Treating the cause of your horse's disease

Treating symptoms rather than the cause of disease may help in the short term, but can negatively affect your horse’s health in the long run.

Modern technology has given us some amazing tools. We have radiographs, bone scans, MRIs, CT scans, thermography and ultrasound. When coupled with a good old-fashioned exam, these technologies can, in most cases, help us arrive at a diagnosis.

Long term help for arthritis

A lot of horses that come to see us have been diagnosed with arthritis in the joints of their lower limbs. Arthritis is simply an inflammation of the joint, yet we have talked to owners who have spent thousands of dollars to receive this diagnosis. For example, there was heat on the thermograph and the lameness got better when the nerves to the joint were blocked. This was followed by x-rays, an ultrasound, and sometimes bone and CT scans. The joints were then injected to make them feel better and an anti-inflammatory of some sort was offered, with the prognosis that therapeutic shoes or retirement might be in the horse’s future. Everyone feels better — or do they?

The most common reason for arthritis to develop is hypermobility in the joint. The body sees this as a structural weakness and starts to add extra calcium to the location in an attempt to strengthen the area. The calcium becomes a bone spur and, like any spur, can cause pain. Treating this area with injections, supplements, and altered biomechanics is simply putting a Band-aid on the symptom.

We must find the original cause of the hypermobile joint in order to have a horse that truly feels better. Joint tension is determined by the muscles, tendons and ligaments surrounding the joint capsule. When the muscles attached to the tendons get tight and spasm, the joint will not move well. When the muscles become lax, the tendons lose tension and the joint will become hypermobile.

There are two ways for a muscle to lose mass and become weaker: either it is not being used, or its nerve supply is hindered. When a horse moves, he requires every muscle in order to take one step, so the probabilities of a muscle not being used are fairly slim. This leaves decreased nerve supply as the main reason for muscle loss in the horse. The weight of a dime placed on a nerve will decrease transmission by over 50%, and will cause a noticeable loss of muscle mass within six days! Subluxations in the spine at any level between the muscle problem and the brain can cause swelling and place pressure on the nerve. Adjustment and removal of the spinal subluxation will treat the original cause of the hypermobility that led to arthritis and the formation of painful joint spurs.

Understanding stress hormones

We have recently seen an increase of several metabolic diseases in some of our new patients. These include insulin-resistant diabetes, metabolic syndrome, laminitis and Cushing’s, as well as Lyme disease and EPM. Blood tests have been done on these horses, sometimes repeatedly. Dietary restrictions have been implemented, sometimes in the form of a grazing muzzle or restricted access to hay. Antibiotics may have been given, and supplements added. Again, everyone feels better — or do they?

arthritis side note

When animals are stressed, they react in the way evolution has given them to protect themselves. They respond with increased liver and muscle glycolysis, increased blood glucose levels and cellular insulin resistance, and increased cellular metabolism throughout the body, allowing for enhanced muscle contraction and strength. When appropriate, this allows the animal to “flee the lion”. When inappropriate, we call it diabetes or a metabolic syndrome.

The heart rate increases, causing elevated blood pressure and vasoconstriction in the viscera. Lowered blood levels in the gut allow more blood to be available for the skeletal muscles. This leads to poor digestion and altered gastrointestinal tract function. The animal will have decreased serotonin levels with immediately enhanced mental function and clarity, but impaired short-term memory, concentration and learning ability. There is an emotional increase in fear, anxiety and depression, and in sensory sensitivity, especially to pain. When appropriate, this allows the animal to escape to live another day. When inappropriate, it leads to easy keepers, poor doers, and training issues.

Stress also causes decreased immune function, and a reduction in anabolic hormones like HGH, testosterone and LH, which are necessary for appropriate bodily functions. Blood coagulation rates speed up as the horse’s body increases clotting factors like fibrin, fibrinogen, plasmin and platelets. Protein degradation in organs, muscle, fascia and connective tissue speeds up. When appropriate, these responses allow the animal to stop bleeding and maintain bodily functions until the perceived danger is past. When inappropriate, the horse becomes sensitive to opportunistic invaders like Lyme, EPM and gastrointestinal parasites. He is more likely to have systemic problems like laminitis and founder.

The importance of balance

Subluxations in the spinal column will cause imbalances in the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. Balance between the protection and maintenance parts of the nervous system is important for long-term health in the horse. Stress causes the protection part to be turned on full-time. In these cases, it is important to give the horse non-inflammatory feeds, reduce noise and contaminants in the barn, increase exercise levels and maintain feet and teeth at angles that allow normal function. Drugs and a restricted diet often add to the horse’s stress. Chiropractic adjustments and a proper diet are aimed at decreasing this stress.

The nervous system controls all the other organs and tissues in the body. If the brain can’t communicate with the distal tissues, disease will result. However, the body has the power to heal itself. The more things your horse has going for him, the better his chances of maintaining health. Chiropractic care, proper foot trimming, adequate exercise and an appropriate diet are all geared towards helping your horse heal. Are you helping or hindering his health?


Dr. William Ormston graduated from Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 1988. He received certification from the AVCA and began using chiropractic to treat his animal patients. Jubilee Animal Health is a mobile practice in the Dallas Metroplex area where Dr. Ormston cares for animals using mostly alternative methods.