Alternative Methods of Treating Equine Diseases

In recent years, horse owners and veterinarians have demonstrated a renewed interest in exploring alternative therapies to treat equine diseases and conditions.

The question is: Do these alternative methods of treating horses work?

"Alternative therapies" is an umbrella term for hundreds of therapies drawn from many parts of the world. In fact, "alternative medicine" is not easy to define. Representing a variety of beliefs, treatments lack common theories or principles and most often their healing abilities are not confirmed by scientific research.

However, many testimonials support their usefulness, and recently some well-defined scientific studies have provided more support for their efficacy.

But do they work?

But do they work?

Many horse owners believe that alternative therapies can be effecive. Even veterinarians are beginning to offer alternative therapies such as horse acupuncture, equine message and chiropractics.

Alternative therapies frequently aim to stimulate the natural defenses of the body rather than treat specific bacteria or other disease-causing organisms. The theories are based on treating the body as a whole, not as a disease or symptom.

More than 3,000 years ago, the Chinese developed methods of treating disease. Acupuncture, acupressure, massage therapy, the use of herbs in treating health problems, and chiropractic treatment are based in ancient Asian healing traditions.

Homeopathy, a newer alternative therapy, is also coming into vogue.

With the development of antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and advanced surgical methods, these therapies had fallen out of favor. Now, many of the ancient arts are gaining acceptance in Western medicine. Although these therapy treatments are relatively new to our culture, veterinarians and physicians are beginning to study these alternative methods and incorporate them into daily practice.

Holistic Treatment

People who specialize in holistic health practices believe that all aspects of a horse's needs - psychological, physical, and social - should be taken into account and seen as a whole. The holistic view on treatment is becoming more widely accepted in animal medicine and is based on the claim that disease is a result of physical, emotional, spiritual, social, and environmental imbalance.

Holistic defined

Of or relating to the the medical consideration of the complete animal, physically and psychologically, in the treatment of a disease

In contrast, traditional medicine tends to compartmentalize the sick or injured horse into parts - a physical set of organs, muscles, joints, and tissue systems - and treats each isolated part accordingly.

Traditional medicine, also, tends to looks at symptoms exhibited by the patient, assign a name of a disease or syndrome to them and then treats the horse with surgery, drugs, radiation, or other methods directed at the component causing the problem.

Holistic treatment comes in several forms depending on the condition or disease being treated, including the following:

  • Homeopathic treatment
  • Acupuncture
  • Acupressure
  • Chiropractic treatment
  • Massage therapy
  • Natural diet, herbal remedies, and nutritional supplements

Homeopathic treatment of horses

Homeopathy is based on the utilization of specially-prepared, refined dilutions of natural substances to trigger a healing response in the organism. The word "homeopathy" is derived from two Greek words: homoios (like) and pathos (suffering).

Homeopathic medicines for your horse

Homeopathic medicines for your horse

Homeopathic medicines are generally highly diluted substances that when used in an undiluted form, produce the symptoms of a disease.

Samuel Hahnemann developed this affordable healing system over 200 years ago. Homeopathy addresses emotional and mental reasons behind an illness and is based on the thought that "like treats like." The belief is that illness is the result of an emotional imbalance in the body.

Homeopathy has been used with people for many years and is becoming more recognized as an alternative treatment for animals. Many holistic veterinarians and horse owners use homeopathic remedies because they believe the treatment can help heal their horses of many mental, emotional, and physical health problems.

Homeopathy is based on the premise that any substance that can produce a certain set of symptoms in a healthy person or animal will cure those same symptoms in a sick person or animal. The difference between pharmaceutical drugs and homeopathic remedies is that the drugs treat the symptoms and homeopathy claims to treat the cause of the symptoms.

Although horses are strong, powerful creatures, at the same time they can be fragile and fall ill with a variety of illnesses that, sometimes, do not appear to respond to conventional medicine. Many horse owners turn to homeopathy in an effort to cure physical, behavioral, and emotional problems.

Homeopathy is a unique form of medicine, and homeopathic remedies are very different from herbs, vitamins, or drugs. Because the substances used in homeopathy are given in very small amounts, there are no side effects, adverse reactions, or contraindications. The remedies are generally considered completely safe for all species of animals. The smallest amount of medicine is used to simply "initiate" healing.

The remedy stimulates a return to balance which in turn helps the individual animal resist disease and become more flexible in adapting to the environment.

Three Levels of Homeopathic Therapy:

  1. First Aid: Homeopathic remedies can be extremely effective in the treatment of common ailments, such as bumps, bruises, skin reactions, including hives or animal stings, and trauma and fright. First aid remedies, when correctly chosen, can act quickly and safely.
  2. Acute Homeopathy: Homeopathy can be useful in treating acute health problems, including indigestion, colds, coughs, and musculoskeletal problems. Remedies are available to treat abscesses, windpuffs, splints, joint swelling, tenderness, and overuse injuries, for example.
  3. Constitutional Homeopathy: Homeopathy is particularly effective in the treatment of long-term health problems. Many years of training in homeopathic medicine are required to develop the skills required to use homeopathic remedies in horses with more serious long-term problems.

Advantages of Homeopathy in First Aid:

  • Homeopathic treatment is completely safe and produces no side effects
  • The remedy will not mask symptoms, as do analgesics like Bute
  • Homeopathic remedies are very easy to give to your horse
  • Homeopathy stimulates and strengthens an animal's immune system
  • Homeopathy is inexpensive


  • If the correct remedy is not given, usually there is no action
  • As the action of the remedies is specific, you might have to try more than one before finding the correct substance that will help the horse
  • Sometimes homeopathic treatment is more subtle or slower than that of conventional medicines, although the response can be rapid and favorable in many conditions

Before turning to homeopathic treatment of any kind, it is highly recommended that horse owners consult with a veterinarian.

Acupuncture in the treatment of horses

Acupuncture has slowly been gaining in popularity with horse owners and veterinarians since its introduction in the 1970s. It is a standard treatment today for helping athletes, both human and equine, maintain top physical condition and performance. But the practice is not without controversy.

Horse acupuncture gaining in popularity

Horse acupuncture gaining in popularity

Many traditional veterinarians are expanding their knowledge in the use of acupuncture to treat conditions.
© Carien Schippers

Acupuncture treatments consist of the careful placement of sterile needles at certain points on the horse's body. These points are determined by the body’s flow of energy, which was discovered by the ancient Tibetans and Chinese. They called it Qi, which is pronounced “chee.”

While these ancient healers did not understand energy as electricity, and did not know that most bodily functions are caused by small negative or positive charges, they believed that when the current of energy is allowed to flow normally, the body works well, but when blockages in the current occur, this causes problems such as pain, weakness, loss of muscle tone, or tumors.

When acupuncture points are stimulated, the body releases different chemicals according to the placement of the needles. If, for example, acupuncture is performed on an anxious horse, endorphins can be released that will help it to relax.

Another example is a horse that is not running properly due to shoulder pain. Correctly placed acupuncture needles can help to release the blocked energy, as well as releasing painkilling hormones such as enkephlins and metenkephlins in the central nervous system. These hormones not only ease the horse’s pain, they also promote healing of the joint by reducing swelling and inflammation.

Before an examination by an acupuncturist, he or she might wish to speak with your regular veterinarian or may perform a regular Western examination. This gives both you and the acupuncturist the most complete information available about the horse’s condition.

An acupuncturist will ask about a horse’s symptoms, its normal daily routine - such as the amount of time spent in the stall or pasture - the horse’s social standing in the herd, and whether the horse seems to prefer heat or cold. Then he or she may look at the tongue, take the horse’s pulse in several locations over the body, and examine the meridians. These are the channels through which the Qi is said to flow.

Human acupuncture meridians

Human acupuncture meridians

Acupuncturists lean specific locations based on meridians that can be used to treat diseases and conditions..

No one is positive that horses have meridians, although it is generally accepted that humans do. However, research indicates that horses do indeed have these channels for Qi. These meridians make it possible for a tender area to receive treatment without the acupuncturist actually having to put needles into the injured or sore area.

Examining the meridians involves finding the areas which are tender and evaluating how these areas relate to the horse’s injury or ailment. This information, combined with the veterinary or Western evaluation and the interview with the owner, allows the acupuncturist to make a diagnosis and begin treatment.

While improvement is generally seen after each treatment, horse owners should be aware that acupuncture is not an instant fix. Multiple sessions are usually needed before the ailment or injury is healed. Also, because acupuncture treatments address the flow of Qi in the entire animal, many times owners will see that other problems in the horse are relieved in addition to the specific ailment the acupuncturist is treating.

Acupressure for treatment of equines

Acupressure is another form of point therapy similar to acupuncture, where finger pressure is applied to the body surface in a general pattern or a designated point or location. There are several forms of external massage, the most common being the Japanese system, shiatsu.

Like acupuncture, acupressure uses the manipulation of Qi as its underlying principle for treatment. It is this subtle energy that governs the cellular level of living bodies through the meridians. Acupressure is not directed at the nervous system or the muscular system, though it influences these as a secondary effect through Qi.

Activation of Qi also results in the production of hormones and stimulation of the immune cells in the skin, which are part of the healing-force matrix. Like acupuncture, acupressure restores and maintains the health of the equine by moving and rebalancing Qi.

Chiropractic treatment of horses

Equine chiropractic care uses manual therapy which can be used for health and performance problems. Chiropractic treatment focuses on the abnormal movements of the spine and the effects these restrictions have on the nervous system and the entire body.

Finding an equine chiropractor

In the United States, the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association provides certification for the practice of chiropractry for equines.

The certification is a post-graduate activity for licensed veterinarians and chiropractors. Using only an AVCA certified chiropractor is recommended.

The goal of chiropractic treatment is to maximize mobility and optimize nervous system function to allow unrestricted exchange of information between the brain and the horse's body.

Chiropractic treatment does not replace traditional veterinary medicine and surgery, but provides an alternative method of care. Chiropractic adjustments have proven to be invaluable in detecting and treating gait abnormalities and other performance-robbing problems in the athletic horse.

Horse owners may want to consider chiropractic treatment in the following circumstances:

  • Loss or decrease in level of performance
  • Problems or difficulty executing desired movements
  • Behavioral changes (i.e. refusals, cinchy, bucking)
  • Short striding
  • Diagnosed conditions, such as degenerative arthritis
  • Muscle imbalance, spasms, or atrophy
  • Gait problems, such as cross-canter, loss of collection, or refusal to pick-up lead
  • Injuries resulting from falls, training, or other activities

Chiropractic treatment has been shown to alleviate pain in the back and neck of the horse. Some nerve damage, such as pressure on the sciatic nerve, has responded well to chiropractic adjustments

The horse's spine is a system of bones known as vertebrae that fit together and articulate with each other to allow movement. The spine allows a range of movement such as lowering and raising the head, arching or dipping the back, and bending from side to side. The horse’s spine, unlike the human’s, is a fairly rigid structure, with the majority of movement in the neck and the lumbar area, behind the saddle area, and just in front of where the spine connects to the pelvis.

Wherever two or more bones meet, a joint is formed, and all joints allow a certain range of movement. Sometimes a joint can be taken to the extreme of its range of movement through trauma such as a fall, a bad stumble, or through repetitive strain injury such as a badly fitting saddle, lameness, or poor shoeing. When this happens, the muscles will tighten around the joint to stop it going any further.

The muscle tightness will normally resolve itself through activity, such as rolling or normal spinal movements like bending, however, sometimes it can persist. This is usually because the muscles have gone into spasm, holding the joint slightly out of alignment, restricting the normal range of movement, decreasing flexibility, and leading to a change or a problem in the way the horse normally moves.

When this stage is reached, some physical symptoms will likely be seen. Back problems can manifest as subtle changes in the horse’s performance, muscle spasm and soreness, stiffness, or lack of collection or impulsion, or even a degree of incoordination. It could even show itself as a behavioral problem such as a cold back, bucking, problems with canter, not wanting to “bend” on one rein, or refusing to jump.

When it gets to this stage, an external influence such as an adjustment may be required to restore normality. The chiropractic therapist applies a short, sharp thrust to a specific area which releases muscle spasm, alleviates pain, and returns the joint to its normal range of motion.

This allows the equine body to restore its own natural balance, harmony, and health. After the treatment, the horse should rest for 24 hours or so as it may have a reaction to the treatment. Results of chiropractic treatment can range from immediate improvement in the horse's ability to move to being stiff or sore or appearing worse the next day.

Horse owners should realize that equine back problems can sometimes be a secondary problem related to a primary cause, so the advice of a veterinarian should precede chiropractic treatment in most cases.

Massage therapy for horses

Massage therapy has been successfully used with humans to reduce muscle fatigue and spasms and to relax the body. Muscle fatigue and/or spasms can affect horses in ways similar to humans. When muscle fibers become strained, spasm can result from over-extension or usage. These spasms, which decrease motion and cause discomfort if not released, can continue to gather more fibers to themselves and may increase in size and intensity.

Horse message therapy

Horse message therapy

Practitioners of horse message therapy can alleviate pain and stiffness associated with work related wear-and-tear.
© Carrien Schippers

Massage therapy can help alleviate muscle fatigue and spasms, thereby reducing a horse’s risk of pulling or tearing muscles. It can help the horse to be more relaxed by relieving tension and reducing the risk of overusing other muscles that compensate for discomfort. Equine massage therapy can also help improve circulation and reduce inflammation in joints and muscles while allowing them to move more freely.

Benefits of equine massage therapy:

  • Relieves tension and muscles spasms
  • Improves circulation which promotes more rapid healing of injuries
  • Enhances muscle tone and increases your horse's range of motion
  • Increases potential performance and endurance
  • Reduces inflammation and swelling in the joints so that pain is relieved
  • Increases the production of synovial fluid in the joints
  • Lengthens connective tissue and breaks down/prevents the formation of adhesions
  • Can help to extend the good health and lifespan of your horse

Treatments based on natural diet, herbs, and supplements

Horses, ponies, and other equines are herbivores that need plenty of fibrous forage for a healthy digestive system and metabolism. Equine teeth are specialized to grind fibrous food and the hind gut of the equine is a large vat where fermentation takes place utilizing bacteria to aid in the digestive process.

In most cases, a knowledgeable veterinarian is the best source of advice as to which, if any, supplements, including herbal supplements, might help enhance the health of a particular equine.

In the wild, equines live in open grasslands and roam to graze over a wide area in family groups and herds. Their daily requirement for plenty of fresh, clean water aids not only digestion, but their overall health.

Suitable foods for horses, ponies, and donkeys include fibrous forage such as species-rich, mature grassland and forage plants like alfalfa. A natural forage diet would eliminate any use of artificial nitrogen fertilizers in the growing of forage.

The best natural diet for a horse is grass or grass hay on a free choice basis. However, due to current farming practices that aim to increase the nutritional value of pasture grasses through the use of fertilizers, many fields are now too rich for safe grazing. This means that restricting the amount of grass is necessary to prevent illnesses such as laminitis which can be triggered by high levels of sugar in the grass.

Hay is a much safer alternative to be used when feeding horses, especially those that might be negatively affected by high levels of sugar. Hay can be soaked in clean, warm water for 30 minutes (or for an hour in cold water) before feeding to further reduce the sugar levels, if necessary. Using a slow feeder for your hay will also help regulate consumption.

In addition, hay is better fed on the ground, allowing the horse's natural feeding position rather than in a suspended hay net. This may not always be practical.

Much of today's pastureland has been rendered poor in herbage diversity and near-toxic to horses because of use of artificial nitrogen applications.

To feed a natural diet where possible, horse owners who have land at their disposal can work toward developing an area dedicated to biodiversity in a pasture near a hedge, tree break, or fenced-off bank where hay, grasses, and herbs are allowed to grow freely. Such an area, in addition to providing natural feed for horses, can also serve as a shelter and wind break.

A good natural diet for horses may also include the following:

  • Cooked flaxseed
  • Vegetables
  • Seaweed/Kelp
  • Herbs - a good source of minerals and vitamins
  • Oil - cold-pressed, not solvent-extracted olive oil, sunflower oil, flax oil, evening primrose oil, borage oil
  • Brewer's Yeast

Supplementing the diet with a mineral and vitamin supplement can be a reasonable 'insurance' against imbalance, but products should be checked very carefully for unsuitable or unhealthy ingredients and additives such as sugar or synthetic flavorings and colorings. Manufactured vitamins, included with many manufactured feeds, may be coated with animal by-products such as gelatin.

Some food ingredients are generally unsuitable for equines:

  • In general, a horse should not require cereal grain since it may be harmful. An exception would be in the case of extreme work demand. In such cases, oats are the best cereal to feed.
  • Refined and semi-refined sugar materials are not good for horses because they create undesirable changes in the bacterial flora of the hind gut, on which a horse is so dependent for health and immunity. This includes glucose, syrups, molasses, sucrose, dextrose, etc. These sugars are very common ingredients in manufactured feeds and supplements and are often added to high-fiber diets.
  • Most oils added to horse diets are cheap, solvent-extracted oils.
  • Grass or grass products that have been fertilized with artificial nitrogen fertilizers.
  • Chemical herbicide or pesticide spray on pastureland, even if the label states 'livestock safe'.
  • Some supplements and feeds contain cow's milk. Logic dictates that this is NOT a horse food.
  • There is no place for animal-derived material in a horse's diet. This applies as well to supplements. Glucosamine and chondroitin are examples, derived from shellfish, shark, cattle, or pigs. Similarly, they should not have milk, whey, cheese, or other milk products.
  • Feeding manufactured sweets is common but not advised. They are made of refined sugar and some contain animal by-products, such as gelatin.

Herbs have been used for centuries to help manage health conditions and support general well-being in horses. Equine herbal supplements are available for everything from calming a nervous horse to supporting respiratory health and the immune system.

The right herbal supplement could be a beneficial addition to your horse's program, but it is very difficult to sort through the hype of commercial herbal products and supplements to determine what will work best for any particular horse.

In most cases, a knowledgeable veterinarian is the best source of advice as to which, if any, supplements, including herbal supplements, might help enhance the health of a particular equine.

Limitations of traditional and alternative treatments for equines

It is not and either/or proposition

It is not and either/or proposition

Traditional and alternative methods of equine treatment should be used together to provide the best health potential of your equine.

All forms of medical and surgical therapies have their limitations. Certainly, neither alternative therapy nor traditional Western medical management can correct a horse with colic due to a twisted bowel, or induce fracture repair.

There is a time and a place for all forms of therapy. From the scientific perspective, for these alternative therapies to play a useful and vital role in equine health, they should meet the scientific standards of Western medicine.

By combining both the advanced diagnostics available and cures made possible with Western medicine with alternative therapies aided by the techniques which utilize the body's natural healing powers, more resources are available to horse owners and veterinarians.

A word of caution

Using alternative therapies that result in delay of proven medical or surgical treatment may be disastrous for your horse's health. While it is good to be open-minded, it is also wise to keep your eyes open. Be cautious when claims of miracle cures or secret ingredients or processes catch your attention. Most likely these are "snake oil" remedies that may do more harm than good and are put forward strictly as a way to make money for unscrupulous purveyors of disinformation.


About the Author

EquiMed Staff

EquiMed staff writers team up to provide articles that require periodic updates based on evolving methods of equine healthcare. Compendia articles, core healthcare topics and more are written and updated as a group effort. Our review process includes an important veterinarian review, helping to assure the content is consistent with the latest understanding from a medical professional.