Dr. Judith Shoemaker has a veterinary medicine practice in Nottingham, Pa., and uses conventional and alternative medicines. She treats horses of all breeds and disciplines and is a regular consultant to many top competitors in the United States and abroad.
A 1980 graduate of the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Shoemaker has taught anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary College and has advanced training in large and small animal orthopedic osteology and internal fixation surgical techniques from Ohio State University and ASIF/AO and in animal reproduction from Colorado State University.
Beginning in 1985, Dr. Shoemaker received private instruction in chiropractic and then further training in 1989 from the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association at the time of the organization’s inception. She is certified by the AVCA, was a charter member of its board and is an instructor in its Diplomate Program.
Dr. Shoemaker is also a certified acupuncturist from the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society and has served as an instructor for that organization.
Horse Journal: Many people scoff at the idea of a chiropractor. Why'
Dr. Judith Shoemaker: The history is highly political. The conventional medicine world has scoffed at chiropractic practices for years. It was a policy of the American Medical Association for many decades that if a doctor even associated socially with a chiropractor he could lose his license. Chiropractic was highly threatening to the conventional medicine community, a reaction nurtured in many ways by the original founders of chiropractic. The founders were quite fanatical and made a big deal out of certain philosophical differences.
HJ: Do you think an equine chiropractor should also be a vet'
JS: I think that you have to think about it very, very carefully. Realize that a chiropractor is somebody who has been trained from the get-go both in philosophy and technique. He also practices on a daily basis these techniques. These are specific psychomotor skills that you don’t do every three weeks and be good at.
It is ridiculous to think that just because a person is touching an animal that he or she has to be a veterinarian. This is a territorial thing that veterinarians are really crazy about. But, no I don’t think it is necessary that an equine chiropractor should also be a vet.
I do think, however, that there has to be interaction between professionals. I think that a chiropractor needs to work in conjunction with a veterinarian. Chiropractors are not trained as entry-level health-care professionals for animals, but they certainly can be an appropriate addition to your horse’s care.
HJ: How many chiropractors (for humans) who have been to chiropractic school are now practicing equine chiropractic medicine specifically'
JS: The American Veterinary Chiropractic Association (AVCA) course has been offered since 1989, and it has usually been composed of 50/50 veterinarians to chiropractors, waxing and waning here and there. We used to see more chiropractors, now we are seeing more veterinarians.
HJ: How many people are out there performing chiropractic adjustments who have not been either to vet school or to a chiropractic college'
JS: Far too many. That is a difficulty. It is so important for consumers to be aware that there are training programs available. There is a course offered by the AVCA that provides a basic standard, and anyone who has taken that course is not going to hurt your horse. AVCA certification is a really important thing.
HJ: Do you have to be either a vet or a chiropractor to take that course'
HJ: Is it necessary to always obtain a medical diagnosis prior to consulting a chiropractor'
JS: AVCA chiropractors are encouraged to work in conjunction with veterinarians. Many times, however, a client will ask the chiropractor to work on an animal, and the chiropractor will say, “We will get started, but I need to work in conjunction with your veterinarian.” Many state laws, such as one in New Jersey, specify that a chiropractor can work with a client, but the chiropractor is beholden to contact the regular veterinarian and the veterinarian is beholden to the chiropractor to provide him with medical records.
HJ: How do we know that we have found a good chiropractor'
JS: I would certainly look for an AVCA certification. That to me is a prerequisite to know that you are going to have relatively safe work done. Certainly recommendations of other people and anecdotes of success stories are important, too. Results are the bottom line here. But be sure to corroborate any success reports.
Don’t use someone who has nasty violent techniques. The major thing for people to realize is that good chiropractic does not look like a whole lot. It isn’t wrapping a horse around and putting his nose to his tail and slamming him against the wall.
You do not adjust the spine with an extremity. You can’t crank a horse’s hind leg up over his head or twist it in a position that is not normal to the limb and adjust the spine. If you see anybody doing this kind of thing, then you should say, “Thank you very much, I’ll pass.”
Animals should like it. If an animal gets quite unhappy with a chiropractic adjustment or it bothers you to watch it, then it is probably bothering the horse. Sure, I have done chiropractic adjustments in which I tell the horse that it is going to hurt so just relax and breathe into it and BANG! there it is. And even if I don’t get it on the first thrust, usually the horse will relax and will let me do it again. If a horse doesn’t relax, somebody is doing something wrong.
HJ: How can the vertebra be moved in that much muscle mass'
JS: The definition of a chiropractic adjustment is an extremely high acceleration thrust directed specifically and accurately along the line of correction that is through the plane of movement of the joint. When applied with high acceleration, muscles behave as a liquid. Why do you have hydraulic fluid in your brake lines' To transfer pressure. When a chiropractic adjustment is done in a high-enough acceleration, you do effect a specific movement along those joint planes, and in addition to the movement that is effected you have a neurological reaction.
HJ: Does this mean that a chiropractor who is not properly skilled can actually hurt a horse'
JS: Absolutely. Bad chiropractic can hurt an animal. So can bad massage therapy. The major thing is that, if it is not uncomfortable to watch, if you are being open-minded about it. The animal does seem to relax and figure it out, which he does usually after the first adjustment, with how much better it feels. After that first adjustment, and often even during the first session, they become highly cooperative. They try to help you so much.
HJ: But why is it that once a chiropractor adjusts a horse, additional adjustments are often necessary'
JS: Because he has two things going on: a subluxation and compensations. The definition of subluxation in chiropractic is not the same as what we think of in conventional medicine. In conventional medicine it means that we have taken the joint past the anatomic limit and have stretched the ligaments and we have done damage and the joint is out of place.
A chiropractic subluxation has to do with the very dynamic relationship between two vertebra and the associated nerves that come out of the spinal opening in between those two vertebra.
When a joint does not move correctly it compresses those nerves. The horse may compensate to avoid the subluxation. Many times you have to take away the compensations first and then get down to the underlying subluxation.
If you have a bunch of muscles that are tight because an animal is trying to compensate for a certain subluxation and trying to guard a certain set of joints and so on and so forth, you can remove the subluxation, but guess what' Those muscles don’t immediately go, “OK that’s fine.” They may have contracted and even scarred. Also if a joint has been subluxated for a long time and has been moving differently, it may have flat spots or grooves or be altered enough that it doesn’t take much for it to go back in the former position.
Continued adjustments will keep the joint where it should be and will remind the nervous system again what normal is. Muscles and ligaments will reorganize into more appropriate configurations. Joints will remodel. Eventually, the animal will hold adjustments well. We all strive to have the animal not need constant adjusting but that can take some pretty complex work, including cranial work and dental and foot care to balance the animal appropriately so that it will hold the adjustment. Trauma, toxins and stress beyond the animal’s resiliency are the elements that cause subluxations.
HJ: Would improper riding cause stress'
JS: Most of the time improper riding causes trauma. Stress can come from bad management practices where animals are expecting to be shanked or popped in the face. Horses that are fearful, or stressed by heat or cold. Horses that are not on a regular feeding schedule. A horse is supposed to have food in its stomach all of the time, and in four to five hours without food, sometimes, a horse can start to develop an ulcer. Stress causes postural changes; emotions can cause postural changes.
HJ: Improper tack would fit into the trauma category, right'
JS: Right. Teeth, toes, tack, training, and turnout.
HJ: What kind of role do feet play in relation to chiropractic' How do horse shoes and corrective shoeing fit into the scenario'
JS: We have a subtle balancing mechanism in the framework of the horse. The two things that influence balance of a horse in reference to gravity (which is constant) are teeth and feet. If that mechanism is sitting on a pedestal or a base that is inappropriate, it isn’t going to work.
The influence that feet have on the nervous system?''telling the animal where his feet are and what the surface is beneath his feet is?''is very important. If you get garbage information in from feet or garbage information from teeth, then you will get garbage out in terms of how to move and where to place the feet.
So, long toe levers, not enough heel support, all of these things give the animal inappropriate information about the ground surface, and he will adapt his body to what his receptors tell him.
If you turn a horse out on hard ground or you look at the feet of a wild horse, what you will see are those cute little squared off pony feet. And they don’t bear weight on their walls. They bear weight on their sole pack and their frogs and their bars and the walls are basically just things to protect the coffin bone.
Imagine if you ran your sleeve past your hand and tried to walk on the edge of your sleeve only. That is what we are asking horses to do when we put shoes on them, hiking their feet off the ground and asking them to walk on their walls only.
HJ: What would you say are the most common chiropractic problems that you treat'
JS: Those associated with poor shoeing and dentistry, or rather, inappropriate balance of the mouth.
HJ: How does someone know when to take a horse to a chiropractor' What are the symptoms'
JS: If the horse is asymmetrical, dumb or crabby. It is as simple as that. And I mean asymmetrical in any way, asymmetrical feeding stance, asymmetrical in that he looks at you with his head cocked?''that is not cute!?''he’s crooked. Asymmetrical in how he rides. Hard on one rein. Into your leg. Fast in one direction. Angry on the other.
HJ: But that is almost every horse!
JS: Sure it is. I find maybe one in every 200 horses that is perfect and those horses are usually nasty little things that have been turned out forever and are barefoot. Most horses that have been handled a lot have been shanked on since they were little or have been slammed up against a wall in the corner of the stall, or have been tied to and pulled against a bungee.
The horse’s system is not designed to accommodate these things. There are no things to get your head caught up in the wild. There aren’t even that many trees. There is not much to run your butt into. And there is nothing to grab your head. If it grabs your head, you are dead. We cause so many injuries in our horses, even at a young age.
Take, for example, inappropriate leading. To teach a baby most people pull on its head to make it walk forward instead of packing it up like a little suitcase with a rope around its bottom and bringing it forward from the back.
HJ: So you believe every horse could benefit from a chiropractic treatment'
JS: Absolutely. Its best use is preventative medicine. I have plenty of clients that bring their babies in early. We do the racehorse babies on the farm when they are weaned. Or if it had a tough birth or if there any limb deformities you correct them immediately and they grow straight.