One of the most common misconceptions about chiropractic care for horses is that it’s only for use when there is an injury or discomfort. Actually, spinal manipulative therapy (VSMT) care is most effective when it is used as part of an overall wellness program from the early years through the aged equine years.
The Early Years
Have you ever watched a herd of weanlings or yearlings running in the field? Some will run flat out, only to slam on their brakes at the fencerow, or slam their bodies into one another. Normal activities such as this can wreak havoc on young joints and bones.
Young horses benefit from VSMT in terms of manipulating and straightening developmental abnormalities such as roached backs, as well as causes of mild compensation or lameness such as joint tightness and body asymmetry. Because of their flexibility and youth, young horses respond rapidly to treatment and results are dramatically different.
The Equine Athlete
Being an athlete takes its toll on the body. From grueling training sessions, shipping, and overall lifestyle, the equine athlete benefits the most from VSMT. Asymmetry is one battle for athletes. When a horse develops body soreness or injury, he tends to overcompensate in other areas of the body, often on the opposite side. Equine athletes also have a tendency for one-sidedness or being over-worked on one side versus another.
Something as simple as the way the saddle fits on the horse’s back and tightening of the girth can affect the way he’s able to move. Saddle fit should be checked often, as a horse’s body changes shape based on the amount of work he is doing. A saddle that fit six months ago might not fit today. One of the most important contributing factors to the way a saddle fits the horse is the saddle pad. The saddle pad can either enhance saddle fit, or create poor saddle fit, causing discomfort for the horse (often manifesting as behavioral issues when being ridden). A pad that’s too thick can make the saddle too small for the horse’s back, while a pad that’s too thin might not provide adequate shock absorption and can cause rubs. Further, sometimes asymmetry in the horse’s back or shoulders can create the need for more padding on only one side of the saddle, or only in the front or back of the saddle. Consult your trainer, or a professional saddle fitter before selecting a saddle pad for your horse, especially if you are having problems with saddle fit. Given the multitude of choices in saddles and saddle pads, as well as considering that each horse’s conformation is different, selecting the correct saddle and pad combination can be a challenge. A great starting point is a company called ThinLine, which carries a wide variety of quality saddle pads for English and Western disciplines. They have innovatively produced a broad spectrum of pad types and shapes, some to be used alone, and others that are placed on top of a regular saddle pad to enhance saddle fit with specific needs of the individual horse and rider. Some of the options ThinLine offers are thin pads made of synthetic material that provide very good shock absorption, as well as fleece lined pads, shimmable pads (ThinLine pads have pockets where padding can be added for improved saddle fit where needed), and pads containing infrared therapeutic technology for horses in rigorous training or that are prone to back soreness. If you’re having difficulty selecting the most suitable pad for your horse and discipline, ThinLine can tell you how each of their pads are typically used (whether used alone or on top of a regular saddle pad).
The Broodmare and Stallion
During the breeding season, a stallion is kept pretty busy between collecting and live breeding, and his movements can cause muscle and soreness along his back, particularly in his hips.
Broodmares experience muscle and joint soreness as well, and their back and pelvic symmetry can affect overall health, fertility, and ability to safely foal when it is time.
The Older Horse
Even though your older horse is retired, he would still benefit from VSMT to help increase the comfort through his later years. Almost all older horses have wear and tear from their earlier lives, or just from the aging process. The resulting stiffness and soreness cause movement restriction that can be best addressed via VSMT. Since spinal manipulation improves joint mobility and blood circulation, adding routine VSMT care can help keep the older horse feeling more comfortable with increased mobility. Routine VSMT can also help detect soreness and problem areas that may cause the horse a great deal of pain down the road if left undetected.
It should be noted that osteoarthritis is prevalent in older horses and that adjustments should not be done in joints known to have severe osteoarthritis. It is highly recommended that the veterinarian that does VSMT communicates with your regular veterinarian before doing therapy on horses known to have osteoarthritis (or any other physical ailment). This ensures that the veterinarian called upon to do VSMT knows precisely which joints are affected, and the severity. In cases of mild degenerative changes, the veterinarian certified in VSMT may choose gentle motion palpation rather than adjusting, which gently mobilizes the soft tissues surrounding the joint. Horses with osteoarthritis certainly still benefit from adjustments made in other areas of the body where osteoarthritis is not present.
The use of VSMT is starting to grow amongst surgery centers, where it is very useful after induction and recovery from anesthesia, and positioning of the horse on the surgery table. VSMT is also routinely used during the rehabilitation period after an illness or injury, especially if the stall rest is prescribed for an extended period of time. Although VSMT should be avoided in certain injuries, such as for fractured bones, it may still be useful in areas of the body distant from the site of injury. Using chiropractic care post-operatively improves circulation, which ultimately enhances the healing process. It also helps maintain body symmetry, thereby preventing compensatory issues that often occur during the rehabilitation process.
The weekend warrior sometimes benefits more from VSMT than the everyday athlete. Due to the lifestyle of the trail or pleasure horse in between riding sessions, the weekend warrior might not be in top condition to handle long hours in the saddle or missteps on the trail. Adjustments are useful in these cases to prevent injury, as well as to keep the horse feeling comfortable in between rides.
The Basics of VSMT
Spinal Manipulative Therapy, or VSMT, is not a one-size-fits-all treatment for all horses. Equine chiropractors work side by side, not in place of, your primary veterinarian to properly diagnose when a horse needs chiropractic treatment and to help rule out certain conditions that might present in a way that can make one think their horse needs an adjustment.
It is important to note that while regular body work, in collaboration with routine veterinary care, can help keep a horse in comfort if there are no big issues that arise. However, if there is an injury or a recurring issue that shows up, a diagnosis with your veterinarian is imperative before scheduling any more VSMT appointments. If you are confused as to whom your first call should be, between a veterinarian, chiropractor or massage therapist, the first call should be to your veterinarian for an accurate diagnosis and to discuss a plan of action. Ideally, the chiropractor will also be a licensed veterinarian who can provide a diagnosis or work with your regular veterinarian to do so.
Work together with your equine chiropractor to create a schedule of treatment—one treatment is not enough to keep your horse comfortable for the rest of his life. Depending on the severity of the issue, a horse can “rebound”—meaning the areas where adjustments were done can move back to the improper position again. This is very common in performance horses that train repetitive steps, movements, and workouts in preparation for competition and racing. You might also discuss the inclusion of acupuncture, massage therapy or other modalities which complement VSMT, making adjustments more effective, as well as longer lasting. The frequency of treatment depends on the use of the horse, it’s age, the owner’s goals, and what condition is being treated.
Finally, be patient. Do not expect to be able to saddle up and ride away after a chiropractic session is completed. Most chiropractors recommend that the horse should not be ridden after treatment and have only light exercise under saddle the next day. This is because it takes approximately 48 hours for the horse’s body to adjust to the changes made during treatment, especially if it was the very first treatment. Talk with your chiropractor and veterinarian about a timeline in terms of treatment and/or rehabilitation for your horse, so you know you’re on the right track to keeping him fit and healthy.
Preventive Care For Overall Wellness
Just like you wouldn’t take your car in for service only when something goes wrong, you shouldn’t wait until there’s a problem to have your horse seen. Not only are horses a large investment, but they are also our friends and companions. It’s important to provide regular maintenance for horses. It can help them compete at the top of their game and also make them feel better all around. We owe it to them to provide the best care possible, don’t we?