Chiropractic for horses

If you see any change in the behaviour or performance of your horse and you’re not sure, then contact me to discuss.

Why do horses benefit from Chiropractic treatment?

As owners and riders we expect a lot from our horses. They are often stabled 24/7, with set feeding times and many have limited (if any) time in the field or have restricted grazing. The majority are expected to carry a rider and perform specific disciplines that they are not necessarily ideally designed to do.  Most handle their lifestyle exceptionally well but these factors may contribute to injury, health problems and reduced performance. In addition hard or uneven surfaces, shoeing and saddle fit issues, poor conformation or an unbalanced rider may increase the incidence of repetitive stress on joints as well as soft tissue injuries.

Back, leg and soft tissue injuries are often inter-related as the body compensates for restrictions or problems by making changes elsewhere in the body. Subsequent abnormal weight bearing and changes to gait can affect the normal movement of the individual joints of the spine. This can increase the stress on other joints resulting in lameness, as the animal attempts to protect his back from further stress or injury. In order to avoid recurring problems the primary cause needs to be identified and treated.

Animal Chiropractic care is particularly effective for:

  • Enhancing performance ability in sports horses
  • Maintaining soundness in older horses
  • As a prophylactic treatment to maintain fitness
  • Treating acute problems such as muscle tension and joint stiffness
  • Treating chronic musculoskeletal problems

How do I know if my horse may benefit from Chiropractic treatment?

There are many symptoms that suggest your horse has a health or performance related problem the most common one being pain. This is often expressed in a change in posture, attitude or in a reluctance to work. Below are some of the most common symptoms…

Common symptoms in horses

  • Pain
  • Deterioration in performance
  • Napping and not going forwards
  • Crooked, stiff and irregular
  • Change in attitude or behaviour in the stable or under saddle
  • Insubordination when being ridden
  • Uneven in the mouth or won’t bend
  • Bucking/Stopping
  • Abnormal posture
  • Tail swishing, back hollowing, head tossing
  • Difficulty with collected or lateral gaits
  • Disobedience when jumping
  • Sensitivity to touch

Other possible symptoms

In any problem concerning the spine the nervous system is involved. The flow of information from the nerves which exit the spinal cord between each vertebra is disrupted and can cause other symptoms as these spinal nerves innervate the skin, glands, organs and blood vessels. Other symptoms may include:

  • Unusual itching at the base of the tail or other parts of the body
  • Increased sensitivity to heat or cold
  • Asymmetrical or reduced sweating and perspiration

How do I recognise decreased performance in my horse?

There are many signs that may suggest a reduction in performance such as…

  • Abnormal gait rhythm or irregularity in movement
  • Lameness
  • Stiffness
  • Short stride
  • Muscle atropy
  • Brushing
  • Difficulty engaging hind quarters or working long and low
  • The back does not swing
  • Difficulty flexing
  • Pulling on one rein or uneven in the hand
  • Rider is sitting off centre due to horse

Common causes in horses

Normal day-to-day activities as well as accidents and injuries can cause damage to the spine.  Here are some common causes………

  • Trauma – caused by falls, trips, slips, or being cast in the stable
  • Performance – all activities put strain on the spine in different and specific ways
  • Narcotics – General anaesthetic can cause problems in the spine
  • Rider – Imbalances in the rider’s seat e.g. sitting crooked or with a forked seat can lead to back problems for both the horse and the rider
  • Travel – Long journeys, accidents and unsympathetic driving can cause damage
  • Shoes – Incorrect shoeing and poor hoof care can affect movement and cause subsequent damage to the spine
  • Birthing difficulties – A foal that has been forceably extracted can cause damage to both the mare and the foal
  • Saddle – Poorly fitting tack may cause back problems
  • Stabling – Confined space that does not give the horse enough opportunity to ease tension by bucking or rolling
  • Age – As a horse becomes older previous damage to the spine becomes more apparent

Assessment: How does the Animal Chiropractor assess what is wrong with my horse?

Animal Chiropractic evaluates back and joint problems and is effective in the treatment of both acute and chronic biomechanical related musculoskeletal disorders

Animal Chiropractors identify Vertebral Subluxation Complexes (VSCs). These are areas of the spine with reduced or abnormal mobility and loss of normal flexibility resulting in stiffness, muscle tension, pain and reduced performance. This reduced mobility between two vertebrae can affect the spinal nerves that exit either side of the spine between the vertebrae, leading to an interrupted flow of information that may cause poor coordination and dysfunction to the vital organs. A horse will alter its posture to compensate for the restricted mobility of the spine and in order to avoid further pain or discomfort. This in turn causes increased mechanical stress on other parts of the spine and the extremity joints which may lead to secondary restrictions.

I own a dressage horse. Will horses doing different disciplines have different problems?

Yes, often this is the case as different equestrian disciplines tend to cause specific Vertebral Subluxation Complex (VSC) patterns. Here are some examples:

  • Dressage Horses with VSCs in the lumbar spine may have difficulty in bending correctly, engaging the hind quarters and executing lateral work.
  • Show Jumpers with VSCs in the thoracic and lumbar spine may have difficulty rounding their backs or changing canter lead or land disunited after a fence.
  • Endurance horses with VSCs in the cervical and thoracic spine may develop an unlevel gait, soreness in the back, stiffness in the neck and loss of performance.
  • Driving horses with VSCs in the thoracic and lumbar region may cause dropping of one shoulder, moving on two tracks, pulling and gait abnormalities.
  • Gaited horses with VSCs in the sacroiliac joints may lead to an unlevel gait or rhythm, leaning on the bit and running off, muscular tension and muscle atrophy.
  • Western horses with VSCs in the lumbar region and sacroiliac joints may have difficulty bending laterally, become one sided in turns and develop undefined lameness in the fore limbs

Treatment: How will the Animal Chiropractor treat my horse?

Having identified one or more subluxations the Animal Chiropractor aims to correct the misalignment of the spine and restore mobility to the facet joints.

An adjustment is made by using a quick, short thrust along the plane of the joint. The adjustment is a very specific, high speed, low force thrust that moves the affected joint within its normal range of movement. Even though horses have a large thick muscle mass over the spine the vertebral joints are flexible and relatively easy to manipulate with minimal force.

Can I ride my horse after treatment?

Ideally the horse should have 24/48 hours rest post treatment to allow the body to recover and for the healing process to begin. Often horses are very tired after treatment and need time to recover. If possible the horse should be turned out and allowed to relax or in circumstances where this is not possible the horse should be hand walked several times a day for short periods. The horse should then be brought back into full work over the next 5/7 days. All horses are different and the Animal Chiropractor will advise you and your individual horse.

How many treatments will my horse need?

The number of treatments required depends on the individual horse. In most cases a single treatment is not enough to eliminate the problem. The goal of Chiropractic treatment is to address neurological dysfunction of the spine and restore mobility to the joints. Subsequently it is the role of muscles and ligaments to support the spine and maintain this new re-aligned position. Adjustments to the spine may need to be done a number of times until the body accepts this as a normal position and the muscles and ligaments can support and maintain this. The majority of horses show significant improvement after one to four treatments. Chronic problems usually take longer to resolve whereas acute problems will often respond quicker. Horses that are working hard or competing often benefit from regular treatment to prevent problems recurring or new ones presenting themselves.

How can I recognise back problems in my horse?

Animal Chiropractors are trained to identify and treat subluxations. However, owners, riders and trainers often know their horses better than anyone else and can sometimes spot a problem early by noticing small changes in behaviour and performance.

Consider the following questions:

  • Has your horse’s behaviour or performance changed recently?
  • Does he have unusual or fluctuating lameness?
  • Does the rider or trainer have difficulty sitting straight on the horse?
  • Has the rider or trainer noticed changes in the various gaits?
  • Does the horse drag its feet or are the shoes worn unevenly?

Also try the following exercises gently and carefully. Do not put your own safety at risk.


The horse should be able to move freely in all direction without tension.

Ask the horse to turn its head and neck to the side so that it touches its flank with its nostrils. If there is less mobility one way than the other this may indicate a problem in the cervical vertebrae.

Place one hand on the spine and with the other hand pull the tail towards you so that the horse’s back bends around your hand. Do you notice one side stiffer than the other?

Place slight pressure on the back from above. The back should spring easily and evenly: it should not feel stiff and hard.


Examine the horse’s main muscle groups for pain, tension and asymmetry. They should be symmetrical feeling firmly elastic but not too hard or too soft. When lightly pressed the horse should not show signs of being in pain.


Feel the spine from the withers to the tail noting any abnormal bumps or lumps or areas of sensitivity.

What else can I do to help my horse?

Health care should be high on the agenda of any horse owner. The correct functioning of the back and neck is vital in maintaining a horse’s performance. The following areas should be considered:

Conformation and Build

When selecting a horse for a particular discipline pay attention to the horse’s build. Many breeds have been selectively bred for years to achieve certain goals and are therefore suitable for particular disciplines such as dressage, jumping or eventing.


Horses have an increasing tendency to injure the spine if ligaments, tendons and muscles have not been developed to cope with the demands they are placed under. Interval training, suitable warm up and cool down and variety in training can help condition horses effectively.


Ill fitting shoes can adversely affect the posture and mobility of the horse.


Ensure that your saddle fits the horse without the need for a numnah or additional padding. Check for uneven wear on the flocking, asymmetry of the panels or tree and ensure that the tree is not broken.

Training Aids

If used correctly side reins, martingales and draw reins can be used favourably in training. However, if used incorrectly these training aids can lead to a restriction in the spine or make a current problem worse. Continual jerking and pulling on the rope, especially with young horses can lead to tension in the poll and neck area


Massage encourages circulation and an increased metabolism within the muscles, promoting the supply of nutrients and removal of toxins. This allows relaxation of tense muscles enabling them to function better and encourages healing of muscular injuries by loosening muscle fibre adhesions and increasing the flow of fluid and toxins from the tissue.


Nowadays many sports and competition horses are stabled for long periods of the day. The more time a horse spends in the stable without freedom of movement the worse his co-ordination becomes and natural balance is reduced leading to an increased danger of injury. Bucking and rolling are the horses natural means of mobilising the area so make sure they get enough exercise.