WRANGLING ON THE RANGE #126
FROM HORSE AND RIDER - AUGUST 2011
BACK PAIN; AGGRESSION
Can acupuncture cure back pain? Plus, stopping a gelding's pastur
I believe my 11-year-old gelding (possibly a Tennessee Walking
Horse) has back pain that causes him to buck. It's not a normal
buck-more like "cow kicking" up toward his belly. He's fine
running in the field and being longed under saddle. A
chiropractor found nothing, then a vet diagnosed and treated him
for Lyme disease, yet the bucking persists at anything over a
walk. I recently learned how to identify pain points; my guy
cow-kicks when I palpate his withers, and again when I check
above his back ribs. Would acupuncture help? I don't believe it's
just misbehavior and want to treat his pain.
BRIDGET LAWSON, Maryland
You're correct, Bridget, to identify and correct pain before
assuming your horse is misbehaving. Given the history you
describe, I think acupuncture would be a great diagnostic tool
and potential therapy.
Acupuncture is part of traditional Chinese medicine, In my
practice, we often use it in diagnosis and therapy in addition to
modern Western medicine. In Chinese medicine, disease is viewed
as an imbalance in the organism as a whole; identifying an
overall disease pattern is the key to restoring health. In
Western medicine, we look first for the specific problem and
target our therapies toward controlling that problem. By using
both Chinese and Western medicine, we can take advantage of the
strengths of both for best results.
A comprehensive acupuncture exam includes palpating or "scanning"
the meridians - the 14 regular channels running throughout the
horse's body, with specific acupuncture points along these
meridians. Areas of sensitivity at particular points can direct
the practitioner toward a specific diagnosis and treatment plan.
The pain points you described on your horse sound as if they're
along the bladder meridian, and may indicate back pain. Examining
his tongue, pulse, general constitution, and sensitivity along
other meridians will lead to a complete Chinese diagnosis and
allow for effective treatment. Because Western therapies for back
pain in horses are more limited, I often turn to acupuncture for
back pain management. A dry-needle technique is most common,
though many practitioners incorporate other methods as well, such
as electro-acupuncture (needles convey a low electrical current),
aquapuncture (liquid injected into specific points), and
moxibustion (acupuncture points are warmed as a burning stick of
processed mugwort herb is held over them-I don't use this
technique, as burning herbs and dry barns are a risky
From the Western viewpoint, back pain is either primary (in the
back) or secondary (originating from a different area of the
body), so a comprehensive physical and lameness exam is
warranted. A professional saddle fitting is also a good idea.
If you try acupuncture, I recommend using only a licensed
veterinarian with specific acupuncture training. The Web site
tcvm.com is a great resource.
CAMILLE WHITE KNOPF, DVM Silverado Equine, Sacramento
Our 12-year-old Arabian gelding, Sunny, bites and kicks our other
two Arabians, a 17-yearold gelding and a 3-year-old mare. It
occurs mostly when the three are close together around the barn
before feeding, or grouped under the shade tree. The attacks are
unprovoked, and Sunny has bitten through the flesh in many cases.
He's otherwise a gentleman-around me, on the trail with other
horses, and in other social situations. We've tried separating
them, but don't have the facility to do this long-term. What
could be causing his behavior and what can we do about it?
CHRIS SHEPHERD, Oregon
Horses are social animals and usually form bands of five to seven
individuals in the wild-one mature stal lion, mares, and their
Within the group, pairs of preferred associates ("best friends")
form. Kicking, biting, and threatening are normal ways for horses
in a group to communicate to other individuals to move away.
Aggression is common where domestic horses are group-housed, both
when new horses are introduced and in established groups. It's
usually about maintaining resources (feed or a favorite
companion), or out of fear (as during crowding or excitement).
Pain or medical problems increase irritability, resulting in
aggression with little provocation. Because of traditional
training that discourages moving about in an unpredictable.or
dangerous manner (kicking, lunging, biting), many horses are less
demonstrative under saddle or in hand.
Based on your description, Sunny may be acting aggressively
because of 1) a desire to defend important but limited resources
(shade tree, feeding area); 2) unease or fear when other horses
crowd him; 3) excessive bonding to one horse (probably the mare);
and/or 4) a medical condition (such as stomach ulcers) causing
irritability. Of course, Sunny is not scheming to injure the
others, nor does he understand it's "wrong" to injure them.
The only way to completely prevent aggression is to separate the
horses, either by turning them out in shifts or by dividing up
your pasture. Alternatively, you can try to decrease common
motivations for aggression by: 1) avoiding limited resources
(provide a large shelter for shade and keep hay available in
multiple areas at all times); 2) minimizing crowding/ excitement
(locate a gate in the middle of a long straight section of
fencing to provide plenty of room, plus limit bringing horses in
and out of the pasture or use a different order to see what
causes the least conflict); 3) add a fourth horse so they can
split into two pairs; and 4) have Sunny evaluated by your
veterinarian for a cause of discomfort or pain, and treat him if
one is found.
MARY KLINCK, DVM, DACVB Clinician, Behavioral Medicine Faculty of
Veterinary Medicine, University of Montreal
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Include horse's age, breed, gender.