When you hear someone talk about chiropractic treatments for horses, do you visualise a big bloke pulling or pushing on a horse, cracking joints or bumping your horse with a rubber mallet?

Yes, chiropractic treatments used to be like that because people believed it necessary to use force to adjust an animal that is so muscled and large, but that was then…

Thanks to research undertaken and the experience gained over time, we now know that a horse can safely and effectively be adjusted with very specific low force, high speed adjustments.

I am often asked to describe exactly what a chiropractic treatment is and why it might be important to get a horse checked. Well, imagine this…

You are riding along a nice trail having a lovely time when your horse, all of the sudden, stumbles and you both end up on the ground. This could happen at the walk, trot or canter. It could happen jumping, mustering, in a dressage arena or any other equestrian sport. Either way, it is not fun, it is potentially dangerous or even deadly.

Why would this happen? And what does that have to do with chiropractics? Let’s look a bit closer.

A joint should move within its physiological range of motion – the normal range of a joint or how far it can extend and flex. If, through injury or too much or not enough movement, the muscles and other soft tissue around the joint restrict the range of motion of that joint we have what is called a subluxation.

This refers to the joint not being able to move in the way it should. The restriction is usually not caused by the joint itself but by the nervous system, as a protective mechanism when there is an injury. You can think of it as the brain telling the tissues around the joint to hold tightly and protect the area.

This, in turn, can place pressure on the nerves that travel through that area, compromising the signals they carry.

If, for example, we have one area of the spine not moving correctly and the signals don’t get to and from the leg quickly enough, it can cause the stumbling in the scenario above.

So, effectively, a subluxation is not a joint problem but a protective mechanism from the central nervous system (CNS) to protect the body from further harm.

As chiropractors, we learn how to recognize these restrictions and how to deal with them. The latest research indicates that our adjustments are basically a neurological reset. We do not really treat the joint but we try and tell the brain that the protective tension in the affected area is no longer needed.

Treatments like acupuncture or soft tissue releases can also help with subluxations because they also reset the nervous system and help release the tension in and around the affected areas.

Probably the best explanation I have heard is that all chiropractors are functional neurologists but let me explain the reason why.

The body is controlled by the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS).

The nervous system tells every part in the body what to do, how to behave and where in space you are.

It will, for example, tell the body that you are walking on uneven ground, at what speed you are travelling, and what leg is on the ground.

It will also give the body information on the outside temperature, if the body needs to produce more heat, if it needs to start cooling down, and if you need food or water, etc.

The nervous system controls everything. This is where the chiropractic treatment comes into the picture.

The CNS consists of the brain and the spinal cord, it receives and sends signals to keep the body functioning. For the signals to reach their destination the spine needs to be articulating freely. If the spine becomes restricted in its movement, the nervous signals can be compromised and the information to and from the CNS might not get to where it needs to in time.

So, when the horse in the scenario above stumbles, it might be because the signals telling the horse where the legs are in space and whether the ground is even or uneven, do not reach the brain fast enough for the body to react.

Modern chiropractics

The reason why modern chiropractics have adopted a more subtle approach is that high impact treatments and forced manipulations can generate a number of issues. First, we can cause damage to the tensed soft tissue that protects the area of concern. Next, it is highly likely that an adjustment will not last because the joint is not the problem, it is just a symptom of what is going on around it.

Muscles have what is called a ‘muscle memory’ and will tend to return to the level of tension they had before the adjustment. This means that if we achieve an adjustment through force, we might need to go back and adjust that joint over and over again as the issue keeps coming back. Not only does this cost time and money, it can, over time, also damage the joint capsule and cause further injury to the supporting tissue around the joint.

Another potential issue of high impact chiropractics is that when older animals with arthritis are adjusted, the adjustment itself can cause injury to the joint as it was compromised to begin with. High impact adjustments can also cause severe bruising and even dislocation of a joint, especially when performed on smaller animals. This can lead to permanent pain, damage and even the need to euthanize the animal as the damage can be too severe to repair.

To avoid these issues, the adjustments that are taught in the more modern chiropractic schools are high speed, low impact, very specific and do not cause any harm if used correctly.

So what are the signs that your horse might need an adjustment?

We looked at the scenario of the horse stumbling while you ride. This is only one of many signs that the horse would benefit from a chiropractor.

Other problems you might encounter when dealing with horses are biting, kicking, bucking, rearing, bolting, cold backed, stiffness, colic, dental problems, head shyness, head shaking, fear and anxiety, aggression, difficulty engaging the hind end, unable to maintain stable rein contact, uneven muscles, muscle atrophy and lameness.

There are many more signs that your horse needs an adjustment, but you can get the picture – most behaviour problems should be investigated from this perspective.

Another interesting one is when the horse is slow to react to your aids, especially when they are normally very responsive but you start to find he takes a few strides between when you ask and he responds. This could be a sign that the signals from the nervous system are travelling too slowly and delaying the horses reaction to the aids.

Chiropractic treatment of a horse should not require high impact adjustments but rather it should be done with a specific technique at high speed and low impact.

The well-trained chiropractor would have obtained a high level of training and knowledge. So, next time you get your chiropractor out, ask some questions about their qualifications and why they treat the way they treat. Chiropractics is not about ‘cracking a joint’ but a treatment of the neuromuscular and skeletal system of the horse and it needs to be done correctly.

This will ensure that the treatment offered will help improve your horse’s quality of life – that’s what it’s all about.

To learn more about recognising pain, read my article: The Subtle Signs of Pain, which was published in the Jan-Feb 2019 edition of Horses and People. To read it .