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Equine Chiropractic Adjustments

Katie Navarra

Equine chiropractor adjusting horse's back.

Keeping horses sound and comfortable is a top priority for horse owners. Equine chiropractic adjustments are one approach to providing preventative care and pain relief. Like human chiropractic care, equine chiropractic adjustments restore the spine’s natural movement and function. Stiff or immobile joints can irritate surrounding tissues and nerves resulting in stiffness, pain and poor performance. Kevin Haussler, DVM, considers chiropractic care one of several manual therapies that includes TellingtonTTouch methods, massage, and stretching.

“Chiropractic adjustments are just one tool I reach into my tool bag for when it comes to preventative care and when I’m called out to evaluate a horse for poor performance or subtle lameness issues,” says the Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital faculty member. He is both a licensed veterinarian and human chiropractor.

Although lay people have taught themselves chiropractic techniques, Dr. Haussler sees the procedure as a medical one that should be performed by a licensed professional trained in the technique. Most importantly, the person performing the adjustments must be a good horse person who is able to establish trust and work safely with the horse.

“It should look like something you would want to have done to yourself,” he emphasizes.

If you’ve ever been to a human chiropractor, you know the feeling of having your neck adjusted. It can be a bizarre feeling to realize your neck could twist in ways it does during a treatment. It has to feel the same way to horses, but over time Dr. Haussler says some horses even lean into the movement to make it easier.

“The thing that always surprises me is how willing horses are to allow us to give them a treatment,” he comments.

Here Dr. Haussler explains when horses can benefit from a chiropractic adjustment and what to expect during an exam and treatment.

How can I tell if my horse needs a chiropractic care?

Like human athletes, equine athletes develop stiffness and soreness as part of a training routine. For performance horses, chiropractic adjustments are part of an ongoing wellness plan that keeps muscles and joints limber. Many times, equine chiropractic adjustments are used when a horse isn’t performing well or exhibits behavior changes. An owner may notice their horse is having difficulty bending its neck or is tossing its head. The horse may be unwilling to move forward or has a lack of impulsion.

“Behavior changes, like a horse that pins its ears when a saddle is placed on its back or when the cinch is tightened, may indicate the horse is sore,” he notes. “It takes some detective work to confirm that it’s pain and not a training issue or that the horse is simply not understanding what its rider is asking.”

What to expect during a treatment?

Before an adjustment, Dr. Haussler palpates the bones in the horse’s neck and back with his hands, feeling for any heat, bumps or lumps. He also checks for spinal reflexes by asking the horse to do a belly lift or pelvic flexion. As he runs his hands along each vertebra, he gently wiggles or motions the joints to see how well they move.

“Chiropractic care is really detailed about where pain or stiffness might be. We might say it’s from the T13 to T18 on the left side of the horse and then we focus there,” he says.

Like a person getting ready to crack their knuckles, an equine chiropractor moves the joints back and forth stretching the joint capsule and stimulating the nerves. Then the joint is brought to tension and a precise, rapid thrust moves the joints into place.

“After each adjustment I step back and let the horse process the treatment. A lot of times they will lower their head, shake their head and neck, lick their lips or do a whole-body shake,” he notes. “I go back and check to see how the joint responded. If I got an improvement, I move onto another spot.”

How long does it take to adjust a horse?

It depends on the horse. An initial visit may last 1.5 and two hours, which includes a thorough evaluation, including a lameness exam, saddle fit check and treatment. The horse’s comfort with the adjustment also determines the length of time. A horse that is nervous or is in pain needs time to relax.

“A treatment takes me about 15-20 minutes on a horse that I see regularly and who is comfortable with the adjustments,” he says. “It’s about building trust and a relationship with that horse. For those that are uncomfortable, I use some basic horsemanship skills like placing my hand on their poll and asking them to lower their head and neck and other joining up techniques are part of the process.”

Horses should wear a well-fitted halter with a lead rope and moved to a quiet environment. Dr. Haussler prefers working in a horse’s stall where the horse feels at home. He backs the horse’s hind quarters into the corner to limit its movement and surrounding distractions. The only tool needed is a mounting block or step stool so the practitioner can get high enough to clearly see and work on the horse’s back.

Supporting chiropractic treatments

Equine chiropractic adjustments are just the first step in maintaining suppleness. Dr. Haussler encourages owners to follow up a treatment with routine care, such as dental work and farrier visits and regular carrot stretches. Carrot stretches are also a fun way to build a relationship with your horse.

Start by standing at your horse’s shoulder while holding a carrot in your outside hand. Encourage your horse to reach for the treat. Repeat on both sides and move further towards his croup as he becomes more flexible.

Equine chiropractic adjustments are just one tool for a healthy, comfortable horse. Ask your veterinarian if your horse is a candidate for chiropractic care based on their current level of work.

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