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Alternative Therapies for Horses

Learn how to make the most of chiropractic, acupuncture, and massage therapy in your horse's management plan.

In the March Gallop Poll we asked which alternative therapies you've tried with your horses. To learn more about those alternative therapies for horses, look through the December 2011 article, "Alternative Therapies, 7 Steps to Success," here.

The horse, an accident victim, was barely able to stand in his paddock, and when we asked him to move, he'd bear no weight on the leg at all. He was sweating, with a heart rate of 100, meaning his pain was severe and unrelenting. Even worse, the accident had happened seven days ago, and instead of calling a veterinarian, the owners had opted to call a local "chiropractor" who'd performed an adjustment and recommended four grams of bute a day for the following week until the horse could be seen again. The adjuster owned a gas station in town, and had learned to "crack backs" from his next-door neighbor.

Sadly, the adjustment did nothing for the fractured tibia seen on radiographs, and even if it could've been repaired, it was too late by the time the owners finally decided to call their vet. The horse was also in severe kidney failure, most likely due to toxic doses of bute.

This is a frightening example of an alternative-therapy choice gone bad, and similar episodes happen way too frequently. Yet acupuncture, chiropractic, and equine massage therapy can be valuable parts of your horse's management plan when used appropriately by a qualified practitioner. In our practice, we work closely with a variety of therapists who help us manage chronic back pain in hard-working performance horses, keep our older horses comfortable in their retirement, or provide relief from compensatory pain following a severe injury.


The key is knowing when to use these modalities, and who to call for help.

I'll outline seven key steps to follow that'll help you make the most of alternative therapies in your horse's management plan. I'll also explain basic information on acupuncture, chiropractic, and massage, outlining what they are, when to use them, and how to choose a qualified practitioner who'll help your horse and do no harm.

7 Steps for Success

Step 1: Diagnose
First and foremost, if your horse has a musculoskeletal problem, you'll be most successful getting him back to work if you know what's wrong—and more often than not this should begin with your veterinarian, who can do a lameness work-up in pursuit of a specific diagnosis.

Why is this so important? Because an injury like a torn suspensory ligament or broken bone is generally best identified and managed using conventional medical treatments. And in some cases, such as a neck or pelvic fracture, it's downright dangerous for a horse to have certain manipulations performed.

Does that mean alternative therapies should be avoided altogether in these cases? Absolutely not. They can be extremely valuable for pain management and to address compensatory issues. In some cases, they can even contribute to the healing process. It just means they should be applied with care-which requires an accurate diagnosis from the start.

Step 2: Choose Wisely
A key element to success is to choose your practitioner carefully. A properly trained chiropractor, acupuncturist, or body worker will refer you to your veterinarian when it's appropriate, and won't apply therapy until an underlying problem is diagnosed and treated. Begin by seeking a practitioner who's certified, ideally through one of the organizations listed later in this article.

These organizations all boast rigorous education and testing procedures, meaning a practitioner with one of these certifications is guaranteed to have received a certain amount of training and to have demonstrated a level of knowledge and competence with which you can feel comfortable. If your therapist claims to be "certified" but not through one of the organizations listed, ask questions before you allow him or her to work on your horse.

A wide variety of training programs exist, and some programs are better than others. Many issue their own "certificates" when the course is completed, but a piece of paper doesn't necessarily equal valid certification.

If this is what you discover, ask some specific questions about the amount of training your chosen therapist has really had. Be aware of a non-veterinarian therapist who recommends prescription medications without consulting with your vet. This can often be a red flag that the therapist is unclear about where the boundary between him or her and the veterinarian should lie—which could not only mean trouble if medications are misused, but also raises a concern about whether he or she will appropriately involve the veterinarian for other aspects of your horse's care.

Step 3: Involve Your Vet
Your veterinarian should remain an important part of your horse's management plan—even when you turn to alternative therapies that are outside his or her direct expertise. In fact, your vet usually will be familiar with most or all of the individuals offering alternative therapies in your area, and can probably direct you to the most competent person who's most likely to help your horse.

In our practice, we have close working relationships with a number of alter- native therapists in our area. We chose to develop these relationships because the individuals are well trained, know when it's not safe or appropriate to work on a horse with a specific problem, and maintain open channels of communication regarding horses in our care.

The result? When we all work as a team rather than as solo artists, your horse is more likely to get better.

Step 4: Be Prepared
Once you've decided on a therapy and selected a qualified practitioner, it's important to be prepared for your appointment. The therapist is likely to request a full medical history, including information from your veterinarian about chronic conditions or recent treatments. He or she generally will perform some kind of exam on your horse, and decide on a treatment plan according to his condition.

If the therapist detects any type of lameness, heat, or swelling on the body, or sign of a systemic illness, chances are he or she will recommend your horse be seen by your regular veterinarian prior to administering treatment. Don't be frustrated if this happens. Instead, see it as a good sign that the person you've selected is conscientious and well trained.

As with any visit for medical care, make sure your horse is in the barn, clean and dry, and ready for your appointment. Also have any medication information or other medical history at your fingertips.

Step 5: Tell the Truth
Have you ever paused when filling out that medical history form, wondering whether that nighttime glass of wine really qualifies as "drinks alcohol"? Yes…it does. And if you don't answer truthfully, it could have a significant impact on your health care.

The same holds true for your horse. If your acupuncturist, chiropractor, or massage therapist asks you about the type and intensity of work your horse does, about previous lameness or medical problems, or even whether you were able to follow suggestions for after-care, it's important to be accurate with your answers. Not only will it help your therapist devise the best treatment plan, it'll also let him or her know whether treatments are being effective.

After all, if your massage therapist recommends a specific stretching exercise for your horse and you don't do it... it's hard to know whether the treatment plan is working.

Posted in Alternative Therapies, Health, Horse Care, How To, Online Extra, Resources, Treat, Western | | Leave a comment

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