Written by Julia Wolfe, DVM, DABVP, certified in Animal Chiropractic, Woodside Equine Clinic
Equine chiropractic care is directed toward keeping your horse at optimal health and performance by focusing on alignment of the vertebral column and all major joints in the body. Mal-alignments of vertebrae and joints, also known as subluxation, can affect your horse’s health in several ways. Mal-alignment between two vertebrae affects the nerves that exit the spinal cord and may even affect the spinal cord locally. Altered nervous function of the spinal cord or peripheral nerves can lead to secondary effects such as pain, muscle soreness or spasm, altered skin sensation in affected areas, and this can lead to changes in gait, coordination, and movement of your horse. A subluxation also causes physical limitations to the movement of the affected area leading to reduced flexibility and motion as a result of the joint not being able to move and function normally. Reduced motion and flexibility are most commonly noted by riders of a horse that is chiropractically mal-aligned. Our goal with chiropractic therapy is to adjust all abnormal areas and restore normal function, motion, and movement allowing your horse to perform at its most optimal level. An important part of chiropractic care is the rider feeling when their horse may need an adjustment. In the equine industry there are many different breeds and disciplines that exist. Traditional chiropractic philosophy states that any horse of any breed or discipline can benefit from chiropractic. Some common problems owners may recognize when their horse is out of alignment are as follows:
Head and Neck issues often present with:
• Lack of vertical movement of the head and neck during work
• Decreased flexion and bending to one side versus the other
• Reluctance to collect
• Unwilling to bend when doing carrot/treat stretches
• Having difficulty bridling, especially when approaching the poll and ears. Usually this is a new behavior observed by owners.
• Heavy on the bit, hard on one rein
• Head shaking
• Changes in gait. For example: Decreased extension of a forelimb without a head bob, not picking up the correct lead
• Abnormal head carriage, head tilt
• Resistant to saddling
• Lack of flexion and lateral bending when turning, spinning, working lateral movements
• Decrease in level of performance
• Behavioral changes ( jump refusals, bucking, girthiness)
• Short striding
• Gait abnormalities- cross cantering, hobby horsing, refusing a lead
• Stiff when riding one direction vs. the other
• Muscle imbalances- an increase or decrease in muscle mass on one side vs. the other
• Stumbling, in-coordination
• Changes in reactions to normal daily routine- less playful, not running in the paddock, all of a sudden bad for the farrier
• Back pain
*Please note these are just some common observations that owners report when their horse is in need of an adjustment. There may be other causes for the above listed clinical observations. *
As equine owners and riders we are often very astute to minor changes in our horses and just know when our horse, “Doesn’t feel right.” Often when a horse is out of alignment you as a rider may feel an imbalance in their gait. They may feel stiff when you are traveling right versus traveling to the left. You may get a jump or barrel refusal only going to the right but are fine when approaching to the left. Your horse may feel stiff in one direction or only on one lead. On the ground the horse may behave fine but become very agitated or annoyed when ridden. All of these findings are common in a horse in need of chiropractic care. It is important to have a good relationship with your veterinarian and discuss all of your observations. Their role is to then examine your horse and determine if these problems stem from a behavioral, musculoskeletal, anatomical, or chiropractic issue.
A chiropractic adjustment, by definition, is applying a specific force to a mal-aligned joint/vertebrae to allow it to return to its proper position. An equine chiropractic adjustment requires your horse to stand while your animal chiropractor does a full body evaluation involving palpation and movement of the pelvis, back, neck, head, and limbs. Some prefer to do an initial exam and then adjust; others will adjust during their examination. Most adjustors use a bale or ladder to stand on and will move around your horse. Many horses enjoy being adjusted but, if a painful area is being palpated they may show some discomfort. Many horses after a few adjustments begin to look forward to them and most are very agreeable to therapy. After a horse is adjusted, owners often observe horses to be more relaxed but some may be more energetic. Depending on the duration and degree of mal-alignment you may see immediate improvement, mild soreness, or gradual improvement over a period of days. Horses with mild problems may only need 2-3 adjustments, 2-4 weeks apart, and then can be maintained with adjustments as needed. Horses that tend to have other ongoing orthopedic or anatomical problems may require more frequent care. It is up to your animal chiropractor to evaluate your horse and then develop a therapy plan. Many horses will benefit from routine chiropractic care regardless of their exercise level or use. As part of your initial chiropractic evaluation, your horse should be jogged and a thorough history taken to discuss any previous or concurrent medical and lameness issues.
Lameness is a common cause for many performance problems. It can cause stiffness, changes in gait, swapping leads, problems with bending, etc. Chiropractic care alone cannot resolve a true lameness problem. Lameness issues are often caused by osteoarthritis, injury to a joint, tendon, or ligament, and even muscle tears. These are all primary medical issues and should be treated with traditional veterinary medicine. Chiropractic therapy can help keep your horse in optimal health and function while healing from an injury however, it is not going to correct a primary lameness problem. For example: If a horse is sore in its hocks, positive to flexion, and is also out of alignment in its back, I recommend to inject the hocks and have a chiropractic adjustment at the same time. An adjustment will not “hold” if a primary lameness issue continues. On the same note, once a horse is adjusted, they will become more balanced and an adjustment can offset previous musculoskeletal compensation. Some owners may notice after an adjustment that their horse now seems off behind, sore in the hocks/stifles, etc. Horses are great at compensating for pain, muscle soreness, and even lameness. Chiropractic’s goal is to keep them aligned which, in some cases, takes away their compensation and can then allow an underlying lameness issue to be visible. It is not that chiropractic made your horse lame rather; it is now that your horse’s body is back in balance that we can see a weaker and a stronger side.
Another great use for chiropractic therapy is in horses with back pain. Often we blame our saddle fit, how we ride, and even our riding discipline for the development of back pain. All of these factors do play into overall back discomfort and can affect the alignment of your horse’s spine. Saddle fit is key in any discipline. If your horse is having back pain anywhere under the saddle, is sensitive to saddling, or girthing, you may want to have your saddle checked. Even our discipline effects what the horse’s back endures during a ride. Trail riding may seem less intense then a 3-day course but long hours on the trail can cause trouble if your horse is out of “whack”. Jumping a 3-foot course is just as daunting when spinal nerves are affected and your horse short strides. Chiropractic therapy’s goal is to keep your horse in motion and keep your horse at its best whether you are riding in the Shenandoah, at Congress, or at Rolex.
A common area that can cause lower back/pelvic pain is the sacro-iliac (SI) joint.
Figure1: Diagram of joint articulations in the horse from equisearch.com
The sacroiliac joint is located between the horse’s sacrum and the ilium (a part of the pelvis). In the diagram above, the location of the sacroiliac joint is shown. The SI joint is a tricky structure due to its deep location under several layers of muscle and surrounded by many important anatomical structures. This area undergoes a large amount of flexion and extension as a horse canters, extends, jumps, and turns. As horses age this joint can calcify and become less mobile causing pain and discomfort. Subluxation of this area is also common due to its normal high range of motion. Horses with SI pain will often present with lower lumbar pain and discomfort, they may have a decreased stride length behind, not want to collect, and may have more difficulty in downward transitions in gait. Many horses with SI pain in years past have been treated by steroid and hyaluronic acid injections. While injections are still a common treatment and warranted in many cases, chiropractic adjustments of SI joints restore motion and alleviate pain. By restoring motion and function to this joint, many horses can be maintained by routine chiropractic therapy, decreasing the frequency or even eliminating the need for further injections of the SI joint.
I hope this article has helped describe the benefits of chiropractic and some of the common problems observed by owners when a horse is out of alignment. If you feel your horse could benefit from an adjustment or would like to have your horse evaluated contact Woodside Equine Clinic or Woodside North Equine Clinic at: www.woodsideequineclinic.com, WEC- 804-798-3281, WNEC- 540-423-3100