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By Allison A. Rehnborg
Today’s equine veterinarians possess more knowledge, skills, and have more technological equipment at their disposal than ever before, but their primary aim remains: to maintain, bolster, and restore the health, functionality, and welfare of the horse. Though equine veterinary medicine remains steeped in valuable tradition, modern veterinarians continually discover and adopt new methods of treating or caring for their patients. However, not all advances in equine medicine are new discoveries – some are old discoveries, made new.
Two middle Tennessee veterinarians, Dr. Jill Oliphant and Dr. Kara Pietroski, employ a branch of medicine in their individual practices that can be simultaneously be called “innovative” and “ancient.” As licensed and boarded equine chiropractors, these doctors of veterinary medicine regularly include chiropractic adjustments in the treatment of their equine patients.
Derived from centuries-old human chiropractic medicine, the central concept of equine chiropractic medicine centers is to work with the horse’s natural healing abilities by diagnosing and treating vertebral subluxation complexes, or VSCs, through motion palpation. If a horse’s muscle or joint is stuck and unable to extend or move to its fullest range of natural motion, an equine chiropractor uses manual manipulation to release the tensions and restore the full range of motion. Horses typically undergo multiple adjustments over a period of time before consistently observable results are achieved.
“The goal is to get the horse as comfortable as possible within its own body,” Dr. Pietroski explains. “There are always physiological constraints to this, based on the horse’s conformation and what it does for a living. But when I go somewhere to perform chiropractic medicine, I want to be able to make that horse move as freely, comfortably, and naturally as it was intended to move.”
Drs. Pietroski and Oliphant attended Options for Animals: College of Animal Chiropractic in Wellsville, Kansas, and completed their studies in 2013. Exclusively for doctors of chiropractic medicine or for doctors of veterinary medicine, Options for Animals offers postgraduate courses in animal chiropractic care. After completing the course, graduates must pass a a certification exam, given by the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association or the International Veterinary Chiropractic Association.
Dr. Pietroski is a full-time equine chiropractor at Tennessee Equine Hospital in Thompson’s Station, Tennessee. Dr. Oliphant practices sport horse medicine and is Director of Veterinary Medicine and Rehabilitation Therapy at Equine Performax at the Jaeckle Centre, also in Thompson’s Station. Both veterinarians assert that chiropractic medicine plays a large role in their practices, and they view it as another valuable tool to improve the life, health, and functionality of their patients.
“Equine chiropractic medicine is about using your ability and knowledge of the horse’s body and spinal system to help it heal itself,” Dr. Oliphant explains. “The whole idea is to provide correctly-aligned, low-amplitude, high-velocity adjustments to specific portions of the body, which allow the horse’s body to respond with its own innate ability to maintain health. If there’s no motion in a part of the horse’s body, we’ll create motion to allow the body to move correctly, to the best of its ability, by freeing up neural pathways and subluxations.”
“Low-amplitude, high-velocity adjustments” are the driving force of equine chiropractic work, and the concept of using the least amount of force to affect the greatest amount of change is what enables a 150-pound human being to manipulate the muscles and spinal column of a 1,200-pound equine athlete.
“[These adjustments are delivered from] a cross-hand position, and the strength is all in your forearms,” Dr. Oliphant says, extending her arms straight down, crossing one hand over the other, and then pushing down on the edge of a table in order to demonstrate the right position. “But you have to be in the perfect alignment [with the area of the horse’s body in question] to deliver the thrust. It’s working with the body, knowing the spine, knowing the skeletal anatomy, and being able to exert that little bit of force in the right spot.”
With small, precisely-targeted impacts, supported by the sophisticated knowledge of anatomy, an equine chiropractor can manipulate a spine or joint to enact a significant effect on the animal’s range of motion. It’s the education and sensitivity, rather than the strength, behind a chiropractor’s hands that initiates healing in a patient.
“Equine chiropractic is not about strength at all,” Pietroski affirms. “I think that having excellent palpation skills is really important, because it lets you feel the subtle changes within each horse’s body and know where an adjustment needs to occur. If a horse has lost a lot of range of motion in a joint, that’s easy to feel. But it’s the smaller, more subtle ones that can be a little harder to find.”
Every chiropractor has his/her own approach to diagnosing and treating subluxations in a horse. But generally in exams, the entire scope of the spine and nervous system is scanned and inspected for abnormalities before adjustments are made.
“We all start at one end or the other, but it really depends on personal preference,” Dr. Pietroski says. “I like to see the horse move first, whether that’s jogging in-hand, lunging, or walking. And then I pretty much always start at the back end with my adjustments. I start with their sacroiliac joint and sacrum, and palpate their muscles first, then go back through the spine and work my way forward. When I get up to the horse’s shoulder, I check the poll and head, then work my way down the neck. Then I do the legs last.”
Both equine chiropractors have seen good results with programs of consistent chiropractic adjustments on horses – whether that’s working with a sport-horse to regain athleticism, or treating a lameness with adjustments in conjunction with traditional medicine. But Dr. Oliphant and Dr. Pietroski stipulate that equine chiropractic medicine should only be used as a complement to traditional veterinary medicine, and not as a substitute.
“Chiropractic medicine is not the only path,” Dr. Pietroski says. “Work with a veterinarian. Many horses benefit from chiropractic medicine, but there are a lot of injuries and pathologies that chiropractic medicine may not be [appropriate] for. There are many types of lameness that chiropractic medicine alone cannot treat. You need to treat the underlying pathology, because you can adjust that horse as many times as you want, but if they’re hurting somewhere else, they’ll keep hurting.”
Viewing equine chiropractic medicine as a complementary therapy or as a prophylactic tool is the best way to utilize this branch of equine medicine. Healing can take all forms, whether that involves nutritional changes, the administration of medicine, or surgery – so why not consider chiropractic adjustments as one more possible treatment for a given ailment?
“My goal as a veterinarian is to always do what’s best for the horse,” Dr. Oliphant says. “Do I like to inject joints? All veterinarians do. But what if I can get a response in a horse by using just my hands, and the body’s ability to respond, to get that result? Why not try the least invasive thing first and then go from there? To not stick a needle in that joint and not give a steroid, although we may end up needing to do that later? If I’m looking after the horse, that’s what I want to start with.”
Chiropractic Seminar: A Hands-On Equine Chiropractic Seminar will be held with Dr. Daniel Kamen, D.C., author of The Well Adjusted Horse, on October 18-19, 2014 in Noblesville, IN. For more information, call 800-742-8433 or visit www.animalchiropractic.com.
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