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Complementary Therapies for Equines: A Holistic Approach

Updated: Nov 12, 2023

girl hugging her horse because she provides complementary therapies to keep him healthy

"It does not matter whether the medicine is old or new as long as it brings the cure. It does not matter whether the theories be eastern or western, so, long as they prove to be true".

Jes Hsou Lin, DVM, PhD

As an equestrian, sometimes, you may find that your horse is not performing at his best. Although the horse does his everyday activities and seems healthy, it is not at his true performance potential!

Reasons behind this loss of capacity can be physical or emotional. Sore muscles, stretched tendons, emotional imbalances, training stress, new environmental changes or even loss of a herd member can be all be factors. And most of the time, these conditions do not need medicinal treatments like antibiotics or pain killers. Specific alternative therapies can be beneficial to the horse in these situations:

While medicinal treatments are the best option, it can be complemented by these alternative equine therapies to relieve the stress and maintain the best possible equine health. Practitioners who are experienced in these complementary modalities use techniques like acupressure, massage and electromagnetic field therapy for a holistic approach of healing.

With that being said, these complementary therapies are not replacements to medicinal treatments. When a horse needs an antibiotic, it needs an antibiotic. When a bone is fractured, the horse requires medical treatment. On the other hand, in some health conditions, complementary therapies increase the speed of recovery by several folds. That's why it's important to complement medicinal treatments with these holistic therapies and not replace them.

If you are interested in some of the different complimentary horse care therapies, their effectiveness and application, please read on. Below is a comprehensive, research-based, guide to learning about these techniques.

horseback rider uses complementary care for her horse

When does a horse need complementary therapies?

In recent years, complementary horse care has gotten much attention from equestrians and equine practitioners. Ed Boldt Jr, a famous equine practitioner, published a paper in the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society, considering the importance of complementary veterinary medicine. He stated that most clients who use complementary techniques for their health start complementary therapies for their animals too.

Some equine practitioners believe these techniques can be an alternative and preventative care option for conventional medicines. And others found that in some chronic health situations, conventional veterinary medicine has limitations, and animals respond better with complementary techniques.

Below are some situations when complementary practices can help your horse.

Complementary Therapies for Holistic Horse Care

The evolution of equine medicine has led to a growing recognition of the importance of a holistic approach when it comes to horse care. Instead of relying solely on traditional methods such as blood work or lab diagnosis, the equine community is embracing a more integrative approach that combines both conventional and complementary therapies. This shift in mindset acknowledges that the well-being of horses is influenced by a multitude of factors, including physical, emotional, and environmental aspects.

In the past, the practice of equine medicine often focused on diagnosing and treating specific ailments using a reductionist approach. However, as our understanding of horse physiology and behavior has deepened, it has become clear that a horse's overall health is a result of the complex interplay between various systems. This realization has paved the way for the integration of complementary therapies into equine healthcare.

Prominent equine medicine institutions are advocating for this integrative approach, recognizing that both conventional and complementary therapies have unique strengths that can complement each other. By blending the best of both worlds, practitioners can offer a more comprehensive and well-rounded approach to horse care.

Dr. Claudia Sonder, an influential figure in equine medicine and the assistant director of the Center of Equine Health at the University of California Davis, has highlighted the growing popularity of complementary modalities in veterinary practice. She points out that horses facing performance issues, such as dressage horses or show jumpers, are often benefiting from an integrative approach that combines complementary and conventional medicine. This trend underscores the practical relevance of such an approach, as it aims to address not only the physical aspects of performance but also the emotional and mental well-being of the horse.

Complementary therapies encompass a wide range of practices, including acupuncture, chiropractic care, massage therapy, herbal medicine, and more. These therapies focus on promoting balance within the body, supporting its natural healing processes, and addressing the root causes of issues rather than just alleviating symptoms. When combined with conventional diagnostics and treatments, these therapies can enhance the overall effectiveness of equine healthcare.

In conclusion, the paradigm of equine medicine has shifted from a singular reliance on traditional diagnostic methods to a more comprehensive and integrative approach. By combining conventional and complementary therapies, horse caregivers and veterinarians acknowledge the multifaceted nature of equine health and well-being. As evidenced by the popularity of integrative approaches in disciplines like dressage and show jumping, this holistic approach has the potential to significantly improve the quality of care and life for horses.

Complementary Therapies When Medicinal Treatment Isn't Enough

vet checks horses heart rate before using complementary care

When faced with chronic equine health conditions that conventional medicinal treatments struggle to fully address, complementary therapies can offer a valuable alternative approach. These therapies can be especially effective in situations where senior horses experience issues such as back pain, which often stem from internal factors like joint and ligament deterioration due to the natural aging process.

Senior horses, like their human counterparts, are susceptible to a range of age-related health concerns. Back pain is a common problem among older horses, and its origins are frequently rooted in the internal wear and tear on joints and ligaments that occurs over time. Conventional medicine, while effective in many cases, might have limitations in providing complete relief for these chronic issues.

This is where complementary therapies come into play. Rather than focusing solely on addressing symptoms, these therapies aim to enhance the body's innate healing abilities and improve overall well-being. The International Veterinary Acupuncture Society recognizes the benefits of complementary techniques like acupuncture and chiropractic care for senior horses. Acupuncture involves the strategic insertion of thin needles into specific points on the body to stimulate energy flow and promote healing. Chiropractic care focuses on adjusting misalignments in the spine and joints to restore proper function and alleviate discomfort.

For equine conditions that require thorough diagnosis often conducted in a hospital setting, complementary therapies still have a role to play. In certain instances, injecting analgesics for nerve blocking might not be a viable option due to the proximity of the vertebral column, making conventional pain relief strategies challenging. In these cases, complementary techniques can be administered in field settings, offering relief and comfort without the need for invasive interventions. These therapies can effectively manage pain and discomfort by targeting the underlying causes of the issue, even in situations where conventional approaches are limited.

The value of complementary therapies lies in their holistic approach to healing. By considering the interconnectedness of the body's systems and focusing on promoting overall balance, these therapies can address chronic conditions that conventional medicine might struggle to fully resolve. They can work in harmony with traditional treatments, offering an expanded toolkit for equine caregivers and veterinarians to provide the best possible care for their senior horses.

In summary, the use of complementary therapies becomes particularly significant when conventional medicinal treatments fall short in addressing chronic equine health conditions. Senior horses, often dealing with issues like back pain due to aging joints and ligaments, can benefit from therapies such as acupuncture and chiropractic care. Even in cases where diagnosis and traditional treatments present challenges, complementary techniques can offer effective pain relief and improved well-being for horses in field settings. By embracing these holistic approaches, horse owners and veterinarians can provide comprehensive care that enhances the quality of life for senior equine companions.

Complementary Therapies for Better Analysis

The integrative approach of complementary and conventional medicine is helpful for the correct diagnosis. Dr. Sonder stated that veterinary acupuncturists and chiropractors can add valuable information to the physical examination of the horse. Additional info for the right diagnosis can be gathered by using these complementary tools.

Acupressure practitioners can also help find imbalances in the horse by applying gentle pressure on different areas of the body. In case of an acupressure technique, certain areas of concern can complement the X-rays or other lab reports.

Complementary Therapies as a Preventive Option

Complementary therapies have gained significant recognition as valuable tools for promoting overall well-being and preventing health issues, both in humans and animals. This concept extends to the equine world as well, where complementary therapies can be employed to address minor abnormalities, promote relaxation, and prevent the escalation of potential health problems.

equestrian loves her horse and provides preventative care

Equine health is a complex interplay of physical, emotional, and environmental factors. Just like humans, horses can experience discomfort, minor injuries, or imbalances that might not immediately manifest as serious issues but could develop into more significant problems over time. Detecting and addressing these early signs can make a substantial difference in the long-term health and performance of the horse.

One of the primary benefits of using complementary therapies in horses is their ability to identify and address issues that might not be evident through traditional veterinary examinations alone. A horse that seems to be dragging its feet on one side or displaying stiffness on another might be experiencing subtle muscle imbalances or tension in ligaments and joints. Complementary therapies, such as massage, can provide an additional layer of assessment that focuses on the body's interconnectedness and the potential root causes of these abnormalities.

Preventive care is a fundamental concept in equine management. Just as with human medicine, addressing health concerns before they escalate into severe problems can lead to better outcomes and improved quality of life. Complementary therapies fit seamlessly into this preventive approach by offering non-invasive, holistic methods that consider the whole animal rather than just isolated symptoms.

It's important to note that while complementary therapies can play a crucial role in preventive care, they are not a replacement for traditional veterinary medicine. Instead, they should be seen as complementary tools that work alongside conventional treatments to provide a comprehensive approach to equine health and well-being.

horse standing in stall waiting for red light therapy

Red Light Therapy for Complementary Equine Health

What is red light therapy? Red light therapy, aptly named for its utilization of red light, represents a cutting-edge therapeutic technique with a fascinating origin rooted in NASA's pioneering observations. Initially noted for its positive effects on plant growth and wound healing, scientists at NASA laid the foundation for what would later become known as red light therapy.

The essence of red light therapy lies in its ability to harness the power of shorter wavelengths of red light, setting in motion a cascade of pathways within living cells. This intricate process contributes to cellular regeneration and restoration, making it a potent therapeutic tool for a variety of applications.

horse wearing red light therapy pad for pain relief

Originating from its success in human applications, red light therapy has seamlessly transitioned to benefit a diverse array of animals, with a notable emphasis on equine well-being, where its effectiveness shines. Variously known as photopuncture, cold LASER therapy, photo modulation, and soft LASER therapy, this technique has found a niche in the animal wellness sphere, particularly in the realm of horses.

As we delve into the realms of red light therapy, we uncover a technique that not only draws inspiration from the natural world but also aligns with the intricate processes of cellular regeneration. It stands as a testament to the ever-evolving synergy between scientific observation and therapeutic innovation, offering a beacon of light for the well-being of both humans and animals alike.

Application: You may find a variety of equipment used for red light therapy. It can be a small handheld device, a cluster of many red lights on a small device or a large pad to cover a large body area. The purpose is to expose the animal's body to red light for a specific time. The application of red light is quite simple and each practitioner has their own techniques. A light therapy session can range from a few minutes to one hour, and several sessions can be planned for complete recovery.

Benefits of Red Light Therapy

  • Journal of Equine Veterinary Science reported that sixty-one horses suffering from back pain and trunk stiffness benefitted from light therapy. So, red light therapy can be used if your horse shows signs of back pain like reduced performance, resistance to training and discomfort with grooming.

  • Healing open wounds in horses is a challenge. Interestingly, red light therapy can complement the wound healing process when used with medicinal treatment. A study published in 2012 in Photonics and LASER in Medicine showed explicit results of metacarpal wound healing in horses exposed to light therapy compared to horses now exposed to red light.

  • Healing the post-workout soft tissue injuries is another important benefit of light therapy. Red light acts on the cell's powerhouse "mitochondria, " increasing energy generation. It also improves blood circulation and increases oxygen supply to help recover tissue.

  • Collagen is an essential protein in the body associated with the joints and muscular health. That is the primary reason for using light therapy for human skin care. For equines, red light can keep the muscles and joints healthy by increasing the collagen production.

Horses with the following conditions need red light therapy.

equine red light therapy applied on a wound for quick healing

Massage Therapy for Complementary Equine Health

What is it massage therapy? In the world of equine care, massage therapy emerges as a gentle yet powerful technique designed to elevate the health and vitality of our four-legged companions. At its core, equine massage therapy involves the skilled application of various strokes and techniques, strategically designed to enhance blood flow to specific areas of the horse's body.

equine massage practitioner working on a horse

The fundamental principle underlying equine massage is to deliver therapeutic effects to the muscles and surrounding connective tissues. Through the adept hands of a skilled therapist, a horse experiences a symphony of movements and pressures that go beyond mere relaxation. Instead, these deliberate actions aim to unlock a cascade of benefits, contributing to the overall well-being of the equine athlete.

Equine massage serves as a catalyst for heightened blood circulation throughout the horse's body. The rhythmic strokes and targeted pressure zones work in tandem to encourage the efficient flow of blood, promoting optimal oxygen and nutrient delivery to vital tissues.

By enhancing blood flow, equine massage ensures a more abundant supply of oxygen to muscles and tissues. This oxygen influx is crucial for the sustenance of cellular activities, fostering a state of heightened vitality and resilience.

Application: Equine massage is usually performed by the hands, and there is no limit to the strokes and techniques used. Its application can vary from basic massage to manual lymphatic drainage. Some massage therapist also uses massage guns having an array of knobs designed for different body parts.

Benefits of Massage

Massage therapy can have multidimensional effects on the health and performance of competition horses. From stress release to post-exercise recovery, here are given some research-based benefits of massage therapy.

  • Massage therapy can help reduce the stress on the horse and keep it in a good physiological state. Research studies revealed that weekly, 25 to 30 minutes of massage reduces the cortisol level in the horse's saliva. Other studies show that massage therapy has a tendency to significantly reduce blood pressure and heartbeat in horses.

  • Research shows that gentle strokes increase the body temperature of a respective body part. This increase in body temperature is actually due to increased blood supply and vasodilation. Increased blood supply removes tissue waste, speeds up regeneration, and supports nourishment and metabolic activity.

  • Massage therapy also tends to increase endurance and range of motion. A study by Jack Meagher Institute determined the effect of massage therapy on the content of activity in horses. The study revealed that the stride length of horses increased from 1.4% to 4.6% due to massage therapy.

  • Massage can also be used as a natural pain management therapy. When the pain sensation was studied by researchers after massage therapy, they found that pain relief gradually increased from the first to the seventh day of therapeutic massage.

  • Researchers from the Ohio state university suggest that massage can increase muscle strength and cause rapid recovery if practiced after exercise.

Massage therapy can help the horses with the following conditions.

  • Head tossing and bucking

  • Attitude and behavioral changes

  • Off to training or work without any reason

  • Back pain or cold backed

  • Problem with lateral movements

Acupressure Therapy for Complementary Equine Health

equine acupressure practitioner working on a horse

What is acupressure? Acupressure, a time-honored practice rooted in the wisdom of Chinese Medicine, stands as a complementary technique that seeks to harmonize the body's energy flow. At the heart of acupressure lies the art of activating distinct energy pathways, known as meridians, through the deliberate application of pressure on specific points termed "acupoints." Unlike acupuncture, acupressure achieves its therapeutic effects through the skilled use of the thumb, fingers, or even palms.

At the core of acupressure is the belief that the body's vitality is governed by the smooth and balanced flow of energy. By applying targeted pressure to specific acupoints, practitioners aim to activate these energy pathways, facilitating a harmonious equilibrium within the body.

Acupressure operates on the premise that conditions such as inflammation, pain, and muscle spasms arise from disruptions in the natural flow of energy. The intentional application of pressure at key acupoints seeks to rectify these imbalances, fostering a return to optimal energy circulation.

Beyond the symptomatic relief of pain or discomfort, acupressure embraces a holistic perspective on wellness. By addressing the root causes of energy imbalances, practitioners aspire to not only alleviate immediate concerns but also cultivate a lasting state of health and vitality.

Application: Unlike acupuncture, in which different needles are inserted at acupoints, acupressure is a non-invasive technique. Other acupressure techniques are applied according to the type and characteristics of a horse. The balancing technique has a harmonizing effect and is applied for one minute. The Yin technique has a soothing effect, while the Yang technique has a stimulating effect. The finger used to apply pressure is moved in different directions while keeping an eye on the horse's response.

Benefits of Acupressure

  • Acupressure involves applying gentle pressure on acupoints that are beneficial for different health conditions. There are numerous nerve endings beneath the skin of a horse. When we apply pressure to the acupoints, several chemicals like endorphins are secreted by the body. These chemicals help in pain, inflammation, and stress relief.

  • Acupressure can be mainly used for managing performance-related issues like muscular soreness, fatigue or compensatory soreness. It can also be used as complementary care to maintain the potential of a hard-working performance horse.

  • The beauty of this technique is that it is non-invasive, and your horse enjoys it just like a massage. It reduces anxiety, encourages relaxation and helps joint lubrication & movement.

  • It works amazingly as a preventative care option. Acupressure can keep your horse healthy by balancing the natural working systems in the body.

Acupressure can help prevent and complement medicinal therapy in horses with the following conditions:

equine acupressure practitioner working on a horse

Kinesiology Tape (KT) for Complementary Equine Health

horse has kinesiology tape on his face to allow lymphatic drainage

What is it kinesiology taping? In the vibrant world of athletic arenas and therapeutic landscapes, a visually striking yet purposeful technique takes center stage—Kinesiology Taping. If you've ever glimpsed athletes adorned with colorful tapes along their limbs, you've witnessed the application of this dynamic and versatile approach. Developed by Dr. Kenzo Kase in 1973 primarily for pain management, Kinesiology Taping has evolved into a holistic method embraced for its positive effects on the dermal, neuromuscular, circulatory, and lymphatic systems in both human and animal domains.

The distinct appearance of Kinesiology Taping is not merely a visual spectacle but a deliberate choice. The colorful bands, strategically applied to specific areas, signify a fusion of aesthetics and functionality, distinguishing this technique from traditional sports tape.

Dr. Kenzo Kase's innovative approach to pain management led to the development of Kinesiology Taping, breaking away from rigid taping methods. This method prioritizes flexibility, mimicking the qualities of the skin to allow a full range of motion while still providing support.

Kinesiology Taping transcends its initial purpose and has proven to be a multi-faceted tool. It influences the dermal layer by lifting the skin, creating space for improved circulation and lymphatic drainage. This, in turn, contributes to enhanced neuromuscular function and recovery.

Application: Kinesiology tape is specially designed tape with specific thickness and tackiness. It should be applied by an experienced practitioner, who will decide the area of application, how much to stretch the tape, the shape of tape placement and its length according to the horse's problem.

The area should be clean before applying the tape, and you can leave the tape on the horse's body for 3 to 5 days. The length of time varies based on activity level of the horse. Experts say that the tape recoil decreases and becomes less effective with time. The tape should be reapplied when it falls off to continue the therapy.

Sometimes tapes are only necessary for 24 hours before it needs to be removed. This is the case for lymphatic drainage. Your practitioner will know how to apply the tape, how long the application should be worn, how many tapings would be needed for therapeutic effect, and more.

Benefits of Kinesiology Tape

Kinesiology Tape is designed with a specific weight, stretch and adhesives to get the following benefits

horse has kinesiology tape on his hips for pain relief
  • The adhesive pattern on the tape has repeated waveform-like structures just like the fingerprints. The tape's pattern and stretching ability make convulsions at the microscopic levels on the skin and underlying fascia. These convulsions create a massage or lifting effect on the different layers of the skin. You can see this in action when you see the tape lifting the hair, which lifts the skin.

  • Tape is applied to painful areas by creating a pattern of spaces. These spaces help manage the fluid in the underlying layers of the skin. Lymphatic fluid moves from the site of high pressure to lower pressure, so lymphatic drainage takes place.

  • Taping also supports the skin and underlying tissue of the affected area and helps relieve pain.

  • Kinesio taping also helps correct joint problems by stabilizing the ligaments and tendons that support the joints. In case of joint injuries, taping allows full range of motion during the healing process and avoids frozen joints.

Kinesiology taping can help a horse in the following situations.

  • Muscle fatigue and soreness

  • Joint injuries

  • Ligament/tendon tears

  • Edema

  • Overuse injuries

  • Proprioception

Pulsed Electromagnetic Field Therapy (PEMF) for Complementary Equine Health

What is PEMF? PEMF, or Pulsed Electromagnetic Field therapy, delves into the intricate symphony of electrical currents within living cells, revealing a profound principle that underlies its therapeutic prowess. This therapeutic modality operates on the fascinating premise that living cells possess minute voltage across their membranes, generating this electrical charge through the transfer of ions.

At the heart of every living cell lies a delicate dance of ions across its membrane, creating a subtle but crucial voltage. This microscopic current serves as the conductor orchestrating the transmission of signals throughout the body, underlining the paramount importance of cellular electrical health.

The existence of voltage across the cell membrane is not merely an abstract concept; it is the language through which cells communicate. This electrical dialogue facilitates the transmission of signals that regulate various physiological processes, emphasizing the integral role of cellular charge in overall health.

"Health is an energy dance; the more you have, the better you shell feel," says Bryant A. Meyers- Author of PEMF-The Fifth Element of Health.

Application: PEMF apparatus consists of a regulator and is provided with full-body mats, spot applicators and localized applicators. A regulator is used to change the frequency of the PEMF device, and applicators produce a magnetic field that acts at the cellular level.

PEMF device is not very difficult to use; however, it is advisable to seek the services of professional PEMF therapists. Knowing the equipment exposure for a different body part is necessary, and an experienced professional will advise you accordingly.

Benefits of PEMF

Your horse can show significant improvement after the first session or may need 2 to 3 sessions for complete recovery. Here are some benefits we can get from PEMF therapy in horses.

PEMF therapy improves blood circulation. Dr. Otto Warburg, a Noble prize Laureate, stated that unhealthy cells' cellular voltage is lower than healthy cells. Blood cells with a low charge start stacking on each other like coins and lower circulation speed. To maintain good blood circulation, blood cells have sufficient charge to repel each other. PEMF therapy charges the cells to avoid stack formation and reduce blood viscosity for better blood circulation.

horse with pulsed electromagnetic field PEMF application on
Photo credit: KT PEMF
  • PEMF therapy also increases the number of pores in a cell for a better supply of nutrients and waste removal. Imagine the more significant number of windows in your house for better ventilation. A cell has different channels and gaits in the cell membrane to transport nutrients and remove waste. PEMF therapy gently increases these pathways for efficient transportation.

  • By increasing the oxygen supply and efficiently removing the metabolic wastes (Lactic Acid), PEMF therapy prevents muscle soreness and pain in hard-working horses.

  • It also helps to improve the immunity of horses. According to Dr. Otto Warburg, a cell operating at lower pH tends more toward disease and cancer. Low pH and lower cellular voltage are related to each other. PEMF improves the cellular voltage and keeps the cell environment alkaline. It keeps the body in a balanced state and immune from disease.

PEMF therapy can help the horses with following conditions:

  • Soreness of joints, neck and muscles

  • Micro-muscle injuries & soft tissue injuries

  • Lameness and laminitis

  • Cushing disease

  • Bone injuries and fractures

  • Behavioral and stress-related issues

  • Post-workout horse management

  • Immunity-Associated problems

Take Home Messages for Complementary Therapies for Horses

When considering the utilization of complementary horse care techniques, it's essential to bear in mind their intended role. These approaches should not be regarded as substitutes for conventional medical treatment; rather, they can serve as valuable additions to expedite recovery. Employing a combination of complementary techniques concurrently can significantly amplify their benefits – after all, they are termed "complementary" for a reason. The realm of complementary and preventative horse care operates to uphold your horse's well-being from a holistic standpoint, considering the entirety of the animal. By integrating the most effective conventional and complementary methods available, a truly comprehensive and holistic approach is achieved.

The wisdom of "prevention is better than cure" rings particularly true in the realm of equine health. Waiting for a minor issue to escalate before taking action can result in substantial veterinary expenses down the line. Proactivity is key; it's far wiser to act preemptively to circumvent potential high treatment costs. Consistency is also of paramount importance when it comes to therapy sessions. Your horse might necessitate several sessions per week, spanning a few months, to ensure a complete recovery. Consistent engagement with these therapies is the linchpin of achieving a successful outcome.

However, it's crucial to underscore the significance of seeking out the services of professional therapists. These experts possess the expertise to tailor the therapy precisely to your horse's unique requirements. The intricacies of equine physiology and behavior call for a personalized approach that a skilled therapist can provide. By collaborating with these professionals, you can ensure that your horse's complementary therapy regimen is meticulously designed to yield the best possible results.

healthy quarter horse in field

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