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Practical Applications of Acupuncture in Equine Practice

by Phil Rogers

Two systems of acupuncture are used in animals: (a) TCVM-AP, a form of acupuncture based on Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medical texts, and (b) VAP-Mod, a form veterinary acupuncture based on transposition to animals of human acupuncture theory and practice. As traditional Chinese texts on horse acupuncture exist, both forms are used in horses.

However, TCVM-AP is developed poorly relative to human acupuncture, and is difficult to learn and use because it uses isolated points that are unconnected by any meridian concepts. Therefore, VAP-Mod is used much more extensively in the west, i.e. most western veterinary acupuncturists use the human transposition system to find the relevant acupoints; they treat the same points as would be used in humans with similar clinical conditions. Dr. Janne Potter, a Canadian vet, has charts of the main acupoints in horses on her webpage at: and charts of human acupoints and their functions are at: or

Myofascial disorders: Muscle pain/spasm is the most common equine condition amenable to acupuncture as a primary therapy. Flexion (contraction) of the affected muscle(s) is no problem, but extension (stretching) increases the pain. Therefore, horses protect or guard the painful area(s) as much as possible. This guarding alters the total balance and athleticism of the horse, renders it prone to secondary and tertiary problems, and makes it less responsive to the rider’s will. The horse is less limber than normal and often has a shorter stride at the gallop. Many of these horses are not clinically lame but their jockeys/riders report that they resent being saddled or girthed up, are stiff-backed, move reluctantly, “are not trying”, or favour (hang to) one side, shy at jumping, or jump poorly, often clipping the top of the jump.

On pressure palpation along the paravertebral area and heavy muscles, these horses show pressure-sensitivity in the rump and sacroiliac area (usually with sensitivity in the contralateral neck muscles), loin area, unilateral thoracic area, bilateral thoracic +/- cranial lumbar area (saddle-sore), and hamstrings. Pain and spasm of the muscles in the scapular area and pectoral muscles are less common but respond very well. acupuncture cannot turn a poor athlete into a winner. However, fit horses whose potential to win races is compromised by muscle spasm, can run to full potential when acupuncture releases the pain and spasm. Indeed several horses in whom serious muscle pain was detected and treated by acupuncture in the morning have won their races that afternoon or the following day.

Tying-up (azoturia) is a common condition in horses fed high levels of concentrate feeds, especially when their work level does not justify such levels of feeding. Generalised stiffness and muscle pain, especially behind, are amongst its many clinical signs. Acupuncture can help in azoturia but best results require that the underlying abnormalities of organ (especially liver) function be treated also. Appropriate changes in feeding and training practices must be also made.

Tendon strain: Hyperextension of the fetlock joints, as may happen when a horse gallops on hard ground, or lands heavily after a bad jump, may strain or tear fibres in the flexor tendons, especially the forelimb superficial flexor tendons. Tendon strain is more likely in horses with poor conformation of the hoof or joints, and in horses with back pain that inhibits normal use of the forelimb joints. Although acupuncture can give rapid relief of swelling, heat and pain in tendonitis, many experts agree that long-term results are poor in these cases unless the horses are rested until full healing has occurred. A seriously strained flexor tendon requires several months of rest to regain its strength. Horses returned to work before full healing has occurred may break down again. Also, tendon strain responds poorly to acupuncture, laser or "plum blossom needling" that is confined to local points over the tendon. Results are better when combined with treatment of the most distal points on the affected limb, and removal of sensitive points elsewhere, for example on the paravertebral area.

Joint and bone disorders: Acupuncture (especially acupuncture using low-level laser or TENS) can help in some bone disorders, like periostitis (hot splints, especially inside splints, bucked shins) and hot curbs, especially when combined with other therapies. Acupuncture can give pain-relief and counter inflammation in joint sprain/arthralgia, for example in pain/sprain of the shoulder, hip, elbow, stifle, carpus, tarsus and fetlock joints. It can help also in vertebral pain but vertebral or sacroiliac misalignment needs to be corrected by expert manipulation. In serious cases of arthralgia/arthritis, acupuncture is best when combined with homeopathic, herbal or conventional medication, like NSAIDs and/or joint injection with steroid, or hyaluronidase, etc. However, though acupuncture combined with other treatment can help horses with severe local pathology in skeletal, arthritic and vertebral/spinal disorders, the lesions usually persist, or may not respond to a degree that restores full racing speed. Such cases need to be retired.

Gastrointestinal disorders: Acupuncture helps in some gastrointestinal disorders, especially gastric ulceration in foals, non-surgical colics (sand colic, gas colic, and bloat), functional diarrhoea or constipation, and early cases of low-grade gastritis with wind-sucking before teeth wear occurs due to cribbing.
Respiratory disorders: Acupuncture helps in some respiratory disorders (rhinitis, tracheitis, coughing, mild cases of vocal cord paralysis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD, heaves) without rupture of the lung air sacs). Acouncture given 1-3 days before a race helps to reduce the risk of stress-induced lung haemorrhage in horses prone to bleed during a race. It also helps in some reproductive disorders (anoestrus, repeat breeders, cystic ovary (especially luteal cysts)), especially when combined with western hormonal treatment and/or homeopathic remedies.

Peripheral nerve paralysis: Acupuncture can be very useful to treat peripheral nerve paralysis due to trauma, especially to the facial or radial nerves but horses with these disorders may need treatment for many weeks or months. It also is useful in early cases of cervical or lumbar ataxia due to trauma or a fall. However, in classical wobbler syndrome, with serious pathology in the cervical spinal cord, results may be poor in cases presented more than 6 weeks after the onset of clinical signs.

Other disorders: Some colleagues report good results with acupuncture in equine sarcoids. Others report that some skin disorders, such as allergic Urticaria, can respond.

Although acupuncture may help to control symptoms in neoplastic, toxic, infectious and nutritional diseases, its use as a primary therapy in such cases is unwise but it could be combined with chemotherapy, other therapies and dietary supplementation.

In summary, acupuncture is not a panacea in horses, or any other species. It works by coaxing the body’s auto-healing mechanisms into overdrive. However, it fails to help if these mechanisms are impaired seriously. Therefore, acupuncture is helpful as a primary therapy in some conditions (especially muscle pain/spasm), but is of little help on its own in conditions with serious organic pathology. However, it can be used as a support therapy in combination with homeopathy, herbal medicine, manipulative therapies, or conventional medication in many other conditions.

The best option is to have horses assessed and treated by a competent veterinarian, trained in both western and oriental medicine. Veterinarians interested to learn acupuncture may contact International Vet acupuncture Society [IVAS:], or their National Veterinary Acupuncture Society [].

For further online information on AP in horses, see:
Veterinary acupuncture Webpage:

Equine Acupuncture Points:

Clinical Acupuncture in Horses: to

IVAS Notes on Master Points in Animals:

Old Publications on Veterinary acupuncture:

More recent Publications on Veterinary acupuncture:

Equine rhabdomyolysis:

Bowed tendon in horses:

Earlier columns in this series were:

(1) Training in Animal acupuncture:

(2) Information Sources on Veterinary acupuncture:

(3) Methods of Stimulating Acupoints in Animals:

(4) Practical Applications of acupuncture in Small Animal Practice:

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