Therapies: Animal Chiropractic/
Musculoskeletal Alignment

Animal chiropractic/musculoskeletal alignment is a holistic approach to many of the health and performance problems of the horse and dog. Chiropractic does not replace traditional veterinary medicine and surgery, but provides an natural method of care. Chiropractic focuses on the health and proper functioning of the spinal column.


The spinal column of the horse is a complex structure made up of bones, ligaments, muscles and nerves. The spine provides many crucial functions to the body. The functions of the spine are:

1. Framework of support
2. Muscle attachment
3. Protection of the central nervous system
4. Protection of internal organs.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs):

1. What is Subluxation?
2. What causes Subluxations?
3. How are Subluxations corrected?
4. How do I examine my horse for Subluxations?
5. What are the symptoms of a Subluxation?
6. How can I identify these symptoms?
7. What about Conformation?
8. What about Massage?
9. What about Conditioning?
10. What about Veterinary Chiropractic Care?
11. How do I identify a Certified Animal Chiropractor?

What is Subluxation?

Chiropractors use the term SUBLUXATlON to describe a specific problem or disease of the spinal column. A subluxation is defined as a misaligned vertebra that is ?stuck? or unable to move correctly. When movement between two vertebra is restricted, the animal will not have total flexibility of the spine. Stiffness, resistance and lack of ability results.

Subluxations also cause problems in the nervous system especially at areas where nerves exit between two vertebra. Misaligned vertebra cause problems in nerves by interfering with nerve transmissions. Nerves are the communication lines of the body carrying information back and forth between the brain and the cells. Subluxations may be pictured as pinching off or altering that flow of information. Depending on the area and amount of nerve interference, problems may then develop in the body.

Every movement from simple swishing of the tail to the piaffe in dressage requires a constant synchronization of muscles in con- traction and relaxation. If proper nerve messages to muscles are obstructed, this coordination will falter. Minor interferences may only result in slight changes in performance. In high levels of com- petition, however, even these slight changes may affect performance success. Lack of muscle coordination can cause missteps resulting in damage to the joints and tendons of the legs. Nerve pressure can also result in pain. Pain also prevents horses from working at optimum potential.

Subluxations in the spine may cause the animal to compensate in movement or posture. The animal may attempt to avoid pain of a subluxation by shifting weight or by avoiding certain movements. When the spine is not functioning correctly in one area, stress is placed on other vertebral joints. Secondary subluxation can occur in other areas of the column further complicating the problems.

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What causes Subluxations?

Traumatic and stressful situations present themselves daily to the performance horse. Saddles, riders, confinement, and sustained vigorous exercises can all cause problems in the spinal column.

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How are Subluxations corrected?

When subluxations are identified in the spine, a veterinary chiropractor will attempt a correction of the misalignment. This is called an ADJUSTMENT. An adjustment is a short, rapid thrust onto a vertebra in the direction that will replace it into a normal position.

Veterinary chiropractic is very specific and adjustments are made on vertebra directly. Jerking on legs or tails is not a chiropractic adjustment. An examination before the adjustment will identify all the subluxations of the spinal column.

An adjustment uses a controlled force. Simply because horses are large does not mean that abnormally large forces are needed to adjust them. The joints of the spine are moveable and if the correct angle is used, the adjustment is relatively easy and of low force. Veterinary chiropractors may also manipulate the joints of the legs, as well as the jaw.

Veterinary chiropractic is a diverse field and there are many different types of techniques that are used. Most veterinary chiropractors will use only their hands to adjust the vertebra of horses. This is possible by using leverage of vertebra that are distinctive in size and shape. Some doctors use a small impacting device, called an activator, to move the vertebra. The device is effective due its specificity and speed. Some individuals use mallets that are struck onto pads over the vertebra. This technique can be effective if used by skilled individuals but can create more problems if used by the unskilled.

The adjustment releases the ”stuck” vertebra and restores alignment thus eliminating nerve pressure. The body can then repair tissues and restore function.

The most common misunderstanding concerning veterinary chiropractic care is why several adjustments may be needed. The purpose of an adjustment is to realign the spine. The muscles and ligaments of the horse must be able to maintain the correct spinal alignment. When an orthodontist works to straighten teeth, he applies a rigid brace directly to the teeth. Veterinary chiropractors cannot do this for the spine. Several adjustments may be needed until the body accepts and maintains the correct alignment. Most horses will show significant improvement in one to four adjustments. However, chronic spinal problems take longer to respond. Horses that are basically sound with a conformation suited to the desired per- formance, will respond quickly to adjustments and maintain spinal alignment longer.

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How do I examine my horse for Subluxations?

Chiropractors are trained to locate and correct subluxations. However, trainers, riders, or owners may check to see if their horses have problems with the spinal column. Examination of the spine before purchase is just as important as examination of the extremities.


1. Has the horse recently changed behavior or working below its ability?
2. Does an obscure or shifting lameness exist?
3. Is the rider having difficultiy staying centered?
4. Is the rider or trainer noticing subtle shifts or difficulties in gaits without apparent lameness?
5. Is the horse dragging toes or showing unusual shoe wear:

The following may cause subluxations:

1. Trauma
2. Conformation Traits
3. Trailers
4. Birth
5. Confinement
6. Performace Type
7. Rider Ability
8. Equipment
9. Age
10. Shoeing

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What are the symptoms of a Subluxation?

Subluxations of the spinal column may produce many symptoms. The most common problem is pain. Animals in pain will compensate in gait or posture and may resist or refuse to perform. Compensatory movements may cause other problem such as added stress on joints. The following is a list of symptoms that may indicate pain from a subluxation.

1. Abnormal and varying posture when standing
2. Discomfort when saddling
3. Discomfort when riding
4. Evasions such as extending head and neck or hollowing back
5. Wringing tail and pinning ears
6. Refusal or unwillingness over jumps
7. Refusal or resistance in performance such as lateral or collected movements
8. Development of unusual behavior patterns
9. Facial expression of apprehension or pain
10. Sensitivity
11. Stiffness, resistance to move

Subluxations may cause changes in muscle coordination and flexibility that affects the performance ability of the horse or dog.

These symptoms may be:

1. Lack of coordination in gaits
2. Clnusual, perhaps indefinable gait abnormalities which var from limb to limb and change depending on gait
3. Stiffness when coming out of stall
4. Stiffness in lateral movements of neck or back
5. Muscle atrophy
6. Shortened stride in one or two limbs
7. Inability to engage rear quarters
8. Inability to lengthen top line
9. Improper frame
10. Decreased stride length
11. Difficulty flexing at the poll
12. Lameness
13. On line or pulling on one rein
14. Rider cannot sit centered on horse
15. Not using the back in movement (leg movers)

Subluxations may cause problems in the nerves that supply other cells such as those of the skin, glands, and blood vessels. Some of the symptoms that result may be:

1. unusual body or tail rubbing
2. increased sensitivity to heat or cold
3. asymmetrical sweating or lack of sweating

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How can I identify these symptoms?


The horse should move freely in all ranges of motion with no tension both under saddle and from the ground.

1. Ask the horse to bend his head and neck to touch its nose to cinch area on each side. Does the horse resist more on one side? This could indicate a subluxation of the neck.
2. Test the lateral bend of the horse’s back by pulling on the tail with one hand as the other hand rests on the tops of the vertebra. Is one side stiffer than the other?
3. Apply moderate downward pressure on back. The back should flex and dip slightly and not feel tight and rigid.


Examine the major muscles of the horse for pain, tone, and symmetry. Horses in condition should display muscles of good tone that are symmetrical from one side to the other. The muscles should be firm without being too hard or too soft. Muscles should not be painful to moderate pressure of palpation.


Palpate down the spine for prominent elevations or bumps. Compare the two prominences at the top of the hips; they should be level. Notice any bumps in the neck.

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What about Conformation?

The conformation of the horse should be considered when selecting a horse for a particular use. Horse breeds have been selectively modified to function best in a variety of performance types. Selection of breed or halter conformation is not a guarantee of successful athietic function. Study those horses that are winning consistently. What are their characteristics? Horses with long backs are more prone to muscle and ligament injuries, and straight shoulders predispose to front leg problems.

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What about Massage?

Massage and muscle therapy is beneficial in the continued spinal health of a horse. Massage increases blood supply that brings nutrition to muscles as well as carrying away waste toxins. Massage relaxes tight, tense muscles allowing for better function. Massage is helpful in the healing of tissues to remove adhesions and speed removal of fluid.

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What about Conditioning?

Horses are more prone to subluxations and spinal trauma when soft tissues such as ligaments, tendons and muscles are not conditioned for work Interval training, adequate warm-up periods, and varying the type of activity will help with conditioning the equine athlete.

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What about Veterinary Chiropractic Care?

Chiropractic care can be a cost effective way to maintain the performance ability of the horse. Chiropractic works to eliminate the source of the pain or problem potential.

If you believe that your horse may benefit from the services of an animal chiropractor, how do you choose a practitioner?

Always have your veterinarian examine the horse first to determine if problems exist that require medical or surgical attention.

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How do I identify a Certified Animal Chiropractor?

The American Veterinary Chiropractic Association trains and certifies veterinarians in the art and science of animal adjusting. Veterinarians with certification in animal chiropractic may be called to see your horse without a referral.

When selecting a chiropractor for your horse, be wary of exaggerated claims. Performance horses often have many problems and many compensations. Some problems are permanent and some diseases are progressive despite the best health care. Have realistic expectations. Do not expect that the veterinary chiropractor will solve long standing or multiple problems with one adjustment. Healing takes time. For more information on animal chiropractic and certified animal chiropractors, follow this link:

American Veterinary Chiropractic Association (AVCA)
623 Main
Hillsdale, IL 61257
Phone: 309-658-2920

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