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Equine Osteopathy: Going Beyond Veterinary Medicine

Updated: Nov 9, 2020

Dr. Kimberly Rasmussen, a veterinarian and equine osteopath, said she always knew there was something more she could be doing for her patients.

“I didn’t know what, but I knew I was missing something,” she said.

Rasmussen graduated from the Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 2003. During her years practicing veterinary medicine, her personal horse suffered from soreness in his back. She first prescribed a pain-relieving anti-inflammatory for the horse but saw little change in his health, she said. Wanting to avoid “putting a band aide” on the issue with steroid injections, she turned to acupuncture, she said.

“The acupuncture therapy seemed to provide some relief, but after 10 days he needed another treatment,” Rasmussen said.

Hoping to find lasting relief for her horse, she said she called an equine chiropractor. Rasmussen said she was “initially impressed with the results, as the horse exhibited an 80 percent improvement,” but three days later he was sore again.

Finally, Rasmussen said she gave the horse a steroid injection to provide some lasting relief, but she was not satisfied with this treatment. She then discovered Janek Vluggen of the Vluggen Institute for Equine Osteopathy and Education.

Osteopathic therapy gave her horse lasting relief without medication, inspiring the veterinarian to return to school to study osteopathy, she said.

Rasmussen had discovered the “missing piece.” She graduated from the Vluggen Institute in 2008. During the last decade, she said she has combined her knowledge of veterinary medicine with osteopathic practices to improve the health and performance of horses in a diverse range of disciplines.

Osteopathy has been around since the late 1800s, according to the Worldwide Alliance for Equine Osteopaths. Although Rasmussen’s experience is more recent, equine osteopathy began much later in 1970. The American medical doctor, Andrew Still is credited with developing the practice in the late 1800s.

In 1892, Still founded the American School of Osteopathy, the first of its kind. According to the WAEO, by the early 1900s, osteopathy was introduced to England and began spreading across the globe.

In 1970, Dr. Dominique Giniaux, a French veterinarian, began to apply and develop osteopathic principles in horses. According to the WAEO, Giniaux is credited with the development of equine osteopathy.

Equine osteopathy focuses on the physical manipulation and adjustment of the horse’s body to correct and prevent health issues, Rasmussen said. However, while equine chiropractic therapy focuses on the effects of spinal alignment on the nervous system, osteopathy focuses on the movement of fluids from the brainstem through the spine and out to the nervous system, she said.

Enhanced spinal fluid circulation can improve equine health and address many equine health issues Rasmussen said.

“When an area of the body isn’t receiving proper fluid circulation, that area is prone to poor overall health and inflammation that may cause pain,” Rasmussen said.

Most of her patients suffer from lameness or “mechanical lameness,” Rasmussen said. Mechanical lameness refers to when horses remain completely mobile and fully weightbearing, but their form of motion is incorrect due to an underlying issue, Rasmussen said.

“Watching these horses at a show, for example, you may just think that is how the [particular horse] moves,” Rasmussen said, “but the rider, the owner, knows the horse and they feel the change. They know how the horse used to move.”

Many of these lameness cases are a result of having a sore back, an immobile shoulder, or their pelvis is being held incorrectly. Rasmussen said, many of her clients are barrel horses that will not commit to a turn.

“These horses may hump up when turning or refuse to tuck and bend into the turn,” Rasmussen said.

Some horses favor turning one direction, Rasmussen said. Typically, horses exhibit these issues from some form of inflammation caused by poor alignment or circulation, she said. Rather than treating the issues with a temporary injection, osteopathy addresses the root of the problem and corrects it, Rasmussen added.

Not limited to mobility therapy, osteopathic therapy also impacts temperament, conformation and organ health, said Rasmussen.

Rasmussen said horses who suffer from inflammation or pain due to poor or blocked circulation often exhibit behavioral issues. After being treated, horses who have been difficult to catch are friendlier as they are no longer in pain, she said.

Throwing a head and/or flipping the bit are common signs the horse has an underlying issue, Rasmussen said. No amount or form of training will correct these “behavioral” issues if the horse is acting in response to poor circulation, inflammation or pain, she said.

Horses’ muscular conformation is determined for the most part by the use of the muscle, Rasmussen said. Therefore, when a horse is unable to properly use certain muscles due to pressure, inflammation, or poor circulation, that muscle will deteriorate, Rasmussen said.

“Most cases, I see are [successful],” Rasmussen said. “A big thing owners notice is their horses performing better [after treatment]. Many patients also gain muscle and just get gorgeous as they are filling out faster when [their body is functioning properly].”

How does osteopathy improve organ health? As with any other area of the body, without proper circulation, deterioration in function and health occurs, Rasmussen said.

Rasmussen said she treated two mares that would not breed. After a rectal palpation, examining the uterus and ovaries, she discovered the reproductive organs were not receiving proper blood flow, she said. The organs were in poor health and unable to function as they should, she added. After osteopathic therapy, the mares bred on their next reproductive cycle.

“[In fertility issues in mares], the lower pelvic rim, that is anything from lumbar vertebrae four to the sacrum, [is affected]” Rasmussen said. “That’s where their blood flow moves to the uterus. So, if you have compromised blood flow to the uterus, the uterus is not going to be healthy enough to sustain a pregnancy. If you can mobilize that blood flow to the uterus, the uterus will receive the nourishment it requires to sustain a pregnancy.”

Rasmussen also said issues arise with internal parasites and stomach issues.

“When a horse has internal parasites, such as worms, the intestines are irritated and inflamed,” Rasmussen said. “That inflammation puts pressure on nerves in the spine.”

This situation causes the horse to have stiffness in the back, Rasmussen said. By adjusting the affected organs, this pressure can be alleviated, she said.

Justin Weichel, an Oklahoma State University graduate, rancher and calf roper, said osteopathy has produced some impressive results in his horses during the past 15 years. Weichel trains calf horses and barrel horses that are also used for ranch work.

“I’ve seen some phenomenal results from chiropractic and osteopathic therapy,” Weichel said. “I once had a horse that knocked his sternum out of place. I went to three vets, and they all said to keep giving him Bute but didn’t fix the problem. Finally, I took him to be adjusted, and he was back to himself.”

Weichel said he has always leaned toward more holistic treatment of his horses as he feels this often produces better lasting results.

“I had one horse with stomach issues,” Weichel said. “The vet just couldn’t quite cure the problem, so I took her to an osteopath. After the osteopath adjusted her and put her on some supplements, the horse made a complete recovery.”

Internal issues do not always present externally, often going overlooked and untreated, Rasmussen said. Owners often recognize and treat the external issues, but remain unaware of the internal problem, Rasmussen added.

“Twenty percent of the time [when there is] an external trauma, it leads to an internal problem,” Rasmussen said.

Traditional veterinarians recognize the benefits of osteopathy and regularly refer patients to osteopaths for further assessment and treatment, said Dr. Darci Smith, a veterinarian who graduated from the Oklahoma State University Center for Veterinary Health Sciences.

Smith said as a veterinarian, she often refers clients to an osteopath. She said, “osteopathy encompasses more than chiropractic therapy and often has better results.”

“Osteopathic training is much more involved than chiropractic training,” Smith said. “Anyone can be easily certified in equine massage or chiropractic therapy, but osteopathy goes beyond these practices.”

Many internal issues may not be noticed without an osteopath’s inspection, Rasmussen said. She said traditional veterinary medicine is needed but also encourages owners to have their horses accessed by an osteopath. Beyond treating existing issues, osteopathic therapy prevents health issues such as injuries and diseases by improving the overall function of the body, she said.

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