So who is the back person for you? (August 2016)

Animal therapy has increased massively as an industry in its own right in the last 30 years or so. With the increasing number of skilled practitioners, it can be difficult for even the most astute horse owner to know what each therapeutic discipline offers. Hopefully, this article can help clarify how those trained in animal chiropractic techniques and those trained in veterinary animal physiotherapy differ in the services they offer.


To start with though, let’s look at what practitioners in both spheres are trying to do. Both focus on how the horse moves, performs and behaves relative to what might be considered normal, and both types of therapy aim to restore the ability to move normally and comfortably. Both schools of therapy use a combination of treatment and rehabilitative exercises to achieve this goal, but the clearest distinction between animal chiropractic techniques and physiotherapy, is the way they treat in order to achieve a return to normal function and performance.


McTimoney Animal Practitioners, registered with the McTimoney Animal Association, are the largest group of practitioners trained in animal chiropractic techniques. The skeletal frame, predominantly the spine and pelvis, are the key areas of interest, and practitioners are looking for areas of asymmetry and dysfunction. A common example occurs when the pelvis presents with the points of hip at uneven height even though the horse is stood square all round, and in some cases it is possible to see a marked curve throughout the neck and back too so the horse seems to be stood on a circle even though the four limbs are all square. Such a horse with unequal height at the points of hip, and a curve present throughout the spine will struggle to work in a straight line, preferring to favour one side over the other, building up uneven musculature and tension. If left untreated, then at some point, the horse will start to resist when worked, usually losing forward propulsion, and bucking, refusing to jump or moving stiffly, are common presenting symptoms.


Quick and gentle adjustments are applied to the key areas identified by the practitioner which then stimulates a change in the horse’s body in all the locomotory systems, so although the skeletal frame is the point of reference, the treatment has a much wider effect improving nerve function, muscle tone and strength, and relieving tension on the connective tissues throughout the body. A major benefit of the McTimoney treatment is that it is light and the horse’s body is able to rebalance and return to symmetry as a response to treatment, aided by rehabilitative exercises. McTimoney Animal Practitioners also look at the whole skeletal frame of the horse, so identy all potential issues which may be contributing to a problem. As an example, a rider may report that their horse shows stiffness in the neck as a symptom and is sure that treatment is necessary in this area, but identification of pelvic imbalance and lumbar region pain shows that actually the horse is finding it difficult to engage equally in the hindquarters and this results in a compensatory tightening in the neck, hence the symptoms felt by the rider.


In comparison, veterinary animal physiotherapy utilises a far wider range of techniques which target the key areas of soft tissue soreness or injury. Physiotherapy focusses on the soft tissue rehabilitation of the target injury site to enable greater comfort and return to normal performance, and Veterinary Physiotherapists are trained to provide a treatment plan using the most appropriate modalities for each case such as laser, ultrasound, pulsed magnetic field therapy, TENS and neuromuscular electrical stimulation, as well as manual physical therapies too.

Laser is used to enhance healing wounds and superficial soft tissue injury; Ultrasound is provided for tendon injury and is also good for “breaking down” scar tissue; Pulsed magnetic field therapy supports blood flow in muscle and soft tissue injuries whilst reducing oedema and assisting in pain relief; TENS, (Transcutaneous electro nerve stimulation) is good for pain control; Neuromuscular electrostimulation stimulates muscles to rebuild after wasting due to lack of use, and manual physical therapies such as passive and active stretches and range of motion activities are useful for keeping muscles and joints healthy by maintaining blood flow, bringing nutrients and oxygen and removal of waste products.


So, which should you use for your horse? Both forms of treatment can complement each other well, and there are practitioners who are trained in both forms of therapy. Whether you decide animal chiropractic techniques or veterinary animal physiotherapy is the option to choose, make sure that the practitioner you select is fully qualified, registered and insured. All practitioners must obtain veterinary permission in order to treat your horse.