You Can’t Placebo a Horse


When I first got into horses I was very pragmatic. Catch the horse, groom the horse, ride the horse. Feed him, water him, worm him, shoe him–horses were always shod; it was the way things were done. The vet came twice a year and gave shots. It was all pretty standard.

If anybody talked about nonstandard treatments or therapies, it was with extreme skepticism. I had known about chiropractic for humans since I was a toddler–an old family friend was a chiropractor. Chiropractic for horses? Inconceivable! As for the more far-out options, such as acupuncture, those were just a little too too for us pragmatists.

Until, one day, I saw an acupuncturist work on a horse. Seriously, you can’t placebo a horse. You can’t tell him “These weird little needles are going to act on your who-knows-whats and make you feel better.” Any more than you can feed him a sugar pill and tell him it’s a wormer (though he might think the sugar tastes just fine).

So here was a young and somewhat headstrong horse who belonged to a friend of mine, with some unresolved lameness issues that the conventional vet hadn’t been able to treat effectively. The person with the needles was a vet herself, a DVM (she also did chiropractic, and later got into Chinese herbal medicine; she’s since retired and become a sculptor–kind of a classic Renaissance type), so she had the background in conventional medicine. She understood the anatomy and physiology. She was, at base, a scientist. And here she was, marking out meridians and talking about energy paths.

Hokay, I said. Let’s see what the horse thinks. Needles are by no means a horse’s favorite thing, and yet these tiny needles with their plastic handles didn’t bother her in the slightest. At worst she’d twitch her skin as if to shake off a fly.

But what really struck me was how the needles affected her. She was normally fairly tense and flighty, not a relaxed horse at all, but after a couple of minutes her eyes were blinking, her breathing slowed, and her head came down. She was riding an endorphin high, and she was loving it. Not only that, after her treatment she was visibly better.

I was blown away. To be able to see how this fabled and unconventional therapy worked, in its pure state, on an animal who had no reason or inclination to pretend, was simply amazing.

I booked the Needle Vet for my own horse after that, and as the horse population increased, all of them got a session at some point either for a specific therapeutic reason or even as prophylaxis.

Which brings us to last week, and my six-month invalid. He’s been laid up since October after a close encounter with a fence, in which the fence won. Nothing we’ve tried has worked. We had the vet in. We did stall rest–he got much worse. We did massage–he got better during, and regressed after. We tried PT. He improved a bit and then plateaued.

Finally we had a choice. We could try chiro, but his problem was more musculo than skeletal–more soft tissue than bones and tendons. We hadn’t seen the Needle Vet in years, and anyway she was retired. A new one had come into town in the meantime, one we’d known in a previous incarnation as an emergency vet; he used to be our backup when our regular vet was unavailable. Another scientist and empiricist–he’s all about what demonstrably and provably works. Bonus: the horse knew him and liked him.

So we called the Needle Guy. It took three tries. The first one was derailed by an authentic Act of God: a massive haboob that made the national news. It was like a scene from “The Mummy.” Sandblast city.

The second try was also derailed, this time by a vet emergency–horse in another barn that needed hours of fluids and treatment. So we rescheduled again.

Third time was the charm. Quiet weather, if considerably on the warm side. Vet available. Needles at the ready. My poor messed-up boy was transformed into a very fancy Austrian-style pincushion–and he looooved it. At times I had to hold up his head, he was so zonked.

With acupuncture, you can often see results right away, but for a longterm injury like this, you may have to wait a bit. We were advised to give him a day to recover, then work him lightly and see what we could see.

What we saw was balanced movement, much less lameness, and a general sense of feeling more like himself.

Then I had to go away for a couple of days. When I came back, I tried the same work. And he was even better. More balanced. Less lame. Moving more like the horse he used to be.

He has two more sessions–the second tomorrow, and the the third and final next week. I’m very hopeful I’ll finally get my riding horse back.

So, I think, is he.

That’s a happy horse.


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You Can’t Placebo a Horse — 8 Comments

  1. We like happy faces!

    My own experience with a chiropractor was nothing short of miraculous. Crumble once went thorugh a period of not-quite-right. Compromised immune system, and one thing after the next over an eight-month period – bad cough, herpes, this, that, the other. Anything that went around, he got it. He was also on the thin side despite being pastured (normally air fern territory) and eating as much hard feed as he wanted.

    That run ended with ‘let’s see whether Chiro will improve his overall wellbeing’ visit – it did. A week later, I had to cut his hard feed out completely, and he was a much happier horse. All I can guess is that _something_ had bothered him – not enough to show up as a definite lameness, but enough to make him grouchy and unwell and to sap his strength.

    (I’m also finding it notable that – thanks to advanced diagnostic methods – there are now more studies showing that acupuncture actually DOES have physical effects. Not that I want to dismiss empiricisim anyway – if it works for a significant portion of the population, who am I to dismiss it – but it’s nice to have the last laugh.)

  2. I am planning to get some acupuncture myself, for rotator cuff issues. They’ve done PT, which sorta helped but I am at a plateau. Before they go for surgery, I want to try other options!!

  3. Thanks for that great article. I use EFT (often likened to acupuncture without needles), and your article has inspired me to find ways to do it more often for horses. I’ll have to see what the people in the stable have to say about that.

    (Also I just re-read “A Wind in Cairo” and loved it, as always.)

  4. Chiropractic and occasional acupuncture have saved my quality of life. Horses have no reason to pretend, and neither do dogs. I’ve seen amazing results for many animals as well as for infants and people who cannot express themselves. Correcting your structure and re-booting your energetic template are both ways to help your body correct itself. Thank you, Judith, for sharing is such a cogent and entertaining style.

  5. Sheila, exactly. I’m glad you like the post. 🙂

    Hannah, for daily use the vet prescribed acupressure, and directed me to the one book in English on equine acupressure. I’m slowly working my way through it now. Lots there to process.

    Sherwood, the shot with the whole horse was during the pincushion stage, but mobile camera plus white-tipped needles plus poor light meant it didn’t come out. I’ll try to remember to take my camera tomorrow and snap some shots.

    Brenda, that’s about where we were. I hope it works for you, too.

    Catja, we love chiro; it really is miraculous when it works. That would have been the next step, but at this point it looks as if the needles will do the trick. The other thing is that I’m under orders to get back on the horse and develop his core that way. Waiting for trainer to be available before I try it with this particular warp-equipped wessel with the specially installed ejector seat. Meanwhile, we longe, and he looks better than he has in a long time.

  6. So glad that Pooka is feeling better! I have several friends who are acupuncturists, and do Chinese herbs, and I have experienced some incredible things with that work. Another thing that works on animals is homeopathic medicine. As you say — you can’t placebo an animal. Something else is going on, things that Western medicine has no vocabulary to explain.

    In the meantime, we can enjoy the results. Hope you two are riding together soon — and that the pin-stuck horsies end up in your novel!

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