Osteopathy for horses

Osteopathy is a tried and tested therapy that treats not only lameness in horses, but also behavioral issues and various diseases.

Osteopathy has been around for more than 100 years but surprisingly, many people still don’t know much about it. Similar to chiropractic in that we manipulate the muscles and joints, Osteopathy also considers the organs and the connections between the skull and pelvis. In other words, to be an osteopath you must work on all three systems of the body: musculoskeletal, visceral (organs) and cranial sacral.

The men behind the method

To give you an understanding of how equine osteopathy came to be, we have to start with Andrew Taylor Still, an American physician who founded osteopathy in 1874 during the “vitalistic” period of human medicine. Vitalistic physicians believed the body could heal itself if given the right circumstances. Their treatments were aimed at strengthening the immune system instead of suppressing it.

Then, about 20 years ago, three independent osteopaths from Europe – Dominique Giniaux, Pascal Evrard and Janek Vluggen – began developing osteopathy for horses. Sadly, Giniaux and Evrard both died, but Janek carried on and founded an international school, The Vluggen Institute for Equine Osteopathy & Education, with classes taught in both the Netherlands and the United States.

I discovered equine osteopathy after years of studying holistic methods, when my conventional training no longer satisfied my need to help animals. I had studied and practiced classical homeopathy for years and tried both chiropractic and acupuncture, but was still not content that this was the best I could do for my patients. My career dramatically changed three years ago when I met Janek. I read an article describing his method of traditional European osteopathy for horses, and knew I had to study with him. Today I cannot imagine how I ever practiced without it.

Getting to the root

So how can osteopathy help your horse? The most common problems I treat in my practice are lameness issues. Usually, riders are surprised when I explain the underlying osteopathic reason their horses have been lame for so long. I strive to get to the root cause of the lameness, with the goal being to prevent reoccurrence. I also treat neurological conditions such as head shaking, head tilts, in-coordination and stumbling. Behavioral issues like grumpiness in mares, aggression problems, and bucking can also be helped.

Alvin’s story

Alvin, a 12-year-old bay quarter horse gelding, jumps in a lesson program for high school students. The trainer reported that Alvin gets adjusted by a local chiropractor about once every six weeks, and she can really tell when it’s getting close to adjustment time because he starts getting grumpy and bucking students off. He has been getting regular adjustments for over two years. She also reported that Alvin appears stiff and slower than he used to be, can’t seem to keep weight on, and just seems to be aging too fast in general. The trainer wanted to see him more comfortable, and stop the cycle of frequent adjustments.

Upon assessment, I found a horse with a poor coat with patches of lighter red fur, different lengths of hair growth, and a mane and a tail with pieces of hair broken off in certain places. To me this indicates poor nutrition, or a body unable to utilize the nutrition it is given. I checked out Alvin’s current diet and supplements, and they were adequate for a horse of his age and workload. Alvin had also lost muscle mass, especially in his gluteal muscles, and displayed overly large hamstrings.

I started my osteopathic evaluation with the hind end by testing the sacrum for mobility. The sacrum is the triangular bone that lies perpendicular and between the two wings of the pelvis. The importance of this bone is unequaled, because if it’s not mobile the entire pelvis cannot move correctly. This means the stifles and hocks are overused, causing compensation in the back, shoulders and neck. I have seen many joint injections avoided by simply getting all these bones mobile and moving in the right direction(s).

On Alvin, I found a sacrum that moved only on one side, with the stifle and hock blocked on the same side. He also had scar tissue built up from his gelding surgery that was preventing the sacrum’s movement. Certain vertebrae in his spine were immobile, indicating congestion in one kidney. Both shoulders were blocked as were various places in his neck.

My osteopathic treatment consisted of mobilizing the sacrum by first releasing the scar tissue and then the sacrum itself, then simply getting all the rest of the joints moving. Afterwards, I gave him a natural remedy for his kidney, and to prevent soreness. As I write this, Alvin’s treatment has lasted 14 weeks. I expect to see him once every four to six months or so, in order to maintain him in his lesson program.

While osteopaths are not as abundant as many other therapeutic professionals, they can be an excellent asset to your horse’s health and wellness team if you have one in your area. The “whole horse” approach is fundamental to keeping your equine partner healthy and happy in his work.