Best of HN: Weekend Wellness: Equine Chiropractic Work

Our sister site Horse Nation takes us back to 2014 when they welcomed Colleen Hofstetter to outline the benefits of chiropractic work for your horse.

Colleen Hofstetter outlines the benefits of this increasingly popular alternative medicine practice. From Colleen:

I’m dreaming: My horse is giving me his perspective on things. Seems he is pretty happy; he likes his digs and his turnout. Then he says to me:

Him: “But hey – what about that C-3 thing – are you ever going to get that taken care of?”

Me: “Ummmmm, C-3… not really sure what you are talking about?”

Him: “C-3! In my neck! You’re the one that thinks it’s so important for me to be flexing my neck — how ‘bout getting that looked at. And while you’re at it, thanks for the Cosequin and those pesky hock injections, but honestly, look up around my pelvis. Haven’t you ever watched me walk from behind? Tell me you haven’t noticed how my right side seems to move a little bit better? Dang, girl… I’ve been trying to let you know about a few things!!!”

In my dream world I now have a huffy, toe tapping horse, making me feel quite guilty about my poor observation skills.

Me: “Weeellllll… I did haul you to that university clinic and paid quite a bit of money for all those x-rays and scans. Remember, you stayed overnight in that special stall? We spent a lot of time there and, you heard the vet — keep you in work, get your muscles balanced, and….”

Him: “Yes, yes. I heard all that and I heard you crying the whole way home — saying something about your credit card being on fire and no real answers. I believe your saving grace on the whole trip is that you found out what wasn’t wrong, but how about we try that guy that came to see Sam down the aisle way? What could it hurt? I think Sam is walking much better and he is not as cranky as he used to be.”

Me: “Well, if you think it will help….”

I slowly wake and immediately start to wonder if my subconscious is trying to tell me something.

Over my first cup of coffee I begin to text some friends: “Anyone know of a good equine chiropractor?”

As we all strive to get the best results from our training, or simply want our horses to feel great, we continue to investigate more avenues to good health and optimal performance. It is not uncommon for owners to utilize numerous methods to ensure their horse’s health, including “alternative” medicine such as chiropractic techniques. As with other supports one must consider two important questions: What is the goal and who is performing the procedure?

Chiropractic techniques were developed over 100 years ago and have increasingly become more a part of mainstream medicine. Animal chiropractic was brought to the forefront by veterinarian Dr. Sharon Willowby, DVM. After experiencing chiropractic relief from her own spinal injuries related to her large animal practice, Dr. Willowby sold her veterinary practice and enrolled in Palmer College of Chiropractic. She graduated in 1985 as the first Dr of Chiropractic (DC)/DVM and planned to investigate the possibility of using chiropractic adjustment to help equine patients. To further this goal Dr. Willowby began to develop a curriculum to teach human chiropractors and other veterinarians how to adjust the misalignments of the equine and canine spine.

In June of 1989 she founded the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association (AVCA). A curriculum was developed by vets and chiropractors working in conjunction with each other; a core component of the curriculum is that vets and chiropractors teach each other the skills necessary to properly address the skeletal needs of the animal spine — each profession having its own skill sets from which they benefit. The AVCA is a professional membership/certification program in animal chiropractic. It is the primary national certification organization for this field in North America.

Certification as an animal chiropractor is awarded to human chiropractors or veterinarians after completing an 8-week, 210-hour certification program, with continuing education required. Hence, only licensed human chiropractors and veterinarians can earn recognized credentials as an equine chiropractic practitioner. Additionally, the Animal Chiropractic Certification Commission (ACCC) is the de facto certifying body for veterinary chiropractic, and all accredited programs must meet the requirements of curriculum, examination, and continuing education. The number of veterinary colleges offering instruction in alternative medicine is limited, but increasing. Click here to obtain a list of AVCA certified equine chiropractors.

There are other lay persons who have “hung out their shingle” but have not received the intensive training as those certified by the AVCA and are not considered an animal chiropractor in the eyes of states’ Departments of Agriculture, the department that regulates many activities related to horses including farriers, dentists, and veterinarians. Also, there are specific regulations that vary from state to state regarding who may “work on a horse.” There is some wiggle room in the state regulations which loosely translates into having a veterinarian “in the loop” — has the horse been seen by a vet before contacting an equine chiropractor? In some states a written referral from a vet is needed before chiropractic work is completed and only a licensed equine chiropractor can complete the procedures.

Most equine chiropractors will first ask if a horse has been seen by a vet to rule out trauma injuries such as fractures or other underlying medical conditions. The other factor related to licensed equine chiropractor vs. lay-person is the insurance question. Unfortunately, accidents do occur and if any practitioner causes permanent injury it is very difficult to seek compensation; double that headache if a practitioner is not considered legitimate in the eyes of the almighty insurance industry.

Chiropractic is defined as the “location, analysis, and correction of vertebral subluxation complexes as related to the treatment and prevention of biomechanical dysfunction of the skeleton, especially the spine, and its effect on the entire nervous system.” Chiropractic examinations tend to focus on the whole horse, specifically the spine and the nervous system, as compared to trying to identify a singular point of dysfunction. The spinal column is seen as the primary framework that helps the body to function without aches and pains. Thus, a misaligned spinal column may be responsible for a lack of flexibility of the neck and back as well as pinched nerves and painful spasms.

Vertebrae are joined together to foster movement. Improper alignment — subluxation — inhibits neuron processing which leads to interference in joints and other structures. This leads to stiffness, pain, and other problems seen in equine locomotion. When an equine chiropractor identifies a subluxation, their goal is to correct the misalignment through adjustment — a quick short thrust along the plane of the joint. A thorough chiropractic exam also includes assessing the limb joints and the temporomandibular joint (TMJ).

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Dr. Dave Smolensky, DC, checking out a few equine patients

Even though a certain speed of thrust is used to ensure that the horse’s muscles do not have time to contract and so restrict movement, it is the light touch that really counts. Human and equine chiropractor Dr. Dave Smolensky of Mars, Pa., explains that human finger tips have thousands of nerve endings. He further states that the lighter you palpate the more you feel — if you press hard you desensitize your finger tips: “The light touch comes with practice, practice, practice.”

Dr. Smolensky says that the job of the chiropractor is to locate the vertebrate that is out of alignment, adjust it to release the fixation and allow the body to make the correction. In doing so, this correction may then have an effect on numerous parts of the body and allows the body to heal itself. When asked what some common sources of subluxations are, Dr. Smolensky named several conditions frequented by our horses:

“Running in the pasture and slipping — the pelvis rotates; trailering and there are sudden stops or turns while a horse’s head is tied — the head snaps back or there is a sudden shift in body weight; falling while jumping effects the horse’s head and neck. Each riding discipline also has its problems – hunter/jumpers tend to have more hind end problems while western horses have problems up front. Other problems can be related to the sternum. Horses do not have a clavicle so the sternum can move. Ribs get misaligned. Also horses that crib could have a misaligned poll and they crib to relieve the pressure. Horses that really grind their back into the ground when rolling – they are trying to fix something themselves. You can tell a lot from the behavior of your horse, which means owners have to take the time to observe what their horse is doing in situations other than when riding.”

Good advice for all horse owners! Dr. Smolensky additionally stated that horses can also experience subluxations from micro trauma – the cumulative effect of daily training, or, conversely, being confined to a stall. Horses develop repetitive habits. Joints sustain damage from daily training, and while “motion is life to a joint,” if neurons from the spine are not transmitting information correctly, or not at all, the joint will not function properly, which will show up in abnormal movements in and out of the show ring.

If you want to investigate the possible need for chiropractic work, here is a video that illustrates what to look for when observing your horse:

Some horses need an occasional adjustment, some more often. Costs vary: $75 to $150 a visit. Access to a certified chiropractor varies. A quick perusal of the list of certified chiropractors shows a heavier cluster on the east coast as compared to other parts of the country. But as equine chiropractic methods become more common, additional human chiropractors may see the benefit of expanding their practice to include four legged patients as well as two legged ones. AND, we all know that we would gladly pass up our own adjustments in favor of having our horses done if we think it is going to help resolve a problem. Go figure!

Go Riding!

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