Keeping horses contented and fit is essential to business at Hilltop Farm, a breeding and training facility in Colora, Maryland.
In recent years, Hilltop trainers have made chiropractic an integral part of their equine wellness program, especially for the farm’s competing horses, many of whom are also breeding stallions.
Besides treating, as needed, to relieve discomfort and improve range of motion, the breeding stallions are routinely adjusted every two weeks during the season to keep them in top form, said assistant trainer Brittany Stanley.
“Breeding can be strenuous on the stallions,” Stanley said. “The back, lumbar, and different other areas can become sore, depending on how the horse mounts the phantom. Chiropractic helps them perform at their best both in the breeding shed and in competition.”
Stanley rides dressage and sees a difference in her own three warmbloods as well as the horses she trains after they have been adjusted. “In dressage, horses have to have control over every part of their body to perform at their best, and any time you can improve their suppleness, it helps,” she said.
Hilltop horses are treated by Dr. Olivia Lorello, a veterinarian and certified equine chiropractor at the University of Pennsylvania’s PennVet New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.
Once considered a niche modality, chiropractic is now a mainstream form of therapy that has really taken off in the past 10 years, she said.
“Chiropractic wasn’t offered at New Bolton until three years ago and now it’s what I do full-time,” Lorello said. “A lot of other practitioners in the area are doing it more and more. It is definitely growing in popularity.”
Although Lorello is sometimes called upon to treat trail and pleasure horses, most of her patients are athletes, such as hunter/jumpers or those who compete in dressage.
Chiropractic is ideal for them because there’s a limit to the kinds of drugs they can be given to ease pain, Lorello said. “There are no restrictions in chiropractic or acupuncture. A lot of people are willing to use them to get a competitive edge without breaking any rules.”
Owners of competition horses also are willing to make the investment in chiropractic care, she said, noting that adjustments typically involve several successive sessions. “It isn’t usually a one-time treatment.”
Chiropractic is most helpful on equines with back and neck pain, Lorello said. “It’s secondarily useful in horses with lower limb injuries, where you are treating referred pain.”
“I palpate along the skeleton looking for motion, and anywhere I find that it isn’t normal, I manipulate, or do an adjustment.”
It’s important to understand that chiropractors aren’t attempting to move bones up and down or left to right, she said. “We’re trying to create what’s called a neuromuscular reflex. We’re also working on core strengthening. It’s the same concept that has caught on with human athletes.”
Although horse owners often get excited when they hear popping sounds during treatment, “it’s not what chiropractors need to hear to know we’re being successful,” Lorello said.
Tell-tale signs that a horse is responding well include licking and chewing, and becoming visibly relaxed.
New Bolton is in the midst of conducting a study that could corroborate anecdotal evidence of chiropractic’s effectiveness.
“We’re looking at the motion and heart rate of horses before and after adjustment to see if they’re more comfortable and mobile,” said Lorello. “Owners always get so excited because their horse feels great after treatment. We’re trying to scientifically prove that — or not.”
Lorello was already a veterinarian when she decided to pursue chiropractic by attending one of a handful of schools in the US that offer training, which typically takes three long weekends and 120 hours of online coursework.
A veterinary degree is not a prerequisite to becoming an equine chiropractor. Some practitioners start out as human chiropractors before enrolling in equine chiropractic school.
Certification is issued through the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association, which also serves as a referral service for practitioners.
Although states vary in their requirements, in Pennsylvania equine chiropractors who are not veterinarians must work under the direct supervision of a vet, “which means the vet recently looked at the horse and deemed that it is safe enough to have chiropractic therapy,” Lorello said.
A chiropractic exam should start with an understanding of the horse’s full history, and an assessment of the horse. “I look at the horse and feel the horse. Sometimes chiropractic is not appropriate,” she said. “You don’t want to be doing it on a horse with a broken bone somewhere or a tendon injury or on an otherwise sick animal.”
The horse should not be sedated, either, although some owners request it. “You’d lose the responses you are looking for, because you’re reading the horse — you’re having a conversation with the horse — during manipulations, and it wouldn’t be able to respond under sedation,” she said. “Also, the horse would lose the ability to protect itself, and it should always be able to protect itself in a way that makes it impossible to do harm.”
As a practitioner, Lorello finds chiropractic particularly gratifying because “it provides instant relief, unlike with some other medicines where you have to wait for results to know that what you did is working.”
Veterinarian and certified equine chiropractor Jennifer Hayes of Green Glen Equine Hospital in Glen Rock, Pennsylvania considers chiropractic “the last little piece of the puzzle for horses,” and finds that they are ideally suited to chiropractic as a treatment modality.
“Because they’re four-wheel drive, not two-wheel like us, gravity is kinder to them, so they hold adjustments better than we do,” she said.
While Hayes performs chiropractic on horses feeling the effects of everyday wear and tear or recovering from injuries like getting kicked by a pasture-mate or colliding with a fence, she increasingly is using it as a preventive tool, especially for equines bred to become elite athletes, beginning when they are very small.
“I’ve worked on foals because the birth process is traumatic, and on young horses in any type of training because their bodies are doing something different,” she said.
Racehorses are typically treated after they’ve run to help them recover from their exertions, she said. “You don’t want to change their nervous system before they race.”
Hayes often advocates massage between chiropractic sessions and prescribes homework to ensure that the benefits of her adjustments are sustained. “I’ll have owners do different stretching and core-strengthening exercises with their horse, like carrot stretches for the neck, or scratching their belly to get them to lift their back.”
In some cases, chiropractic has eliminated or reduced the need for pharmaceutical intervention, and in others, it serves as a complementary veterinary tool.
In any case, it can have a positive impact holistically, improving respiratory and circulatory functions as well as a horse’s mental state, Hayes said, since most appear to enjoy her visits.
“We’ll joke that a few of our patients have become chiro-addicts. A couple will stare me down until it’s their turn. A few of the giant horses will swing their butts at me, and a few will insist on being first. They get excited when I come into the barn or stable.”
One pony who hated needles and was “super nervous” has relaxed as a result of chiropractic, Hayes said, because it’s something that makes him feel good.