Complementary Therapies for Equines: A Holistic Approach

"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:

  • Red Light Therapy

  • Massage Therapy

  • Acupressure

  • Kinesiology Taping

  • Pulsed Electromagnetic Field Therapy (PEMF)

When 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.

Here are some situations when complementary medicine can help your horse.

1. For Holistic Horse Care

With time, horse communities have believed that we should use an integrative approach in equine medicine. The mindset of just relying on blood work or lab diagnosis has changed. Several leading equine medicine institutes suggest combining the best conventional and complementary therapies.

Dr. Claudia Sonder, assistant director of the Center of Equine Health at the University of California Davis, stated that complementary modalities in veterinary practice are becoming more popular, especially in horses demonstrating performance issues. "It is estimated that 80% of the dressage horses or show jumpers are treated using an integrative approach of complementary and conventional medicine", she added.

vet checks horses heart rate before using complementary care

2. Medicinal Treatment isn't Enough

Conventional medicine has limitations in the case of some chronic equine health conditions. Like in senior horses, back pain is a common issue. The etiology of the pain is not usually external but the deteriorating state of joints or ligaments due to aging.

The International Veterinary Acupuncture Society recommends using complementary techniques like acupuncture or chiropractic in seniors.

In some cases of neck or back pain, the diagnosis can only be completed in hospital settings. Sometimes we can not inject analgesics for nerve blocking due to the nearby vertebral column. In such cases, complementary techniques can help alleviate pain conditions in field settings.

3. 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.

equestrian loves her horse and provides preventative care

4. As a Preventive Equine Care

Every big problem started as a more minor abnormality. Sometimes, you may find that horse is dragging his feet on one side or maybe stiffer on the other side.

Complementary equine therapies can help in such situations for optimal health. You can massage the horse to relieve the pain of micro-muscle injuries or relieve tense ligaments or joints. Such complementary care can act as a preventive therapy to avoid more severe problems.

We have comprehensively discussed the need for complementary techniques for holistic horse care. Now, let's dig into the most common techniques which can complement and increase the effectiveness of conventional medicine.

Complementary Therapies for Horse Health

horse standing in stall waiting for red light therapy

Red light therapy

What is red light therapy? As the name indicates, it is a therapeutic technique that uses red light. The idea evolved from the observation of NASA scientists who used red light for better growth of plants and for wound healing. Later it was found that the shorter wavelength of red light triggers a cascade of pathways in living cells and helps in the regeneration and restoration.

After successful use in humans, red light therapy is an effective technique for all animal use, but particularly in horses. Other names for this technique are photopuncture, cold LASER therapy, photo modulation, soft LASER therapy etc.

horse wearing red light therapy pad for pain relief

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.


  • 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