see. learn. heal.

First things first: what exactly is chiropractic? Putting a bone that’s “out” back in place, right? Not exactly. The spine must be considered a dynamic structure; anyone can appreciate the difference in spinal position between a standing animal and one jumping over an obstacle. The “normal” position of the back depends on the activity, and even within an activity the spine needs the ability to change at a moments notice. When normal spinal movement becomes difficult or painful a chiropractor is needed. Chiropractors diagnose, and then correct, subluxations, or more specifically, vertebral subluxation complexes. When these subluxations occur, the range of motion in a joint of the spine is compromised. This leads to dysfunction not just of movement but also nerves (pain or numbness) and muscles (spasm or atrophy). The chiropractic correction, or adjustment, uses an exterior force to restore normal function to the vertebral joint(s), so an animal can both stand and jump (or run, or turn, or, well, you get the point) without pain.

When subluxations occur at one, or (as is more likely) many locations, signs arise that correspond to the function of the affected area. Subluxations in the upper neck cause pain at the poll, abnormal head position, and/or resistance to proper head placement during work. Problems in the rest of the neck can cause muscle spasm, inflexibility, or the inability to elevate the base of the neck, which can shorten the stride of the front limbs. Chiropractic issues in the trunk and ribs create problems with bend, girth pain, hollowing of the back, and tend to be very painful. Lumbar, or low-back subluxations are also painful and tend to result in a loss of suspension and power and occasionally in incontinence. The sacroiliac joint is the only place in the equine and canine spine where there is direct connection to the rest of the skeleton. Dysfunction here results in sciatic pain and shows up commonly in an improper canter and reluctance to jump. Tail issues usually result in nothing more than tail-carriage problems, though some animals are born with slight kinks that are not correctable. And of course, chronic pain creates attitude problems just as it does in people, so disobedience, bucking, biting and kicking may all be signs of chiropractic pain.

The obvious question then is, “What causes chiropractic problems?” and the simple answer is—trauma. However, trauma is not always as direct as a trailer accident or bad fall over a jump. Sometimes it is subtle: long hours under anesthesia, getting cast in a stall, a difficult birth, or compensation from arthritic pain or poor shoeing. Somewhere further down the line is the cause few want to admit to:
training causes chiropractic subluxation. For the sake of argument I will assume every rider reading this article is balanced in the seat, soft in the hands, and rides in a saddle that fits their horse like an Oscar gown fits Charlize Theron. Likewise, I will assume that no one uses training aids like draw reins, chambons, side reins, long reins, martingales, and has shunned bits for hackamores. I will continue to believe that none of the dog trainers reading this have ever given too strong a correction, never put their dog on a belligerent sheep, and have always pointed out the most efficient line through an agility course. Good, now that we’re all feeling superior, I’ll tell you that your companion is still more likely than not to develop subluxations. The problem is the very nature of training. Training is repetition. It is, by definition, the teaching of a new skill. From the start, an animal will not be strong enough, or coordinated enough, to perform a new skill correctly. This means repetition plus imbalance and often fatigue. Add in a rider or handler who is also learning (present company excepted; I’m writing here about those other people) and the problem is compounded. Even under ideal conditions, when the pair are exceptionally skilled and strong, problems arise: patients tend to get stiff and uncomfortable when they move up a level and are working harder.

The application of the chiropractic adjustment is both a skill and an art. There are many different techniques that can all accomplish the goal of correcting a subluxation. Some chiropractors will use long-lever, high force techniques, which often incorporate using one of the limbs to adjust the spine. Others will use short-lever, high force adjustments, applying force as close to the affected joint as possible. Low force, slow techniques can be used to fine-tune adjustments or adjust areas too painful for high-force techniques. Tools like activators, little spring-loaded instruments, apply faster forces to smaller areas than the hand can accommodate. Some practitioners may use multiple techniques on the same animal, even using a different approach to the same subluxation if one is not working. Proper technique is critical; small patients can easily be hurt by excessive force, and as big and powerful as horses are, improper knowledge of spinal anatomy and/or sub-par technique can injure—a neck can sprain just as easily as an fetlock—so it is crucial that practitioners have proper training. A few sources that can be used to find veterinary chiropractors with adequate training are the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association (
animalchiropractic.org) or the American Veterinary Holistic Medical Association (ahvma.org or holisticvetlist.com). In the hands of a skilled chiropractor, most problems will require only about 3-5 treatments to correct. If a particular problem is not improving with therapy, chiropractic spinal issues are likely not the primary issue and either more diagnostics or investigating other therapies is necessary. That said, once the initial problem is corrected many patients will require occasional adjustments due to the rigors of training. Chiropractic therapy is not magic; it is one of many tools that can be used to keep athletes comfortable and performing well. Knowing why it works can help riders, trainers, and handlers decide if it is the right tool for their partner.