Dr. Jennifer Wright
What is Veterinary Chiropractic? Veterinary chiropractic is a field of animal health care that focuses on the restoration and maintenance of a properly functioning neuromuscular system, without the use of drugs or surgery. This type of care is a manual therapy, meaning that the doctor uses their hands to identify and treat biomechanical dysfunction of the spine.
Why is veterinary chiropractic treatment important? The spine is a complex framework of bones (vertebrae), ligaments, muscles and nerves protecting the spinal cord. A horse’s spine is composed of 7 cervical vertebrae (neck), 18 thoracic vertebrae (connected to the ribs), 6 lumbar vertebrae (lower back), 5 fused sacral vertebrae and 16-18 coccygeal vertebrae (tail).
The vertebrae are connected by multiple joints (there are approximately 200 joints in a horse’s spine), and the joints are held together by several different types of ligaments. Numerous muscles are attached to the vertebrae and direct movement of the spine and posture. The spinal cord runs through the vertebral canal in the center of the vertebrae. Nerves branch off from the spinal cord and exit the spinal canal between the vertebrae in pairs. The small spaces between the vertebrae that the spinal nerves exit through are called intervertebral foramen (IVF).
All the nerves in the body arise from the spinal cord, and nerves control every single bodily function. If the movement and biomechanics of the vertebra become dysfunctional, the performance of the spinal nerves will be adversely affected. The spinal nerves may also become “pinched” and inflamed. Anything that adversely affects the nervous system will cause detrimental effects that resonate through the entire body, resulting in conditions such as pain, compromised immune function, lack of normal mobility or organ dysfunction. The functional misalignment of a vertebra, or limited mobility of a vertebral joint, is termed a “vertebral subluxation complex” or VSC.
More about VSC’s…Horses are exposed to situations which can cause damage to their spine on a daily basis. The following scenarios may result in VSC’s: Trauma (caused by falls, slips, trips, cast in stall, etc.), suboptimal conformation (long back, lack of normal angulation thru the hocks, etc.), transportation (long shipping times, poor shock absorption in trailer, unsympathetic driving), birthing difficulties, lack of movement (stall rest, inadequate turnout area for exercise), performance (every movement strains the spine in a different way), poorly fitting saddles, poor hoof care or incorrect shoeing, or problems with the rider’s seat (horses and riders often “mirror” each other’s subluxations).
Additionally, as the age of your horse increases, the effects of previous small or large traumas to the spine may become more apparent.
Let’s discuss in more detail how VSC’s may negatively affect your horse’s performance…if your horse has a subluxation, he may lose the normal flexibility of his spine. This will initially result in stiffness, muscular tension and suboptimal performance, because reduced mobility between two vertebrae may affect the nerves that exit the spinal cord between these two vertebrae. Negative alteration in the nerve’s function may lead to interference in the flow of stimuli or information necessary for smooth coordination of body function and muscle contractions. Every single movement in the body, from twitching the tail to tempe lead changes, is made possible by the synchronization of many muscles. Very mild VSC’s may cause only a slight disturbance that prevents your horse from performing at his best. However, missteps resulting from lack of coordination may cause injury to joints, tendons or ligaments. A horse with a VSC may change his posture to compensate for the restricted mobility of his spine and to avoid pain, triggering increased mechanical strain on other parts of the spine, leading to secondary restrictions and further deterioration of his condition.
What are the signs of a VSC? The most common indication that your horse may have a VSC is pain. Horses express pain in many ways, but the following are common indications: suboptimal or reduced performance, abnormal posture, lameness, snapping teeth or pinning ears back while being saddled, insubordination under saddle, throwing the head up or hollowing the back under saddle, swishing the tail or pinning the ears under saddle, difficulties with collected or lateral movements under saddle, overall change in behavior or facial expression, sensitivity to touch, etc.
Other signs that your horse may suffer from a VSC (these signs may be less obvious than “pain,” but still result in poor performance) are: asymmetrical gait, stiffness upon leaving stall, muscular atrophy, brushing or interfering, difficulty engaging the hindquarters, difficulty working “long and low,” shortened stride in one or more legs, overall decreased range of motion in a particular gait, difficulty flexing at the poll, pulling against one rein, rider is unseated to one side by the motion of the horse, back does not “swing,” etc.
Another effect of a VSC is the impairment of the flow of information within the spinal nerve that exits the affected intervertebral foramen. Branches of the spinal nerves innervate the skin, glands and blood vessels, and such neurological disturbances may cause clinical signs such as unusual itching at the base of the tail (or other parts of the body), increased sensitivity to heat or cold, asymmetrical or reduced sweating, or abnormal sweaty patches.
The above lists are not exhaustive of the clinical signs and effects of a VSC, and your horse may present with one or many of them.
How can a horse owner recognize that a VSC may exist? Your own observations about your horse are invaluable to the early detection of a VSC. Consider your horse’s recent performance and demeanor…has his behavior or performance changed recently, does an unusual or intermittent lameness exist, do you have difficulty sitting straight in the saddle, does your horse drag his toes or do his shoes wear unevenly? Your horse should be able to move freely and without tension, both with and without a rider. His muscles should feel firmly elastic, not too soft and not too hard. He should not become anxious or grumpy about being brushed or tacked up. His body should appear symmetrically muscled. A well-trained or well -mannered horse does not usually “forget” his training or become obstinate for no reason. An evaluation by a doctor trained in veterinary chiropractics will establish if chiropractic care is an appropriate treatment method for your horse’s problem.
How are VSC’s treated? The doctor uses their hands to identify areas of restriction or lack of motion in the spine indicative of a subluxation. Once a subluxation is identified, the doctor applies a precise, quick, short thrust (called an adjustment) along the plane of the joint to realign the joint and restore more normal mobility. The adjustment is a very specific, high speed, low force maneuver that moves the affected joint beyond the normal physiological articular range of motion, without exceeding the boundaries of anatomical integrity (the thrust takes place within the paraphysiological space).
The adjustment typically moves the subluxated vertebrae only a few millimeters! Even though horses have very large muscles over the spine, the vertebral joints are flexible and easy to manipulate with minimal force. Often the adjustment is so quick and subtle that you may not even realize that your horse has just been adjusted. Each joint in the spine is examined and treated separately. When you consider that each joint is roughly the size of your fist, it becomes possible to understand how a small person (relatively, compared to the horse) can adjust such a large animal’s spine. A complete chiropractic treatment also should include examination and treatment, if necessary, of the limbs and the temporomandibular joint (TMJ).
The initial consultation and first treatment tends to take longer (45-60 minutes) than subsequent visits, as a detailed history is obtained and thorough examination (possibly including a soundness examination under saddle or on the longe) is performed. Subsequent treatments typically take 20-40 minutes. The number of treatments required depends on the individual horse. In general, most horses show significant improvement in 1-4 treatments. A chronic problem will usually take longer to resolve than an acute problem. Ideally your horse will be able to rest without forced exercise or travel for 24 hours following a chiropractic adjustment in order to allow the reestablished flow of information through the spinal nerves to travel uninterrupted.
The goal of chiropractic treatment is to address immobility in the spine which causes neurological dysfunction. After mobility has been restored, it is the task of the muscles and ligaments to support the spine and maintain the realigned position. Therefore, proper exercise, stretching and massage may also be recommended. Chiropractic therapy is not intended to replace traditional veterinary medicine and should not be viewed as an alternative treatment. Rather, it should be employed as an integrative method of care that, when used with traditional veterinary medicine, proper training and body work, may provide a more modern and comprehensive approach to your horse’s healthcare.