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Chiropractic therapy for horses

Learn how an equine chiropractor can help your horse.

By Cynthia McFarland | August 1, 2017

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Once considered "alternative,” chiropractic, along with therapies such as acupuncture and massage, are now viewed by knowledgeable horsemen as "complementary.” None of these therapies will replace traditional veterinary medicine, but in the right situations, they can enhance and improve a horse’s health and well-being.

"It’s not a matter of ‘either or,’” says Andria Cogswell, DVM, who has been a veterinary chiropractor since 1999. "You can use traditional veterinary medicine and then add chiropractic to complement it. For example, a horse with a lameness problem may still need to have his hocks or stifles injected, but will also benefit from chiropractic adjustment.

"In the last decade, there has been much more awareness of chiropractic, and it’s much more accepted,” Cogswell continues. "I find that by the time an owner calls me for an appointment, they’ve usually talked to other people and found information through the Internet and social media. People don’t tend to have the same amount of skepticism they did even 10 years ago.”

Horse Chriropractor
Photo by DrDennisEschbach via Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Lameness & Performance Issues

"Chiropractic is integral to what we do with keeping performance horses sound,” says Sam Crosby, DVM, an equine veterinarian since 1994 whose practice is located in Arcadia, Okla. "The combination of lameness diagnostics and chiropractic has been highly effective for these horses. With any lameness, there are usually compensatory issues that pop up, so I’ve found that any time a horse is being treating for lameness, chiropractic should be included.”

Sports and performance horses comprise about 90 percent of Crosby’s practice, so lameness issues are a huge focus. He notes that when chiropractic is incorporated into treatment, he sees more positive resolution of cases, which translates into happier horses—and clients.

Crosby finds that when a horse isn’t performing as usual, physical examination often turns up an issue that requires chiropractic treatment. For example, a horse who becomes difficult to bridle when he was fine before, or resists collection and holding a headset, may need adjustment of his temporomandibular joint (TMJ) and/or poll. Without examination by a veterinarian or chiropractor, the owner may just assume the horse is being stubborn or having trouble with the bit.

Among the most common areas requiring adjustment on performance horses are the pelvis, sacrum and neck.

In the case of back soreness, Crosby cautions that if the same issues reappear a short time after chiropractic treatment, saddle fit may be the problem and should be considered.

As a reminder about the importance of proper trimming/shoeing, if the horse’s feet are out of balance, every bone above the foot is affected, which can lead to misalignment. This is why it’s so critical to maintain regular appointments with your professional hoof care provider.

What’s Involved

If your horse is being seen by your regular veterinarian for an issue, such as those mentioned above, ask if chiropractic treatment should be included. (See "Finding a Chiropractor” below for tips on how to find a certified chiropractor in your area.)

Before any adjustments are done, the chiropractor will want to know the horse’s case history, with information from the horse’s owner and veterinarian, including any radiographs and lab results. The chiropractor will also consider vital details, such as the horse’s age, conformation, how he is used and how long he’s been doing this work.

With this information in mind, the chiropractor then completes a thorough physical examination of the horse to determine what chiropractic manipulations may be required. The chiropractor is checking for signs of pain, range of motion and any other physical abnormalities. If the joint doesn’t have normal range of motion, this typically indicates that adjustment is needed.

If you’re expecting dramatic movements watching the process, you might be surprised. Some manipulations are so subtle that they may not be obvious to the observer. The chiropractor’s hands are as close as possible to the joint being manipulated. The adjustment is done quickly and with powerful but controlled force. Only one joint at a time is manipulated.

It might seem hard to believe a human weighing 150 pounds can manipulate the joints of a horse weighing half a ton or more, but chiropractic is not about brute strength.

"It’s about knowing the skeletal system, the angle of the joints and adjustments, and the horse and chiropractor being correctly positioned,” says Cogswell, adding that relaxation on the horse’s part is also important. "If the horse is tense, resistant or fearful, you can’t adjust him easily, if at all.”

Treatment Goals

The ultimate goal of chiropractic is to relieve pain and restore normal function. With proper alignment of the skeletal system, neurological function and balance of the body’s other systems can be restored.

"I take a spine that isn’t moving well and encourage it to move better, because this leads to better function of the skeletal system and also the nervous system,” says Cogswell.

In essence, chiropractic puts the horse’s body in the best position to heal and maintain health.

The number of chiropractic treatments needed depends on each horse’s individual situation. In many cases, a specific problem can be addressed in only a couple of treatments. That makes chiropractic remarkably effective when you look at in on a cost basis.

Cogswell typically sees a horse for the first time because of a problem that is affecting performance. Once owners see how chiropractic can address these issues, they often opt for maintenance visits every four to six weeks in hopes of avoiding acute conditions in the future.

When the chiropractor comes out for an initial visit, don’t be afraid to ask questions. A good chiropractor wants you to understand what is being done to your horse.

"Educating the client enhances my business,” says Cogswell. "The more educated my client is with what I’m doing, the better they are able to judge when the horse needs chiropractic attention, and then issues won’t be put off.”

When to Consider Chiropractic

There are many situations relating to equine health when chiropractic treatment can be indicated. These include:

  • Lameness of any sort
  • Difficulty getting up and down
  • Neurological problems/deficits
  • Behavior/mood change
  • Seizures
  • Post-surgery
  • Head tossing/difficulty being bridled
  • Resisting collection/headset
  • Neck, back, shoulder andhip soreness
  • Chronic, unresolved health condition

Finding a Chiropractor

If your regular veterinarian doesn’t recommend a specific chiropractor, you can find one in your area through the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association (AVCA).

Founded in 1989 by a group of chiropractors and veterinarians, the AVCA is an international organization that certifies animal chiropractic education programs. To maintain certification, the chiropractor must have completed an AVCA-recognized certification course and regularly keep up with continuing education courses.

To find a certified chiropractor in your region, use the "Find a Doctor" feature at animalchiropractic.org.

CYNTHIA McFARLAND is an Ocala, Fla.-based freelance writer, horse owner and avid trail rider. The author of nine books, her latest is The Horseman’s Guide to Tack and Equipment.


This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!

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