CHIROPRACTIC: A NEW LEASE ON LIFE FOR DANDY By Karen Brown
This is story is about the well known, but often misunderstood practice of Animal
Chiropractic. There are a number of treatments for humans and animals that
have been relegated to the second-class category of “alternative” or
“complementary” modalities. Traditional medical personnel are sometimes
reluctant to agree to the use of these treatments, yet, it has been proven time
and again that positive results are possible, often with injuries or illnesses that do
not respond to traditional medicine. The time has come to place these
modalities: chiropractic, acupuncture, massage, homeopathy, on an equal
standing with all treatments, both Western and Eastern in their origins.
The following story was written by Perry Lane, the owner of Dandy, a 9 year old
Quarter Horse. Dandy was full of life, athletic, and fun-loving until one day things
changed. The cause of the change has never been determined, but the outcome
is well documented. Read on:
“Although I had some history with chiropractic in horses, I was very skeptical of
the idea of “holistic medicine” and had no expectations that chiropractic or
acupuncture would have any effect on my horse’s problems.
We have owned Dandy since he was 3 years old. He’s always been a happy
energetic, playful and bold horse. Then we began to notice changes. Dandy
started acting stiff under saddle, refusing to bend and becoming increasingly
jumpy and spooky. Our first action was to take him to our veterinarian for a
After a thorough exam, the vet was moving Dandy into a stall. The horse was
acting very spooky and moving in an odd sideways motion. Based on the
peculiarities of Dandy’s actions, the vet said he thought the horse could not see.
We had him examined by an animal ophthalmologist who diagnosed him with
early glaucoma and said his symptoms were probably because he had a bad
headache which hurt enough that he couldn’t see well.
We had just arranged to have Dandy leased to Celine Rabon who wanted to use
him in her study of natural horsemanship. For the next year, Celine faithfully
medicated Dandy with eye drops twice daily for the glaucoma. Yet his behavior
and eyesight never improved. In fact, he began to get worse. Celine is an
excellent rider and rode Dandy several hours a week in all kinds of situations
from arena to ranch riding. He continued to be difficult for her much of the time,
spooking, acting nervous, particularly with objects or horses that got too close to
his body. He had difficulty focusing on work, which made training a challenge.
No matter how much flexion, stretching, or gymnastic exercises he did, he never
improved on bending or flexing. Nothing was working to relieve his resistance.
Dandy had his moments of brilliance, but when I look back at it, I think his good
times were in spite of his physical condition. When Celine returned Dandy to us,
it was clear that something was very wrong and we thought he was going blind.
So we took him to the Head Equine Ophthalmologist at Texas A&M. Bottom line
there – after an extremely thorough exam of the whole horse, we were told he
had great vision and absolutely no glaucoma. His stiffness and jumpiness had to
be behavioral. We were told we should probably get a different trainer.
Finally, as a last resort and with absolutely no expectation of anything, we took
Dandy to Dr. LuAnn Groves in San Marcos, TX. Holistic medicine just seemed to
me not scientific and too touchy-feely. It seemed like a poor substitute for shock
wave, surgery and the diagnostic methods of traditional medicine. How could
chiropractic or acupuncture help when some of the best vets in the state of Texas
who had access to all the latest tools and technology could not find Dandy’s
By the end of the first visit, my thinking completely changed. After watching
Dandy move for a few minutes, Dr. Groves seemed to know just where his pain
was. It was clear from Dandy’s response to her touch that she was right. She
adjusted his atlas (the bone directly behind the skull/first vertebra), neck, withers,
scapula, ribs, and back that first visit. The change in him was nothing short of
By the time Dandy finished 3 visits, all his neck stiffness was gone, his resistance
to going to the right, and his jumpiness and acting like he couldn’t see were all
gone. He had no drugs of any kind and no other changes in his life, but he was
back to the horse we had known, playful, relaxed and cooperative. He probably
did have a tremendous headache but it was not caused by his eyes, rather it
probably affected his concentration so much that he appeared not to see.
When I think of the time and money we spent and the discomfort Dandy went
through for so long before we tried such a simple, natural and successful strategy
as chiropractic and acupuncture, I really become frustrated with “modern
medicine” and its narrow approach. Most medical people look at bits and pieces
of the animal or human, not the whole organism and how everything works
together. This is the major difference I see in the holistic approach and it
certainly made Dandy a ‘whole horse’.”
It’s been over one year since Dandy’s third and final chiropractic adjustment and
he remains in premium physical condition, relaxed and able to focus and enjoy
any riding or tasks he is asked to perform.
WHAT IS ANIMAL CHIROPRACTIC?
Chiropractic has become one of the most commonly sought treatments in
humans for a wide range of health issues. While it has also become more
accepted in the horse world, many people don’t really understand the science of
animal chiropractic or the associated benefits.
If you’ve ever had an adjustment by a quality human practitioner, you likely felt
immediate relief from some long-standing ache or tension. While it is true that
the only way to know if chiropractic works is anecdotal, the same holds true for
traditional therapies such as medication and surgery. If a treatment is applied
and the problem goes away, then it is can be assumed that the treatment
worked. Horse owners are becoming more aware of their horse’s habits,
postures, and attitudes. These are all indicators of how the horse feels. An
increase in mobility, a reduction or elimination of lameness, a relaxed posture,
and/or the reduction of tension are all immediate clues that the equine
adjustment was successful.
The word Chiropractic is derived from the Greek root words, “cheir” and “praxis”,
when combined translate into Treatment by Hand. Chiropractic care has been
practiced since ancient times, with documentation in Greek and Chinese writings
as far back as 2700 BC. Human chiropractic was developed in the United States
in the late 1890’s as a drugless healing profession and has since become the
one of the largest and most accepted modalities of disease prevention and
Chiropractic is based on the scientific fact that millions of nerves support and
control the function of every organ, tissue, and cell in the body. Poor posture,
trauma, or ordinary, everyday movements can cause bones to move out of their
proper positions. Horses are subject to all sorts of traumas that appear to leave
no trace. The only clue to the internal damage is from unexplained lameness,
resistance, or refusal to perform.
We tend to think of chiropractors as “bone doctors”, but in fact, they are focused
on nerve restrictions. The brain uses the nervous system to relay instructions to
every cell, organ, and system of the body. This information dictates how the
animal moves, but also digestion, rest/sleep patterns, brain functions such as the
ability to concentrate, and the immune system, to list a few are controlled by the
nerve supply. In short, every single aspect of bodily function is controlled by the
nerves; when the bones move out of place they apply pressure to the nerves
running between the bones. The pressure or pinching will cause the nerves to
The chiropractic goal is to detect the locations of misaligned bones and return
them to their correct position. When the bones are realigned, there is immediate
relief to the nerves and subsequently to the bodily functions they control.
Another concern with misaligned bones is restricted joint function causing
limitation or prevention of proper body motion.
These types of biomechanical disturbances and nervous system blockages can
be the source of all kinds of physical symptoms or diseases in horses including,
but not limited to:
1. neck or back pain,
2. difficulty jumping, running, or trotting,
3. agility problems,
4. muscle tension, imbalances, spasms, or atrophy,
5. joint restrictions,
8. short striding,
9. degenerative arthritis,
10. gait problems such as cross canter, loss of collection, refusal to pick up lead,
11. injury from falls or improper training techniques,
12. decrease in level of performance,
13. unable to stand for farrier,
14. unexplained emotional stress when working,
15. resistance or stiffness,
16. sensitivity to touch,
17. nerve damage or abnormal nerve function,
18. abnormal cellular changes,
19. systemic disorders or degeneration.
Most importantly, add bad behaviors to the list of symptoms because frequently,
the only outlet a horse has for pain is to act aggressively against pain-inducing
work or to evade the work as much as possible.
It is important to determine whether chiropractic is a suitable treatment for your
horse’s condition; this is where input from your veterinarian is needed. In
traditional Western medicine, remedies are limited to rest, medication, physical
therapy, and/or surgery. The equine chiropractor is devoted to focusing on
biomechanics, the skeleton, muscles, and nervous systems with the intent of
returning these systems to a natural/normal state so the symptoms, i.e. lameness
or inability to work or focus, will go away permanently. Your vet and animal
chiropractor should work together to determine an integrative therapy program
for your horse.
The word symptoms, is emphasized because all these “problems” listed above
are really not problems. They are signals that something is wrong. It is your job
as the primary caretaker of your horses to investigate these symptoms, find the
source of the problem, and take measures to remedy real cause. Treating
symptoms or training to correct bad behaviors seldom eliminates the problem.
Animal chiropractors perform maneuvers, generally called “adjustments”, in order
to return bones to their proper positions. An adjustment may involve vertebral
joints, extremity joints, or cranial structures. It is a high velocity, low force,
controlled thrust of the hand, directed in a specific direction on a specific joint. It
is a very precise, clearly defined movement that should never be attempted by
anyone without a complete education in animal chiropractic.
Animal chiropractic does not replace traditional veterinary care nor is it capable
of treating every illness or injury. It can, however, permanently reduce or
eliminate the symptoms of ill health that often continue to return after traditional
treatments that fail to relieve abnormal nerve functions directly resulting from
misaligned bones. Animal chiropractic should never be used as a remedy for
unbalanced or stiff riding, poor saddle fit, improper shoeing/trimming, lack of
conditioning, or poor training techniques.
HOW TO FIND A CHIROPRACTOR
If you believe that animal chiropractic may be of help to your horse, the next step
is finding a qualified practitioner. There are few people who are both veterinarian
and animal chiropractor; yet, extensive knowledge of both fields is essential for
an appropriate and safe adjustment. You must take time to verify the
qualifications of any candidates prior to allowing anyone to adjust your horse. Do
some research and find out if your practitioner has the training, schooling, and
knowledge to adequately assess your horse’s condition and properly apply
The State of Texas currently does not regulate animal chiropractic. Other states
have placed the responsibility of administration into the hands of the veterinary
community. For the most part, this is good. Any medical treatment should have
some type of regulation for the protection of the patient. On the other hand,
veterinarians receive minimal exposure to complementary treatments and other
specialties of animal medicine while in college. If they have a comprehensive
understanding of these modalities, it is because they have pursued additional
training beyond vet school.
Beware of anyone claiming to be a chiropractor or having the ability to adjust
your horse that does not have the credentials to support their claim. While there
may be some laypersons that have the knowledge and experience, there are
plenty who don’t. Dr. Eric Hoppe has specialized in equine chiropractic for over
20 years at his practice in Fredericksburg, TX. He feels that animal chiropractic
should be handled the same as any specialty like orthopedics or neurology,
where the patient is first seen by the Treating Veterinarian, evaluated for the
need of Chiropractic manipulation and then referred to the appropriately trained
Dr. LuAnn Groves, a holistic veterinarian from San Marcos, TX says, “There are
a few excellent chiropractors who are not veterinarians. Most of these people
are sponsored by veterinarians. I do not have a problem with these talented
people working on horses. I do feel that there needs to be some type of
regulation and certification system for equine chiropractors. Perhaps if they had
to take a state competency test for both written and clinical practice I would feel
that the consumers would be safe from people who only know enough
chiropractic to be dangerous.”
You should carefully investigate the person’s knowledge of anatomy, physiology,
and neurology, in addition to his training in the field of chiropractic. Without this
comprehensive knowledge of the entire body, chiropractic becomes merely a
form of manual manipulation of symptomatic body parts without addressing the
animal as a complex, interdependent system. Used in this way, the treatment is
nothing more than a quick fix; and, performed by an uneducated person could do
more damage than good to your horse.
You can find a qualified Animal Chiropractor through the International
Association of Veterinary Chiropractitioners, the American Veterinary
Chiropractic Association, or the Holistic Veterinary Medical Association. Your
local veterinarian may already work with a practitioner that would be able to
provide the service. One of the best ways to locate a good Animal Chiropractor
is to ask other horse people. Any practitioner should be willing to provide
references of past and current clients. Take the time to talk with horse people
who have previous experience with the person you decide to employ. Persons
referred by the above agencies will likely have attained certification after
completing anywhere from 40 to several hundred hours of classroom and field
If your regular veterinarian is reluctant to provide a chiropractic referral, ask him
why. Some vets have had bad experiences with unqualified lay individuals
harming their clients’ animals. There have been cases where animals have been
“adjusted” and been severely injured or even killed due to the lack of knowledge
of the lay person performing the service. Ask your vet to talk with the practitioner
you have chosen to discuss your horse’s case.
Other veterinarians believe it is impossible to move equine bones. They may
believe that equine chiropractic is not medicine. The American Association of
Equine Practitioners is taking steps to eradicate those misperceptions. Attitudes
are changing as old school vets are presented with undisputable results seen in
horses after a chiropractic treatment. Once your vet has the opportunity to
evaluate the abilities of the chiropractor you have chosen, he will likely be more
at ease and willing to participate in the diagnostic process.
WHAT TO ASK YOUR EQUINE CHIROPRACTOR
Before interviewing potential practitioners, take a moment to make sure you are
not holding on to some of the common misconceptions about animal chiropractic.
If you’ve followed this series of articles, by now, you know that only qualified
chiropractors should perform an adjustment on your horse. You have also
learned that your veterinarian should participate in the diagnostic process to
determine the viability of chiropractic and interact with the chiropractor. Your
horse will need a short rest period after an adjustment, but should not need to be
tranquilized for the adjustment or require pain-killers after the adjustment.
Once you have narrowed your search to a few practitioners, take time to ask
them the following questions:
1. How long have you been practicing chiropractic?
2. Do you work with the local veterinary community?
3. Are you certified as a Veterinary or Human chiropractor?
4. What qualification courses have you completed and from what agencies?
5. What is your personal horse experience?
6. How many horses do you adjust per week?
7. Do you attend continuing education courses?
8. Are you a member of any organizations that participate in educating and
certifying animal chiropractors?
9. Are you a licensed veterinarian and if not, do you require that the equine be
examined by a licensed veterinarian prior to performing any work?
If you are satisfied with the answers to these questions, some more pointed
questions are then in order, such as:
1. Do you use tranquilizers? Why?
Your horse should never need to be tranquilized for an adjustment. The rare
exception is the horse that simply will not cooperate without restraint or the horse
that is in so much pain he won’t allow the chiropractor to make an adjustment. In
20+ years of practice, Dr. Hoppe has only had to have 6 horses tranquilized in
order to perform his work.
2. Do you use long or short lever moves?
“Long lever” moves are dangerous. They are often performed with tranquilizers
which allows the person doing the movement to go beyond the normal range of
motion in the joint. This over-extension can cause muscle tears, ligament or
tendon tears or strains, and can even allow fractures to occur. Taken to extreme,
a long lever move can cause damage to the spinal cord.
3. Do you use ropes, chains, or mallets to adjust the horse?
A chiropractic adjustment is done with low force moves applied in a very precise
manner. A small tool called an activator is sometimes used to apply the thrust
necessary to move a bone in a specific direction. This is the same tool used on
humans. No adjustment procedure should require an excessive means of force.
4. Do you restrain the horse in any way (other than a vet stock)?
It is critical that the practitioner be a savvy horseperson with excellent handling
skills. Because horses usually feel immediate relief from long-standing pain after
an adjustment, they are generally very receptive to the procedure. If the horse
requires more than a mild restraint such as being held by one person or standing
in a vet stock, take a second look at the problem. Either, the horse has bad
manners, the practitioner has not established a level of trust with the horse, or
other issues are making an adjustment impossible. The success of an
adjustment is dependent on the level of relaxation in the horse. If he is
restrained, he cannot relax; and therefore, the adjustment will likely not produce
a positive result.
5. Have you worked on local horses and can I speak with their owners about
their experience and results of your work?
A no response to this question is a big red flag. Any professional should willingly
provide as many references as you want. If they are as competent as they claim,
there should be no shortage of clients that would be happy to attest their skill.
Discuss the specific concerns you have about your horse and listen to the
suggestions offered by each practitioner. Keep in mind that animal chiropractic
will not solve every problem, so discuss the answers you get with your
veterinarian and allow him to help you choose the best chiropractor.
WHAT TO EXPECT AT THE CHIROPRACTOR’S OFFICE
You’ve done all your homework, chosen a practitioner and are now on your way
to the animal chiropractor with your horse. Here are some general guidelines to
help you know what to expect during your appointment.
Be sure to arrive several minutes early so your horse has a chance to get relaxed
in a new environment. The more relaxed he is, the easier it is to evaluate his
movements and the easier it is to perform an adjustment. Tension in the body is
counterproductive to a successful manipulation. Acupuncture is often combined
with chiropractic; the purpose of acupuncture in this case being to relieve long
standing tension in the muscles and to restore motion in an area where the
bones have fused.
Your chiropractor will want to get a detailed history of the horse including the
specific problems that brought you to him, but will also ask about diet, training
problems, stable and eating habits, behavioral issues, medications and
supplements, and history of injuries. The horse’s current exercise program,
training style and devices, and his intended use will be taken into account.
The practitioner will evaluate the horse’s current physical condition and observe
any imbalances in musculature and the skeleton at a standstill. He will palpate
and observe the horse while standing quietly in search of misalignments in joints.
During static palpation, the chiropractor is searching for joints that are fixated or
display hyper-mobility. He will look for any unnatural curvature of the spine,
abnormal foot placement, or unusual head and neck position while at rest.
He will have the horse move at a walk, trot, and possibly a canter to detect any
imbalances, lack of rhythm, or restrictions that are visible during movement. This
may be done by leading the horse or by allowing the horse to work free in a
round pen. This exam will uncover irregular positioning of the extremities while in
motion that gives clues to the locations of misalignments.
Dr. LuAnn Groves describes her exam, “I will watch the horse move in a round
pen, looking for abnormalities of gait and carriage. Flexion tests will be
performed as necessary. A full chiropractic exam involves moving and testing
the joints to see what is mobile and what is not. Mobility is the key. The joints
need to move for the horse to function at full capacity.”
“Chiropractors restore motion,” she continues. “Some joints, if fusion has already
occurred, should not be adjusted. If a horse has a cervical vertebrae that does
not move, and I feel that it has a “dead end” type of lack of motion to it,
radiographs will be taken before proceeding with the adjustment. Then the horse
is adjusted using the shortest lever arm possible.”
The chiropractor is trained to the highest level to visually and tactilely detect
minuscule inconsistencies in the horse’s body structure and movements. The
equine vertebral column has over 170 joints. The ability to effectively diagnose
and adjust the horse requires thorough knowledge of anatomy, vertebral joint
relationships, the location and orientation of osseous processes, muscle
attachments, nerve supply lines, and neural components. The skilled practitioner
is able to correlate how the horse moves with normal and abnormal range of
motion; based on his physiological understanding of the equine body, he can
then determine if and where the horse will benefit from an adjustment.
After the chiropractor has completed his exam, he will make the needed
adjustments. Generally, the horse is held loosely by a handler while the
practitioner performs the adjustments. Occasionally, the horse may stand in a
vet stock during the adjustment. Horses tend to be very receptive to being
adjusted; in fact, after one or two sessions, they frequently “help” the chiropractor
find the spots that need work. Given the instantaneous relief associated with the
adjustment, the horse quickly learns who is responsible for that relief and willingly
submits to further adjustments.
When you return home with your horse, it is important to follow any after-care
instructions. It is common for the horse to need a few days pasture rest before
being ridden. A routine of stretches may prescribed to encourage the horse to
maintain his new flexibility and to stretch the soft tissues that have shortened
over time. Stabling is also very important; turnout and freedom to move about
are critical to keeping a horse in his best physical condition.
The practitioner may also expect some changes in training stress, techniques or
gadgets used on the horse. Over-taxing the physical capabilities of the horse
and/or the use of methods or training tools that foster resistance can cause or
exacerbate physical problems. Nutritional needs may be addressed if there is
reason to believe the horse’s needs are not being met.
Many imbalances can be rectified within one to three visits. Sometimes, it is wise
to have a follow-up appointment after 3-4 months to be sure the horse is still in
balance. Horses in physically demanding sports particularly benefit from periodic
adjustments. A typical adjustment will cost around $100 to $200. X-rays,
acupuncture or other body work will add to the cost, but will also greatly
accelerate the success of the chiropractic work.
REMEMBER AND BELIEVE: Chiropractic should not be used as a quick fix or
as a treatment for unbalanced riding, poor saddle fit, bad training techniques, or
poor conditioning. It is your responsibility to correct these problems so that you
are not the contributing factor in the destruction of your horse’s health. With the
elimination of these kinds of problems, the need for chiropractic or other medical
care will be greatly reduced and your horse will feel good, have a positive attitude
about work, and perform at his best for years to come.