recommends continuing regular treatment "for maintenance," and especially if you fail to see evidence that the treatments are effective, hang on to your pocketbook. "My rule of thumb for hands-on medicine, such as acupuncture and chiropractic, is that you should see a response after about four treatments," says Harman. "You should evaluate your horse's progress at that time; if you see no improvement in his condition, it may be time for you to go elsewhere."

Haussler allows a bit more leeway: two to six treatments as a "therapeutic trial," with evaluation and follow-up at the conclusion of the trial.

Our experts advise steering clear of any practitioner whose methods involve manhandling your horse or appear to make your horse upset or resistant. Harman and Haussler both have horror stories of ignorant "equine chiropractors" who "adjust" horses by tethering them to tractors, bashing their vertebrae with two-by-fours, or "cranking" their necks. "A good chiropractor always begins by giving the horse a thorough exam," says Harman, herself a certified equine chiropractor. "Then, using the hand alone or a small instrument called an activator, I'll give a short, sharp thrust over the vertebra. I may stand on a hay bale so that I don't strain myself as I work on the horse's back, but I don't use any other devices or props.

"Trust your instincts," Harman continues. "Your horse should relax as he's worked on. He may flinch a little if I touch a sore spot, but he shouldn't get increasingly spooky or tense. Those are signs that he might be getting hurt."

Another red flag: the practitioner who says one form of therapy can cure all ills. Acupuncture and chiropractic might be effective in cases of persistent lameness, back soreness, and other performance-related problems, but they will not necessarily cure, says Harman.

You're responsible for your horse's health and well-being. Do your research before you hire an alternative practitioner to treat him.

Associations For Alternative Veterinary Medicine

Before you hire an alternative therapy practitioner to treat your horse, make sure that person holds certification from the appropriate national association. Members of the following organizations have undergone extensive training in their field of specialty and have demonstrated that they can use their methods safely and competently. Avoid any practitioner whose training consists of little more than a weekend course.

Academy of Veterinary Homeopathy
751 NE 168th St., North Miami, FL 33162-2427
Phone: 305/652-1590; fax 305/653-7244

American Academy of Veterinary Acupuncture
P.O. Box 419, Hygiene, CO 80533-0419
Phone: 303/772-6726

American Veterinary Chiropractic Association
623 Main, Hillsdale, IL 61257
Phone: 309/658-2920; fax 309/658-2622

International Veterinary Acupuncture Society
P.O. Box 1478, Longmont, CO 80502
Phone: 303/682-1167; fax 303/682-1168

About the Author

Jennifer O. Bryant

Jennifer O. Bryant is editor-at-large of the U.S. Dressage Federation's magazine, USDF Connection. An independent writer and editor, Bryant contributes to many equestrian publications, has edited numerous books, and authored Olympic Equestrian. More information about Jennifer can be found on her site,

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