The Year of the Horse

                                                                                     The Year of the Horse


Our little town of Jacksonville has a rich and colorful history, part of which includes a significant population of Chinese immigrants who lived here in the late 1800s. In recognition of this unique part of our cultural history, Jacksonville recently celebrated Chinese New Year. This is the Year of the Horse in the Chinese calendar, so it seems like a good time to take a look at a very Chinese medical modality for horses: acupuncture.

The practice of acupuncture and herbal medicine for horses is thought to be more than 2,000 years old. Legend has it that veterinary acupuncture was discovered when lame horses used in battle were found to become sound after being hit by arrows at distinct points. Veterinary acupuncture is documented to have been practiced in China from around 2,000 to 3,000 BC, and the first text on the subject was written in 650 BC.  Even though the TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) premise of energy flow and balance is quite foreign to Western medical principals, this ancient healing modality has survived to this day, and finds a place alongside the most modern veterinary and human medical technologies.

Acupuncture can be used to treat a wide variety of ailments in horses, from lameness, foot and back problems to stomach ulcers and behavioral issues. There is point on the edge of the nostril that can get a horse out of an episode of colic in less than 15 minutes. Treating points on the tips of the ears and the tip of the tail can bring down a fever. There are many scientific theories for how and why acupuncture works, but no one single, simple explanation. While this has caused some to doubt its value as a medical modality, there is centuries-worth of empirical evidence of acupuncture’s effectiveness. Both the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Equine Practitioners consider acupuncture a “valid modality.” Dr. Allen Shoen, a veterinary acupuncturist with more than 30 years of experience states, “Because acupuncture balances the body’s own system of healing, complications rarely develop. It bridges the gap between medicine and surgery. It is a means by which the body can heal itself.”

One of the most remarkable things about horses is that even though they are large creatures weighing up to 2,000 pounds, they are incredibly sensitive. Part of my diagnostic evaluation for horses is a body scan in which I take the cap of a ballpoint pen and gently touch various locations on the animal’s body. These diagnostic points are reactive when there is a problem. For example, there is a point on the side of the face that is sensitive when the horse has a stomach ulcer. Another point on the side of the neck reacts on the scan when there is a problem with the front foot. For whatever reason, scans like this are not possible with dogs and cats. I’m not sure why horses are so uniquely sensitive, but a colleague of mine suggested it is because horses are prey animals, unlike predator dogs and cats, and tend to be more aware their physical bodies in relation to their surroundings.

Whatever the reason, anyone who owns or works with horses should appreciate what amazing and beautiful creatures horses are. Let’s honor these remarkable animals in this Year of the Horse.

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