For those of you who are seeing red at the title of this article, let me start off by saying that if you have your horse seen by someone who professes to be an “equine chiropractor,” and if you’re happy, and if you think that your horse is better – or better yet, if your horse IS better – then please, understand that I’m very happy for both you and your horse (especially if he actually IS better), and certainly don’t want you to think that I think you’re doing anything wrong.
And, frankly, if you’ve got your mind made up, then, really, you probably don’t want to read what follows. Some people don’t like it when you point out facts that conflict with beliefs, opinions, and even professional reputations. You’ve had your experiences, and I’ve had mine – I’m not sharing experiences, I’m just stating facts. So, I really won’t be at all offended if you just stop here.
But if you’re still reading, there are a lot of things that are, well, rather unusual about the – field? area? discipline? – that are rather concerning. Since pretty much anyone who says that he or she is an equine chiropractor will probably tell you how wonderful it all is (and, if you’re paying for it, you might be inclined to feel that way, too), I thought that I might give you a bit more information to help you if you’re considering having this sort of treatment for your horse. I’ve watched and studied this stuff for nearly three decades, which is why, when I’m asked, I tell people that I personally wouldn’t bother having their horse seen by an “equine chiropractor.” Here are five reasons why.
1. You don’t necessarily know what you’re going to get.
When you go to the dentist, you go to someone who has graduated from a school that grants a degree in dentistry. That person also has to carry a license, with all of the supervision and requirements that come with that.
- Chiropractors – folks who have gone to the trouble to get a degree in chiropractic (a D.C. for “Doctor of Chiropractic,” offered by one of several chiropractic schools in the US and elsewhere).
- Veterinarians – folks who have gone to the trouble to get a degree in veterinary medicine, from any one of several veterinary schools around the world, and who may have also attended some sort of a chiropractic training/certification program.
- Folks who have done both (there are a very few).
- Folks who have done neither (there seem to be a lot of those).
Call me fussy, but I figure that if you’re going to call yourself something, it should mean something. If you go to the grocery store to get a banana, you shouldn’t end up with a head of lettuce calling itself a banana. You should know what to expect. Although there are many types of bananas (CLICK HERE if you want to learn lots more about bananas), everyone pretty much knows and agrees on what a banana is.
Knowing what you’re getting is important and especially when it comes to paying for stuff that involves health. In general, folks who make laws think so, too. So, for example, when a Canadian man saw patients, claiming to be a doctor, but wasn’t, he got in a good bit of trouble (CLICK HERE – there are hundreds of such stories). But when it comes to knowing what to expect, equine chiropractic is a bit bananas (not like bananas, bananas, in the sense of crazy – you can CLICK HERE if you want to see where that term came from).
Fundamentally, this is a problem of false representation. I don’t think you should say that you’re a chiropractor if you’re not. In fact, I think it takes a certain amount of hubris to do that. And, I don’t think that you should make diagnoses and treat animals if you’re not a veterinarian (and every state law agrees with me). So that eliminates essentially everyone who calls themselves a chiropractor and treats horses (with a very few exceptions). Still, for some reason, nobody (including, apparently, chiropractors) seems to mind when people who haven’t gone to chiropractic school (including plenty of veterinarians) call themselves chiropractors. But it makes me nuts.
NOTE: While eliminating essentially everyone who practices of “equine chiropractic” might not necessarily be a bad thing, that is not my point.
So, from the point-of-view of “Who are you going to get?” when you call an equine chiropractor, the only thing that you know for sure is that you’re going to get someone. Which, in my opinion, isn’t good enough.
2. There are many different and unrelated training programs.
One can certainly get trained and “certified” in doing whatever it is that the particular “equine chiropractor” says it is that he or she is doing, although plenty of people who say they’re equine chiropractors don’t have any formal training at all. Training can vary from courses that involve over a hundred hours (as opposed to, say, four years for chiropractic school), to those that involve a few hundred minutes. Methods can involve various pushes, twists, and pulls on the horse’s body to shooting the horse with a gun that has a little plunger in it. It can be limited to veterinarians and/or chiropractors, or open to anyone.
And, at the end, all of the training programs have two things in common:
- At the end of training, most trainees are provided with a piece of paper, printed or embossed in varying patterns and ink colors, “certifying” that a person did whatever had to be done to get the piece of paper.
- None of the various things have been shown to be effective in the types of studies that are typically done to show that something is effective (i.e., scientific studies).
If you want a really thorough, detailed analysis of what’s going on in veterinary chiropractic training, you can CLICK HERE. But, in general, I don’t bother with treatments that haven’t been shown to be effective, no matter what the “training,” which is why I don’t recommend bothering with it in the first place.
3. There’s no way to tell what anyone is doing
If I say that I’m treating a horse’s hock, it’s likely that we both know what I’m referring to. Everyone has agreed that 1) Horses have a hock, 2) It’s on the back leg, and 3) It has a certain appearance, both inside (X-rays and such) and out. If you want me to show you a picture of a hock – inside or out – I can do that. But that’s not the case when it comes to the myriad and fanciful things that get diagnosed and treated under the guise of “equine chiropractic.”
The most commonly diagnosed “problem,” at least judging by a Google search (yes, I do it, too) is a “subluxation,” which is, well, um… See, the problem here is that there isn’t an accepted definition. Depending on how specific you want to be, you might call it a “bone out of place” (which gives us the lovely acronym, “BOOP”), or something as general as a “spinal joint problem.” I don’t see why you couldn’t call it a “boo-boo” and be done with it.
Regardless of what you want to call it, the fact is that no one can show that “subluxations” – or anything else that you want to call it – exist. Like I said, I can show you where a horse’s hock is, but the fact is that the fundamental lesion of “chiropractic” can’t be shown to exist. When studied, even chiropractors don’t seem to agree on what they’re doing. So, for example, when asked to examine people’s spines and sacroiliac joints, there’s little agreement on findings between chiropractors (CLICK HERE to see the paper). Such studies haven’t been done in horses – which is another problem – although I can’t imagine that things would be any better.
And I haven’t even touched on other novel diagnoses, such as leg length differences, TMJ dysfunction, polls out of place, ribs out of place… none of which can be demonstrated by reliable and repeatable methods. And don’t get me going on the supposed need for chiropractic “maintenance.”
ASIDE: I was doing a pre-purchase examination once, and overheard an “equine chiropractor” talking. He said something along the lines of, “Now many people will tell you that this is ridiculous, but your horse’s rib is out of place.” I didn’t figure it was appropriate to interrupt my exam, even though I was such a person, and, in fact, he certainly was correct. Just about anyone with a knowledge of equine anatomy would find that assertion ridiculous.
I have a problem with all creative diagnoses. If someone says that a horse has a problem that can’t be found by any way other than by trusting the person who is looking for it, and that the can only be shown to be corrected when that same person says it’s corrected, that person is either a medical genius, or selling snake oil. I tend to lean more towards the latter.
ANOTHER ASIDE: Back in the early 1990’s, I worked at this one dressage barn where, all of a sudden, horses were being shod with pads on the diagonals, to “correct” leg length disparities. It became quite a “problem.” The problems seemed to disappear in about six months, coincident with the hiring of a new shoer. I haven’t seen the “problem” since, although, given the way these things go, it’s probably time for it to recycle.
One of the things that chiropractors say that they do is apply “specific” force to “specific” areas to correct whatever it is is being corrected. And that’s fine, I guess, except for the fact that it’s been clearly demonstrated – in humans – that’s something that can’t be done.
See, the problem is, as you push on a horse’s back, the forces get taken up by all of the tissues, not just the ones that you’re hoping to treat (CLICK HERE). It’s sort of like if you punched your fist into a big tub of water – the force would spread out in the water; it wouldn’t go where you wanted it to go. In horses, where everything’s bigger, more of the forces should get taken up by other tissues, making the idea of a “specific” force even more impossible.
ONE MORE ASIDE: When I was attending weekly rounds at the now defunct Los Angeles College of Chiropractic back in the 1990’s, one of the first guys that I met was a great guy from Alabama who, after getting his D.C., was now working on getting a Master’s Degree in some chiropractic discipline. On our first introduction, after hearing that people where also trying to do chiropractic on horses, he said, “Dave, how in the h*** is anyone supposed to be able to manipulate a horse’s vertebrae?” I didn’t know what to say to him. Still don’t.
What it comes down to is that if “equine chiropractic” were to really have an effect, no one knows why. And that’s OK – things can have an effect without the reason being completely understood – but, so far, no effect has been shown for equine chiropractic, either. You see the main problem. Which is…
5. Nobody has shown that “chiropractic” does anything
Last (and not least), I think it’s just completely irresponsible that all sorts of wonderful claims get made for “equine chiropractic,” but no one seems to be bothering to see if they’re true. In humans, where they have at least studied chiropractic a bit, for the treatment of low back pain (the most common condition for which human chiropractors are employed), chiropractic care hasn’t been shown to be better than any other kind of care, including fake chiropractic care (CLICK HERE if you want to see the compilation of all of the studies). To me, it’s a pretty big leap of faith to think that it would work great in horses when it doesn’t seem to do much of anything in people, where it’s been studied much more thoroughly. And while there have only been a couple of studies done on horses, and none of them have had anything to do with outcomes of clinical cases (that is, showing long term follow-up of how horses in real life have done after they’ve been treated by a chiropractor). Here are a few examples.
- CLICK HERE to see one from New Zealand that shows that mostly, people don’t tell their veterinarians when they use chiropractors.
- CLICK HERE to see one from France, which showed that a chiropractor identified back problems in almost 100% of the 19 school horses studied.
- CLICK HERE to see one from Holland, which showed “slight” changes in lower back and pelvic movement after chiropractic manipulations, changes that “might” be beneficial, but needed to be studied more.
So, there you go. Like I said, if you’re using an “equine chiropractor” – or if you are an equine chiropractor – I’m sorry if you take offense to facts. I guess it’s possible to do the right thing for the wrong reasons, but right now, there’s just not much evidence for anything. And, as someone who takes the responsibility that I have for treating horses very seriously, for these (and other reasons that would make the article even longer than it already is) I just don’t feel comfortable recommending that anyone use an “equine chiropractor.”