Have you ever tried acupuncture on your horse? You may want to--here's why.
Equine veterinarian Pam Muhonen decided to look into the practice of acupuncture when her Boulder, Colorado clients began asking for it, back in 1997.
“I didn’t know if it was effective, or safe,” Pam said. “I wanted to make sure this wasn’t just the newest thing but was also evidence based.”
What she saw was that acupuncture was improving the quality of life for horses.
“I’m a cynic at heart,” she said. “An animal doesn’t get better to make you happy. There’s no placebo effect.”
Pam then enrolled in a veterinary medical acupuncture course at Colorado State University. While equine acupuncture has been practiced for centuries in Eastern cultures, it only started becoming popular in the U.S. in recent decades.
Dr. Narda G. Robinson, an osteopathic physician as well as a veterinarian, is the Director of the CSU Center for Comparative and Integrative Medicine at the Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences—and started their first medical acupuncture course in 1998.
Her human medical background, Narda says, gave her a broader and more authentic view of some of the methods of alternative medicine.
Some of the animal clients who presented with pain or stiffness, Narda says, had owners who wanted to treat them with as few drugs as possible.
“So I approached it in a realistic, scientific manner,” she said.
In recent years, the American Association of Equine Practitioners has listed several articles on their website that support the use of acupuncture as well as manual therapy.
In March of 2010, in an AAEP piece called “Therapeutic Options,” veterinarian Ed Boldt acknowledged those practices for some of the world’s top equine competitors:
“During the recent summer Olympics, some of the world’s finest equine athletes competed in various equestrian events. These were some of the elite performance horses attended to by team veterinarians. Many of these veterinarians utilized veterinary acupuncture and chiropractic in their treatment regimens for these outstanding athletes.
The use of “complementary” medicine continues to increase in veterinary practice. While there are a myriad of therapies that fall within this broad term, the two most utilized are veterinary acupuncture and chiropractic (sometimes referred to as manual therapy or spinal manipulative therapy). The American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) refers to these types of therapies as ‘therapeutic options.’ These modalities complement our conventional or routine veterinary care. They are adjunct to, not a replacement for conventional veterinary medicine.”
Pam agrees. After she learned about acupuncture, she also began learning about manual therapy as well as herbal therapy and nutritional counseling.
Now, Pam helps teach those techniques at CSU, and the only clients she sees—from 15 to 25 cases a week—in her Loveland-based practice are those who are seeking “alternative healthcare” for their horse, although that’s not what Pam calls it.
“It’s integrative, because we can look at the whole horse. That’s what holistic means to me.”
So how does equine acupuncture work?
A single-use, sterile needle is inserted into the horse, one per each acupuncture point, Pam says. As the needle stimulates specific points, the horse’s system release different chemicals, such as endorphins to counter anxiety or enkephlins to counter pain.
“We reconnect the circuit between muscles, joints and the spinal column,” Pam says.
And what do the horses think of the needles?
“We have to have a cooperative patient,” Pam says. “It feels good to the animal…And we take our time. We go slow, and listen. It takes practice to place needles to get the maximum effect for minimum resentment.”
Because it helps them feel better, Pam says, “Most animals enjoy their therapy.”
In her practice, Pam uses acupuncture and manual therapy for several different equine issues, including lameness, pain, reproductive problems or rehabilitation of some kind.
She also uses those methods as diagnostic techniques.
“We use acupuncture points from nose to tail to narrow down what we’re dealing with,” she said.
At the same time, Pam says, she still recognizes it when a client needs more traditional veterinary care.
“If I really feel a horse would benefit from a different Western modality, I’m gonna recommend that as well.”