Understanding Animal Chiropractic Care for Your Horse: What It Is and What It Isn't ...

Prior to becoming an equine veterinarian, I did not “believe in” chiropractic. My father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all MDs, so I had this genetic predisposition to believe that a diagnosis must be made based upon something we can measure, image, or see physically and that medicine or surgery is the solution.

Performing a physical exam.

Performing a physical exam.

As any equine ambulatory veterinarian will tell you, this presents a challenge as we often do not have the luxury to measure, image, or “see” the problems of our patients. We are challenged on a daily basis by financial restrictions, the sheer size of our patients, and the fact that our patients cannot tell us where it hurts. A careful and complete physical examination is STILL our single best diagnostic tool.

These challenges led me to look for more ways to improve my physical exam and treat on the farm. In my first few years in practice, I heard hundreds of positive anecdotes from my clients about their experience with animal chiropractic and I decided to investigate further. In February of 2016, I completed my animal chiropractic education and became certified by the International Veterinary Chiropractic Association.

Since that time, it has been incredible to provide this kind of care and I’ve surprised myself with the positive outcomes. I’ve learned that animal chiropractic care is not a boutique service for high-level performance horses. It can be a conservative option to diagnose and treat our equine partners; it can help avoid over-medicating, avoid sticking a needle in another joint, AND in a perfect world, it is integrated with westernized medical techniques for the best possible care for our animals.  

Here are the nuts and bolts of what every horse owner should know about animal chiropractic care.

What Is Animal Chiropractic Care?

Animal chiropractic is a field within animal health care that focuses on using specific manual therapy to correct biomechanical dysfunction within the spine and joints. When a chiropractor evaluates an animal, they are searching to diagnose chiropractic subluxations (also known as vertebral subluxation complexes or VSCs). A VSC is not a joint that is “out of place” physically; rather it refers to a joint that is not moving normally or is “stuck” or “fixed”.  

A chiropractic adjustment seeks to correct VSCs by using a specific high velocity, low amplitude thrust to restore normal biomechanical function of a specific joint.

What Isn’t Animal Chiropractic Care?

Animal chiropractic care cannot cure existing pathology. An adjustment cannot remove bony changes as a result of arthritis, alter the conformation of your horse, or change the scar tissue from an old ligament or tendon tear. Therefore, it is NOT the cure for every lame horse.

That being said, is it worth having a horse with poor conformation, arthritis of the hocks, or old suspensory issues adjusted if it won’t fix the problem? Absolutely! In fact, these horses may benefit the most from chiropractic adjustments as they often don’t move many joints in their body as they should because they are compensating for their specific problem. Helping them optimally use all their joints within their body can provide pain relief and enhance their quality of life significantly.

Because an adjustment is able to restore mobility in a stuck joint, it alleviates associated soft tissue inflammation and neuromuscular and vascular abnormalities related to a joint not moving as it should. Because the neurologic system is responsible for controlling ALL tissues within the body, the results can be powerful.

Who Should Perform Animal Chiropractic Care?

Animal chiropractic should be performed by those who have become certified or successfully completed animal chiropractic education by an approved program. Since a large knowledge base is necessary in order to understand the anatomy, physiology, and pathology to perform an adjustment safely, the programs that are approved by the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association or the International Veterinary Chiropractic Association require that attendees are either licensed veterinarians, chiropractors, or students of those professions (they already have three to four years of post-graduate doctoral education before starting the program). In Wisconsin, animal chiropractic care is also referred to as Veterinary Spinal Manipulative Therapy or VSMT. I attended Options for Animals College of Animal Chiropractic located in Wellsville, Kansas.

How Does the Typical Appointment Work?

During the initial assessment, a complete medical history will be taken, and the patient’s gait will be evaluated (in hand, on the lunge, under saddle, or hitched to cart). Following this, an animal chiropractor will examine the horse looking for “stuck” joints or those with a reduced range of motion. In a horse, this often requires the chiropractor to stand up on large bales to get above the spine of the horse in order to “motion” or move joints within their correct range of motion and perform adjustments.

Wrapping up the appointment, I will often discuss saddle fit, follow-up exercises that may be of benefit, and rest that may be required. Most horses will benefit from at least 48 hours of rest from exercise or training (turnout is ok!) as they may have some muscle soreness from the adjustments initially and then feel and perform better on the third day.  

How Frequently Will My Horse Need to Be Adjusted?

For most problems, a horse may require two to three adjustments spaced anywhere between two to six weeks apart. Multiple adjustments are often necessary to help “train” a stuck joint and surrounding soft tissues to hold a specific adjustment and move optimally in the long term. Horses with a more chronic problem may require more adjustments than this; some horses may see positive results almost immediately after the first adjustment.

For those horses in a low to moderate level of work or without specific issues, evaluations every six months or so are recommended to ensure everything is functioning well and to stay on top of any issues that might be arising.

Horses that perform at a high level or in strenuous exercise programs would benefit from once a month exams or adjustments to ensure optimum movement of the joints throughout their training program and show schedule. This can help diagnose and address problems early and help avoid catastrophic injuries later on.

How Do I Know If My Horse Needs an Adjustment?

The only way to know if your horse has a VSC or a “stuck” joint is through a chiropractic examination or “motioning” a joint specifically performed by an animal chiropractor. However, there are often signs that may indicate that your horse would benefit from an adjustment including poor performance, reluctance to work, uneven gaits, stiffness flexing to one side or another, inability to pick up the correct lead, or sensitivity to palpation along the spine.

The International Veterinary Chiropractic Association website provides more information on how to recognize problems and specific symptoms of “stuck” joints:

Signs and Symptoms of VSCs

How to Recognize Back Problems

Have more questions? Would you like to schedule a chiropractic evaluation for your animal? Please contact Badger Equine Veterinary Services!