A sore back is a common complaint in horses, and can occur for a variety of reasons. Acupuncture can be a helpful therapy for the cold-backed horse.

The term “cold-backed” is often used to describe horses with a variety of conditions that cause a sore or tight back. The reason your horse has a “cold back” could range from poor saddle fit or lack of proper conditioning, to arthritis, hoof imbalances and hind leg issues. Regardless of the cause, once a thorough veterinary exam has been performed and a diagnosis made, acupuncture can be a valuable modality to add to your horse’s treatment plan.

How acupuncture works

Acupuncture has been practiced in China for over 3,000 years, and is currently used as the primary medical system for about one-quarter of the world’s population. Today, many veterinarians and horse owners find acupuncture a valuable option for treating chronic conditions that can limit an animal’s enjoyment of life.

Acupuncture works on the principle that there is an additional system in the body similar to the nervous system. Energy, called Qi (or chi), moves along pathways called meridians. Acupuncture points are located along these meridians. When a point is treated with an acupuncture needle, Qi that has been blocked begins to flow, relieving pain and helping restore normal function. Microscopically, there are more small blood vessels and capillaries at each acupuncture point than in the surrounding tissue. From a more conventional medical standpoint, acupuncture has been shown to treat pain through its effects on the peripheral, central and autonomic nervous systems. In addition to treating painful conditions, acupuncture may also have a positive effect on organ function, immune function and circulation.

Acupuncture and your horse

Most animals tolerate acupuncture well. Needles are inserted into acupuncture points based on examination and history. Electro-acupuncture, aqua-puncture, moxa or laser point stimulation may also be used. A treatment typically lasts ten to 30 minutes, depending on the animal’s size, age and condition. Depending on the severity of the condition, treatments may be done every one to four weeks.

A typical first acupuncture treatment for a “cold-backed” or painful-backed horse would start with a physical exam, including a dental exam. This would include a careful palpation of the horse’s muscles, especially through the back. An evaluation of his soundness would follow, and this may include flexion of all four limbs. Then the veterinarian would check the horse for any painful or reactive acupuncture points along the Bladder Meridian (which runs along either side of the spine and has points that reference body systems and areas). The veterinarian would then “scan” the horse with fingertips or a needle cap to look for painful points that would indicate the involvement of a particular area of the body causing your horse’s challenges. A pulse and tongue diagnosis may also follow. After all these have been completed, the veterinarian will then come up with a treatment plan and only then proceed to needle the horse.

Treating the cold-backed horse

A typical acupuncture treatment for a cold-backed horse would most likely include acupuncture points for pain (like BL 60, also known as the “Aspirin Point”), master points for the back and hindquarters, as well as for the muscles, tendons and ligaments. To many people’s surprise, some of these points may seem very distant from the actual problem area, but that is the beauty of acupuncture – the whole system works together.

While many of these points are commonly used, there is no “cookbook” of points that will treat all back issues. This is why it is important to use a good veterinary acupuncturist who will assess your horse as a whole, and develop an individual treatment plan for him.

While acupuncture is certainly not a cure-all for all conditions, it can be an excellent therapy, alone or along with conventional medical therapies. If your horse is suffering from a sore back, acupuncture, combined with his conventional treatment plan, could be just the ticket to help get him “back” on track!

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