Some forms of alternative or complementary medicine such as osteopathy and physiotherapy are widely used in veterinary medicine alongside conventional treatment. However, horse owners are increasingly looking at other alternative therapies such as acupuncture, herbal medicine and homeopathy to help with a wide variety of common complaints.
Osteopathy is an established science and system of healing using manual techniques, in order to remove tension and restriction and encourage structural and physiological harmony. Treatment is aimed at improving mobility and reducing inflammation using gentle, manual osteopathic techniques on the musculoskeletal system, i.e. joints, muscles, tendons and ligaments.
Osteopathy is useful for a number of problems, including loss of performance, behavioural problems, shortened stride, gait problems, degenerative joint disease, muscle problems and injuries.
Equine osteopaths are trained to recognise and treat many causes of pain with their hands, using a variety of techniques, including soft massage, stretches, and various joint movements.
By law, an equine osteopath will need to get permission from your vet to undertake any treatment, and you should always consult your vet before having your horse treated. It is an offence for anyone to treat a horse without referral from a vet first. Many insurance companies will cover osteopathic treatment but only if the horse has been referred by a vet.
Always make sure that the osteopath you are going to use is a qualified therapist and has the appropriate insurance to allow them to practice.
- British Osteopathic Association: www.osteopathy.org
Acupuncture is an ancient system of healing likely to have originated in Tibet or India, but developed extensively by the Chinese. It is one of the oldest therapies in the world and is essentially the stimulation of specific points on the surface of the body, either by using needles, laser or local pressure (acupressure). The Chinese recognise that these points have a direct relationship to some of the main internal organs and with the muscles and skeleton. These points lie on specific energy channels (meridians) which link all the points associated with a particular organ together. Stimulation of the points results in physiological changes which can help resolve illness, relieve symptoms and change body energy, allowing it to flow more freely, in effect re-balancing the body. Acupuncture is also used to both diagnose and prevent disease, as well as treat symptoms.
Conditions in horses that respond well to acupuncture include back pain, lameness, injuries, tendonitis, sesamoiditis, laminitis and navicular disease, RAO, gastrointestinal disease, post-viral fatigue, nerve paralysis, muscle spasm and head-shaking.
In the UK, only vets can perform acupuncture treatment on animals as the use of needles is an invasive procedure which, by law, only a vet is permitted to perform. If anyone other than a vet gives an animal acupuncture treatment they are committing a criminal act. Vets who perform acupuncture are properly trained and, ideally, should be members of the Association of British Veterinary Acupuncture (ABVA).
- Association of British Veterinary Acupuncturists: www.abva.co.uk
Herbal medicine is essentially the art of using plants to heal. It is not a new form of therapy, in fact it is an ancient system of healing which is undergoing somewhat of a revival in the light of modern analytical methods and new-found knowledge and understanding of exactly how plants work.
Practical knowledge of herbal remedies was once ingrained in folklore and backed up by scant evidence of efficacy, but now, many plant based medicines can be prescribed backed up by a sound knowledge of plant chemistry and botanical therapeutics which can explain how plants are able to interact with the body allowing it to heal. We now know that plants are complex mixtures of compounds which support and augment each other in helping to resolve a particular health problem.
Herbal medicine has a worldwide presence not only as represented by the use of healing plants in Western culture, but as being an integral part of Indian Ayurvedic medicine and combined with acupuncture as part of Traditional Chinese Medicine or TCM. In recognition of the growing importance of this type of treatment, herbal medicine is more often referred to by a much more appropriate term – phytotherapy.
Horses have a natural, inherent, self-healing instinct, as passed on from their ancestors, to seek certain common hedgerow plants which have natural healing properties. However, few animals today have regular access to pasture containing a good natural selection of beneficial plants with the nutritional and healing benefits they carry. The use of herbal remedies to treat horses is a completely natural choice.
Equine herbal remedies are widely available commercially and sold as nutritional supplements. However, an increasing number of vets are undertaking training, and using herbal remedies within their practices. So, for more complex health issues, or where a customised or individual prescription is needed, owners are urged to seek qualified veterinary advice.
Chiropractic is a healthcare discipline that uses manual techniques that emphasise diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mechanical disorders of the musculoskeletal system, in particular the spine. It focuses specifically on the biomechanical dysfunction of the skeleton, muscles, tendons and ligaments and its effects on the nervous system and general well-being of the whole body.
Chiropractic is useful for treating chronic musculoskeletal disorders, eg lameness, tension and stiffness, and gait abnormalities; it is also used in a preventive role to maintain fitness and soundness, and to enhance general performance.
Currently, it is only possible for vets and human chiropractors to become qualified veterinary chiropractors. You should always check that a practitioner has recognised qualifications before you allow them to treat your horse.
This evidence-based discipline is used to deal with the assessment and treatment of a wide range of musculoskeletal disorders. It can also be applied to the rehabilitation of animals after surgery or injury as well as in a preventive role.
Physiotherapy can help horses suffering from a wide range of conditions, including back pain, sprains and strains, sports injuries, gait abnormalities, reduced performance and a number of other conditions, such as changes in behaviour, that can be linked with these problems. It can be used to improve both biomechanics and performance, and may be used pre-competition to provide optimum performance.
Techniques employed using manual therapies include manipulation, massage and mobilisation as well as machine based treatments such as laser therapy, ultrasound, pulse magnets, H-wave, shockwave, spa treatment and hydrotherapy.
In the UK, a veterinary physiotherapist will have undergone several years of training with a recognised school of physiotherapy to become a ‘chartered physiotherapist’. Animal physiotherapists must see practice with veterinary practices and become a member of either the Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Animal Therapy (ACPAT), or the National Association of Veterinary Physiotherapists (NAVP), to be able to treat animals. A code of professional conduct for animal physiotherapists has been agreed between the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists, and they are bound by the Veterinary Act. However, non-chartered physiotherapists, i.e. people that have no formal training, are still allowed to use the title ‘physiotherapist’, so be sure to check the qualifications of any therapist you intend to use.
Homeopathy is a form of natural medicine that has been in regular use worldwide for over 200 years. Based on a priciple that was discovered by the Greeks, and developed by the German physician Samuel Hahnemann, it is based on the principle of “like cures like”. Using infinitely diluted medicines it seeks to address the patient as a whole either on a constitutional, historical or pathological basis. By carefully matching the presenting signs and symptoms to a remedy, homeopathy aims to gently ease or cure signs of illness by working energetically through the body’s own healing mechanisms. Currently the mechanism by which homeopathy works is not understood, although ongoing research suggests that it is tied in with quantum physics and the ability of water molecules to remember energetic imprints.
Homeopathy can be used for a wide range of equine conditions, including arthritis, skin problems such as sweet itch, rain scald, lameness, behavioural problems, RAO, laminitis, navicular syndrome, thrush and sarcoids.
In the UK, vets who pracitse homeopathy are registered with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and must retain their professional membership of this body in order to practise. They should also be registered with the Faculty of Homeopathy. It is illegal for anyone to treat animals homeopathically if they are not a qualified vet.