Chiropractic care, massage and acupuncture offer alternatives in equine health care
story by Allison Armstrong Rehnborg
Paired with traditional veterinary medicine, alternative modalities like equine chiropractic care, massage therapy, and acupuncture, can benefit horses with postural rehabilitation, improved circulation, and more. For the elite performance athlete, such as the Standardbred racehorse, these therapies can make a significant difference in an animal’s health and well-being. And when improved health provides a boost in performance, everyone benefits. That’s why many horse owners and trainers are turning to alternative therapies to supplement their horse care regimens.
Dr. Judith Shoemaker is an equine veterinarian, chiropractor, and acupuncturist based in Nottingham, Pa. Through her practice, Always Helpful Veterinary Services, Shoemaker and her team offer a holistic approach to health care, including consultations on dentistry, trimming, shoeing, and nutrition. According to Shoemaker, regular chiropractic adjustments are essential for keeping a horse’s central nervous system healthy.
“A horse’s No. 1 priority is to take care of its central nervous system,” she said. “The second priority is to keep their balance. If a horse’s central nervous system is struggling and the horse can’t keep its balance, you have a horse with a problem. Horses can’t function at their best unless their brains and brain stems are working correctly.”
Chiropractic care works to correct misalignments, or subluxations, in the spinal column that obstruct the central nervous system. Through manual manipulation, equine chiropractors can make minute adjustments to the alignment of the horse’s spinal column to enable the brain and brain stem to function at their best.
Many alternative therapies complement each other. For example, massage therapy addresses muscle stiffness and soreness and improves circulation through manipulation of the soft tissues. According to Valerie Pierzina, an equine massage therapist with Grains & Manes Farm Equine Massage Therapy in Trempealeau, Wis., massage therapy and chiropractic care are complementary modalities. When used in conjunction with chiropractic care, massage therapy can help adjustments remain in place for a longer period of time.
“Chiropractic and massage therapy have a symbiotic relationship,” Pierzina said. “Chiropractic addresses the skeletal system, and massage therapy addresses the soft tissues. If you have tight tissues and aren’t addressing that issue, then the muscles may just shift the spinal column out of alignment again.”
Adjusting for Better Health
“Chiropractic care is a receptor-based medicine that resets joint receptors, tendon stretch receptors and muscle spindle cells to change the balance of the nervous system,” Shoemaker said.
According to Shoemaker, chiropractic adjustments are targeted to improve the posture of a horse. While the conformation of an adult horse is relatively static, posture changes based on shoeing, exercise, dentistry, chiropractic care, and other factors can come into play.
“Bottom line, a horse has to have the right relationship to gravity to function well, and postural rehabilitation is a big part of our chiropractic approach,” Shoemaker said. “Postural rehabilitation means working with the animal to produce an accurate relationship with gravity.”
A horse’s resting posture, or the posture the animal assumes for the majority of its time in a stall or in the pasture, has a profound effect on how the animal’s muscles and bones develop.
“Tissues respond to the forces that are put on them,” Shoemaker said. “For example, horses stand for 22 hours out of every day, so how that horse stands in a stall determines which bones, muscles, tendons, and ligaments become strong. So, if a horse has long toes and ends up leaning forward over their front legs and putting their hind feet underneath them to compensate, that’s an abnormal compensatory posture that I call ‘goat on a rock.’ It’s the source for every kind of lameness that we treat, from hind lateral suspensory desmitis to sacroiliac pain to hyperextension of the knees to sore withers. All of that is a result of the horse struggling to keep its balance by standing in that compensatory posture.”
Chiropractic care can go a long way toward fixing posture issues, but it’s only part of the solution. Good dentistry and proper trimming and shoeing also play a key role in good posture, because the teeth and feet form a large part of the horse’s relationship to gravity.
“The horse’s interface with gravity is the foot, and if a horse’s feet are abnormal, then the horse is receiving bad information,” Shoemaker said. “Dentistry also plays a role, because of the way the horse’s jaw and temporomandibular joint function, almost acting like a gyroscope in terms of evaluating gravity. We have to take care of the brain and the brain stem. We have to take care of the balance mechanisms, including the teeth and the upper cervical vertebrae, to make sure that they’re giving the horse legitimate information about gravity. And then we have to make sure the horse’s interface with gravity, the foot, is providing good information.”
That’s why Shoemaker’s practice focuses on providing the full gamut of equine health care, from nutrition and shoeing consultations to dentistry, chiropractic care, and acupuncture.
“If things aren’t right in one department, it can throw everything else out,” she said. “That’s why it’s so important. It’s not just spending a few hundred dollars to make sure the animal is more comfortable. It’s spending a few hundred dollars to save your horse’s life or your driver’s life.
“We have enough accidents in racing that we need to think about that and take care of our animals. Chiropractic care has huge safety value and dramatic economic value because if you have a quality horse with a problem, that’s a waste of a quality horse.”
More Than a Massage
Therapeutic massage plays a key role in keeping equine athletes healthy and performing at their peak. As a full-time equine massage therapist, Pierzina works with horses in a variety of disciplines.
“Most of the time, my massages are what I call preventative maintenance massage,” she said. “When the horse is on a regular program, I get to know the horse very well, and I can identify changes or potential problems as they come up. I also perform massages that help prepare a horse for work or help them recover from showing or strenuous training. And I work with veterinarians to help with post-surgical cases.”
Therapeutic massage engages the muscles through deep tissue massage, which improves circulation of blood and lymph.
“When you physically manipulate the soft tissue, you’re increasing circulation of the blood as well as the lymphatic system,” Pierzina said. “Massage also limbers and loosens muscles, which helps reduce the risk of injury. It also gets the endorphins going in the horse, which are those natural feel-good hormones. As a therapist, the most rewarding thing to see when I’m working on a horse is a big yawn because that means they’re feeling good.”
When Pierzina performs a pre-event massage or a post-event massage, her objectives and methods vary depending on whether she’s warming the muscles up or helping to cool the horse down.
“With a pre-event massage, we want to increase the circulation and warm up the horse, so there’s a lot of percussion which helps contract the muscles and bring the blood vessels up to the skin surface,” she said. “But after an event, such as a trotter returning from the track, you want to slow things down and work to relax those contracted muscles by returning them to their normal length.”
Pierzina also performs trigger-point therapy, which uses direct pressure to relieve knots in the muscles.
“With trigger-point therapy, you’re applying direct pressure at different depths for a period of time, and when you’re doing that, you’re cutting off oxygen to that location,” she said. “When you press on a trigger point, you’ll see the skin all around it flutter and twitch as the oxygen attempts to get back into that spot. Then you release and the oxygen floods back in. That’s what increases the circulation, which helps with healing.”
Therapeutic massage can be used to speed healing after certain types of surgeries, to help manage geriatric arthritis and to ease pain in the back and stifle.
“Massage is especially great for arthritis because massage can naturally increase synovial fluid, which lubricates and nourishes the joint,” Pierzina said. “Any area of soreness can be helped with massage, but you want to wait past the acute phase of an injury so that you aren’t working with a hot, swollen joint or area.”
Point of Contact
Just as chiropractic care and massage therapy address the musculoskeletal systems of the body, acupuncture affects the fibers and tissues between muscles.
“If chiropractic addresses the hardware of the body, then acupuncture programs the software that runs the body,” Shoemaker said. “We do that through the insertion of needles or the use of laser on key acupuncture points in the body. Acupuncture works on the fascia and interstitium, which are the tissues and fibers between muscles, where a lot of information and energy is generated when the body moves. According to Chinese medicine, that’s where the qi (a vital life force) is located in the body. We manipulate the qi by inserting needles and tweaking the fascia.”
Shoemaker performs acupuncture at her practice with acupuncture needles, electroacupuncture or lasers. In electroacupuncture, small electric currents pass between pairs of acupuncture needles and stimulate the tissues.
“Acupuncture makes a profound difference in microvascular blood flow, which of course is critically important for muscle maintenance and getting oxygen in and toxins out,” she said. “According to Chinese medicine, where the qi goes, the blood flows. We direct blood flow by manipulating the qi.”
Acupuncture points on the horse vary depending on the issue or illness that needs to be addressed. For example, there may be acupuncture points around joints or tendons to assist with blood flow to those areas, or there may be points located on the hind legs that can affect the digestive system.
“Acupuncture is a way to produce great results in an animal without resorting to the use of drugs,” Shoemaker said. “There are many uses of acupuncture, more than just for pain or joint injuries or back soreness. I do a lot of acupuncture for infertility in mares, for example. It can also be used to manage Cushing’s disease, chronic colic, and lameness, among other things. I always like to get the ‘hardware’ of the horse straight and balanced, and then see how much acupuncture can help with the ‘software.’”
Chiropractic care, therapeutic massage, and acupuncture are all forms of alternative therapy that can help provide horses with better posture, improved circulation, and pain relief—all without the use of drugs or chemicals. Ultimately, knowing whether your horse could benefit from one of these modalities comes down to observing them. Horses in pain, for example, maybe difficult to work with or struggle with learning new things, and these complications often have physical roots.
“If your horse is asymmetrical in any way, or it just can’t seem to learn something, or it always breaks gait in a certain direction, those are signs it may need chiropractic care,” Shoemaker said. “A crabby horse is a horse that’s in pain. We aren’t living in that horse’s body, so we have to be the observer and really see what’s wrong. Then we have to give the animal a chance to get out of its own way and heal.”
Allison Armstrong Rehnborg is a freelance writer living in Tennessee. To comment on this story, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.