My horse was starving. I had a half-ton of hay in the shed, but he wouldn’t eat it, even though it was the same hay he had eaten all season. Eleven days prior he’d had his teeth floated and though the dental work was minimal, Cody had been difficult to sedate, requiring multiple injections. As the shots slowly took effect, my gelding struggled and gnashed his teeth, rattling the large metal speculum that was holding his jaw open. It was stressful to watch, but I put my faith—and my beloved horse’s wellbeing—in the hands of the friendly vet from the area’s premier equine hospital. Their farm calls and procedures were on the expensive side, but I’d been traveling and I’d let Cody’s dental schedule—and his teeth—go a little long and I wanted to do right by him.
Now it was a week and a half later and Cody had dropped close to 400 pounds; I couldn’t get him to eat. I soaked his hay and bought the alfalfa cubes I supplement with in winter, offering them dry, softened, or soaked. All of it would be there at the next feeding, untouched. I tried drizzling the cubes with molasses and topping them with shredded carrots in a plating worthy of Masterchef. He didn’t eat them. Cody’s ribs were rising and his flanks were sinking more every day.
Of course, I’d called the vet back out, thinking his teeth must have been damaged from the power float. After another round of sedation (this time much stronger) and a thorough follow up exam, the vet diagnosed “discomfort” of the TMJ joint and prescribed a diet of Purina Senior pelleted feed and 3 grams of Bute a day. Within two days he would likely be eating hay normally, she encouraged—only he wasn’t. To be fair, Cody did consume the Purina Senior/Bute mix, and he would graze the short grass and dandelions in my backyard. He would survive, but he still wouldn’t eat any hay. I knew something was still wrong.
My budget was long since busted from the vet bills, but that was the last thing on my mind. I knew the Bute was extremely harmful, especially when used longer than a few days. Phenylbutazone (Bute), just like human painkillers, becomes a problem in itself when consumed chronically. According to Wikipedia, “Side effects of phenylbutazone (Bute) are similar to those of other NSAIDs. Overdose or prolonged use can cause gastrointestinal ulcers, blood dyscrasia, kidney damage, oral lesions if given by mouth, and internal hemorrhage.” And although the Purina Senior is a wonderful product, a “complete forage” fed successfully by many owners of aging horses, I wasn’t ready to accept that my strapping gelding had gone from a happily hay-eating athlete to gastronomically geriatric overnight.
I had just come in from unsuccessfully cajoling Cody to eat when my daughter looked up from her computer and said she had an idea. She had researched Cody’s symptoms and came across a woman on the Internet who had solved a similar problem with a horse chiropractor. “A horse chiropractor?” I called from the kitchen where I was rinsing off. We studied the post as I dried my hands and the scenario seemed very similar to ours. I put out some feelers and quickly got the contact information for a local horse chiropractor.
I had Cody out, tied and ready when Joe Lally, DC, CAC rolled up with his sidekick, an extremely calm and well-behaved dog. Joe has a Doctor of Chiropractic degree and is certified in Animal Chiropractic (the CAC credential). In fact, Dr. Lally worked on humans for fifteen years before dedicating his practice—and his life—to equine patients. I gave the doctor a synopsis of the issue and then Lally spent the better part of an hour giving Cody a full-body massage with a smoothly polished jade stone. “I can’t work on the problem spots if he doesn’t trust me,” Joe explained, “He doesn’t know me; he’s not going to just let me start messing with his head. I have to let him know I’m here to help.”
The bodywork, however, isn’t just for emotional bonding, it’s also part of the treatment. Dr. Lally explained that horses (like humans) have a web of fascia permeating and surrounding the muscles—as well as the bones, organs, nerves, tendons and ligaments. If you have ever encountered resiliently strong, slippery, milky-colored fibers or a sheer sheath when preparing raw chicken meat, you have encountered fascia. Stress and trauma can cause the fascial to tighten into restrictive “bands” and without releasing that physical tension, further treatment would be futile. This is why supple, relaxed horses have a more elastic, springy movement, and why suppling exercises have long been a staple of classical horsemanship. By the end of the massage, Cody, who doesn’t always like his ear area touched (and certainly not by men) had lowered his head in obvious relaxation and was trying to nuzzle Joe as the doctor gently palpated his poll.
“This horse has been traumatized,” Lally stated, and proceeded to inquire about the recent dental work, “was he in the speculum for a long time?”
“He was,” I confirmed, relating the sedation fiasco, and how Cody fought the restraint.
“And did they have his head up in a stand the whole time?”
“Well, horses’ heads aren’t meant to be in that position for any length of time. Have you ever seen a horse walking around or standing with his nose up in the air like that—the structure just isn’t designed to do that.” Joe’s hands continued gently around Cody’s head, discovering the true extent of the damage done. He was feeling around Cody’s throat when his demeanor visibly changed. “Did they pull on his tongue?” he asked, an arrow of anger shooting through his otherwise Zen-like countenance, “and did they pull it to the side?”
“Yes!” I revealed that the while Cody’s mouth was propped open, the Vet had instructed her assistant to pull on his tongue and “hold it out of the way” so she could look at his teeth.
Dr. Lally took a deep breath and had me place my hand on Cody’s throat. “This is his tongue,” he explained, “it’s supposed to be fairly soft.” I felt a tight baseball-sized knot between Cody’s cheekbones. My horse’s basilo-hyoid joint was subluxated (malaligned). This, combined with the extreme TMJ soreness from being in the speculum and head stand for an extended period of time, had made swallowing hay impossible. In hindsight, considering the difficulties with sedation, I should have cut short the treatment and had the Vet try another day.
Dr. Joe explained the dangerous issue with yanking a horse’s tongue is that the back of the tongue is connected to two long, relatively fragile bones which terminate in the inner ear. This is the equine hyoid apparatus that controls and maintains proprioperception-one’s ability to locate oneself in space. Movement and balance depend on it. Pulling on a horse’s tongue—and especially wrapping it to the side—can literally tear apart this delicate biological machinery, sometimes leaving horses permanently neurologically impaired. “This guy’s whole world has been altered,” Joe related, “and he probably has one killer headache.”
Lally proceeded to gently massage and manipulate my horses head and throat in hopes of restoring his chewing function. Since Cody was relaxed and trusting from the prior relationship building, he allowed some rather dramatic adjustments, including a movement wherein the doctor wrapped the animal’s head to its shoulder and “cracked” something in a swift push. “Lateral flexion in horses is misunderstood,” Joe explained as he released Cody’s neck. “The poll itself only has about a 3% range of lateral movement. That’s all the bone will allow,” he demonstrated the small, subtle movement using Cody’s head. “This must be accomplished first, then the neck can curve around. Bringing a horse’s nose to your boot or stirrup is not lateral flexion. That is essentially wringing the poll out like a dishrag.” I was shocked at difference between the balanced, gentle horizontal movement of true lateral flexion vs. the twisted torque of what some equine clinicians advocate.
Tears welled in my eyes as I realized how much I didn’t know, and the pain Cody had endured. I sat down on the hard plastic stepladder I use for saddling to compose myself as Joe completed the appointment with an essential oil application on the poll. Cody “chose” wintergreen over lavender, which did not seem to surprise the good doctor. Before Joe left, I learned how to massage Cody’s face and jaw, or simply place my hand on his poll for healing, “He just needs to know you love him,” Lally soothed. “even just placing your hand here will make him feel better.”
The next morning, I carried some hay into the corral. Even though Cody is trained to walk to a certain spot and politely wait for his food to be placed before approaching, I barely got the gate closed behind me before he grabbed a big bite out of the flake I was holding. This time, I didn’t scold him.
was surprised to learn that horse chiropractors deal with acute cases like Cody’s rather frequently, as well as many other issues. In fact, the list of horse problems that can be addressed with chiropractic treatment is vast, from obvious lameness or pain to more cryptic responses like difficulty picking up a lead, biting during saddling, or bucking or kicking in response to a rider’s cue. Despite horses’ long history of service to mankind, they are not biologically designed to carry the weight of a rider, nor perform the rigorous activities of high-level equestrian competitions.
Dr. Jessica Landa, DVM, owner of Cracker Trail Veterinary Clinic, specializes in equine chiropractic and acupuncture. After graduating from Virginia Tech Veterinary school in 2010, she spent three years “putting out fires,” as a traditional horse and cattle doctor before witnessing equine chiropractic. “I was so impressed to see the results he [the Vet] achieved just with his hands,” Landa says,“without any invasive treatments or drugs.” Now Dr. Landa’s passion is enhancing performance and alleviating pain for horses throughout Southern Florida. An accomplished horsewoman who works and gathers cows with the Florida Cracker cowboys, Dr. Jess’s clients include barrel horses, roping horses, working cowboy horses, backyard horses, and senior horses with arthritis. Increasing awareness and maintaining a horse’s health & wellness—as opposed to treating injuries or lameness after the fact—is key, according to Landa. Dr. Jess describes a horse she treats on a regular basis. “This mare always adjusts a certain way, but one day, she presented completely differently. Landa discovered the mare was on the verge of tearing a suspensory ligament. “With animals, they cannot speak to tell you what is bothering them, chiropractic can give an indication that something is wrong before it causes a serious problem for the animal.”
I’m sure Dr. Debra Tibbitts, from Healing Hands Equine in Arizona would agree. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in Animal Science (1983) and her Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine (1986) at the Ohio State University. Dr. Debra began looking into alternative therapies in 1993 and completed Dr. Richard Pitcairn’s course in Veterinary Homeopathy in 1994. Since then, she has completed training in Veterinary Orthopedic Manipulation, Horsemanship Dentistry, Equine Touch Body Balancing, Equine Osteopathy, Equine Acupuncture and Network Chiropractic.
Many of Tibbitts clients are horse owners who know their horse is “off” but have exhausted traditional veterinary treatments. “It could be a $200 rescue horse or a $200,000 Grand Prix competitor, they’ve all experienced a decrease in performance, or a new behavior, and the owners are looking for an alternative to Bute and stall rest. Time does not heal all wounds,” she states. “A horse who has never bucked or refused to turn a left barrel, for example, and suddenly does so, is often physically in pain and trying to tell you ‘I can’t physically do this anymore.’” Dr. Debra describes her objective as restoring mobility and symmetry of movement. Although increased range of motion and “softness” are the most apparent results of horse chiropractic, according to Dr. Debra, holistic horse care goes beyond the musculoskeletal benefits, positively affecting neurologic, organ, and blood vessel function. “It’s all connected.” she says.
Horse chiropractic hasn’t always been widely used or accepted in the West, but just like in human medicine, that’s changing rapidly. More and more, recreational riders and amateur competitors are discovering what serious performance horse people have known for some time—that preventative chiropractic treatment can make a remarkable difference in a horse’s abilities and attitude. While all the chiropractors I spoke to had standing appointments with high level dressage and performance horses, they agreed that ongoing, endless adjustments are not necessarily the goal for recreational horses. While every case is unique, most problems show improvement in 1-3 chiropractic sessions, and all the veterinarians interviewed had stories of issues dramatically resolving—like my horse’s inability to eat—with a single treatment.
So why don’t more horse veterinarians refer to chiropractors? Cynics might say that expensive tests, drugs and surgeries are a more lucrative business model than the relatively affordable and time-intensive holistic treatments. And anyone whose been to a doctor visit recently knows time has become a commodity in modern medicine—and that includes veterinary medicine. Yet profit isn’t the only factor. Like traditional medical doctors, most veterinarians are taught to diagnose and fix a finite problem. The wider holistic implications of a symptom are not always considered, nor understood. Many veterinary schools don’t delve deeply into equine anatomy, much less the subtle skeletal, soft tissue, and neurological interdependencies. Myofascial contracture (and the resulting muscle fatigue, tightness and inhibited motion), for example, cannot be diagnosed with the x-rays, scans and imaging tests veterinarians often rely on. For now, it takes an actual human being whose eyes, hands and intuition have been honed to evaluate tissue health to make a diagnosis. In the best of both worlds, progressive veterinarians who understand the limitations of traditional western medicine are collaborating with chiropractors, acupuncturists, and other alternative practitioners to help ensure every horse is healthy and happy.