As foaling season in Central Kentucky rounds the corner, farm managers and veterinarians remain particularly busy caring for mares at the end of their pregnancies and foals in their first weeks of life. A mare’s body condition, hoof health, and hormone levels are all of chief concern throughout her pregnancy, but some horsemen and practitioners are beginning to include chiropractic work into the carousel of things they have to think about for broodmares.
Chiropractic work has become commonplace in the human medicine world. Chiropractic care involves the use of physical manipulation, most commonly to the spine, to improve range of motion and nervous system function. This manipulation is achieved through a high velocity, low amplitude thrust at key points on the body by a trained practitioner, which can stimulate muscle receptors, break up adhesions, and in so doing, improve comfort and range of motion.
Learn more about the basics of equine chiropractic care in this 2021 feature.
In the human world, it’s not unusual for someone to seek chiropractic therapy to combat pain or stiffness, to deal with an injury, or as a kind of preventative maintenance. Even infants can be adjusted by many chiropractors, and the therapy is recognized as key to comfort for women in the later stages of pregnancy.
In the equine world though, experts say there’s still a bit of a learning curve for many horse owners.
When Dr. Larkspur Carroll changed her veterinary practice to focus exclusively on equine chiropractic work and acupuncture in 2008, she was an anomaly. Now, she says both therapies are routine among athletic horses, both in the racing and sport horse worlds, and she is as busy as ever.
While it’s easy for people to grasp the potential benefits for a horse in intense under-saddle work, Carroll said it’s still not all that common to see broodmares get chiropractic adjustments – and that’s a real missed opportunity for the mare and the owner.
“People don’t bat an eye in the human world because they’d rather control back pain and musculoskeletal issues with non-drug, non-pharmacological manners because they see the downside to doing that in a pregnant body,” said Carroll. “Any kind of chronic pain or chronic musculoskeletal issues will 110% affect your mare’s conception rate or tendency for complications in pregnancy and/or foaling.”
Although it may be easy to write off a broodmare’s job as an easy one since most are not ridden, the late stages of pregnancy can be a time of intense physical demand.
“We have this term of ‘broodmare sound,’ but at the end of pregnancy, a 125 to 150-pound Thoroughbred foal – that’s [the weight of] a person,” said Erin O’Keefe, farm manager and partner in BTE Stables. “And that’s not a person for an hour on a trail ride, that’s 24/7 there at the end. I don’t think that gets the attention it probably should.”
As the unborn foal grows larger and heavier, Carroll said it can place greater demands on the pelvis. Additionally, the hormone relaxin, which is designed to help loosen the ligaments in the pelvis in preparation for delivery, can also have the side effect of reducing the soft tissue support for the lower back and pelvis. Carroll said she can feel substantial changes in mares’ pelvises just by putting her hands on them over the course of a pregnancy. The mare may load heavier onto her lower limbs in later pregnancy too, resulting in a braced stance that can sometimes spread to create stiffness in the neck. Older mares who may have naturally lower lumbar backs and who have been through the cyclical hormone process with relaxin more times may have these issues accentuated. And of course, conformation plays a role in the way a mare’s back can carry the load of a foaling evenly.
All of this can cause stiffness and a limited range of motion. It can also result in pinching of nerves that serve visceral organs, leading to discomfort in other areas.
Currently, Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital’s Dr. Woodrow Friend says most of his clients use chiropractic care on breeding stock to troubleshoot a perceived issue. In reality, he believes it’s more effective when used as a preventative tool.
“I think as acupuncture, chiropractic, all of your Eastern medicine modalities become more popular, you’re going to see more people use these on a regular basis and not as a therapy,” Friend said. “It’s real easy to want to use a laser, shockwave, and a PEMF unit when you know you have a horse with an injury. Chiropractic’s very different in that it’s a preventative. A lot of times you don’t know you have an issue until you get over their spine.
“I think more and more people are doing foal chiropractic work as well. You get a foal who’s been bound up in a body with contracted tendons and everything else – that occurs to their pelvis and their neck as well. I’ve had foals that don’t suckle well, they can’t suckle from one side or the other.”
There are a few reasons Friend and Carroll believe they don’t routinely see chiropractic care used this way for broodmares. Friend points out that for one thing, it’s labor-intensive for a farm to bring horses up, have someone available to hold each horse during treatment, and then clean all the stalls in situations where the mares might normally be turned out. Compounding the logistics, one practitioner can only perform examinations and adjustments on a certain number of horses each day.
O’Keefe and Carroll also think there may be also be limitations on the part of owners and managers about how an adjustment could benefit a mare.
“Unless the owner has personal experience with chiropractic care and how it can help a body, any kind of body, then it feels like an intangible concept,” said Carroll. “It’s a little vague if you don’t have personal experience with it.”
O’Keefe agrees. As a partner at BTE and someone who is also hands-on with the mares, she’s able to weigh the potential benefits a little differently since she’s not managing horses on behalf of remote clients who get bills mailed to them and reports over the phone. She recalled one gray mare the operation foaled last year who refused to lie down for foaling, which was stressful on O’Keefe as the person in the stall with her. After her post-delivery bath, O’Keefe realized the mare didn’t lie down again in the field to roll or rest for days. After a couple of adjustments, dirt appeared on her back again. This year, she had periodic adjustments leading up to her due date, and she foaled lying down.
“For us, it’s $125 for a chiropractic adjustment, so we’re looking at spending maybe an additional $400 or $500 on this mare…but as the person who’s going to literally catch the foal if she foals standing up, I will absolutely pay that to give a better chance she’s going to lay down instead,” she said. “If you’re three steps removed from that person, it’s a little hard to call and say, ‘We think your mare would feel better if she got adjusted.’”
All three believe that with time, that could change.
“A lot of broodmare managers, that’s not what their mentor did, what their father/grandfather did,” said Friend. “It’s just a transition.”