Symptoms of Subluxations

Equine chirovetpractic

Equine chirovetpractic care is a supplemental method of care with a holistic approach to the health and performance of the horse. The equine chirovetpractor evaluates the health and proper biomechanical function of the spine through locating and correcting vertebral problems.

Chirovetpractic believes that the body has a natural ability to heal itself. Many things can interfere with this ability such as drugs, toxins and other environmental factors, injuries, pain, and misalignment of the spine. Known as a subluxation, this misalignment, or skeletal dislocation, can be corrected through proper chirovetpractic manipulations or adjustments and can restore the body's natural ability to self-heal.

What, then, is the difference between chiropractic and chirovetpractic? Robert Hathaway, DVM, tells us, "Like chiropractic, chirovetpractic began over 90 years ago. Unlike chiropractic, chirovetpractic diagnostic and treatment techniques are totally different because of the differences between the skeletal biomechanics of the human - a biped, and the animal - a quadruped."

Chirovetpractic is unique unto itself. The definition of "Chirovetpractic" as modified from Stedman's Medical Dictionary is as follows:

"Chirovetpractic is a philosophic system of mechanical therapeutics that attributes disease in quadrupeds to vertebral subluxations; it treats disease with manipulation of the vertebrae in order to relieve pressure on the nerves at the intervertebral foramina, so that the neural impulses may flow freely from the brain to the rest of the body."

"What created my interest in chirovetpractic was the fact that I, like the other race track veterinarians, was experiencing great difficulty diagnosing rear leg lameness," says the San Francisco Bay area veterinarian. "I was really just treating symptoms about 80 percent of the time. I was also doing a lot of head scratching, and I now know that I was treating the symptoms of subluxations in the lower back."

What physically happens to a horse with subluxations?

Disharmony between two vertebrae results in reduced flexibility and impaired mechanical function. The vertebrae may be dislocated, stuck, or unable to move properly, putting pressure on the nerves. This hinders cerebrospinal fluid flow to neural tissues, disturbing normal nerve function.

Disruptions of nerve function can affect many other areas of the body causing decreased performance, gait problems, lameness, illness, and behavioral problems. Pain may or may not be evident. The absence of pain does not necessarily indicate that the spine is in proper alignment because not all nerve fibers carry messages of pain; they also carry messages of function. This means that there can be impaired performance long before there is obvious pain.

The spinal column provides support for the limbs and the internal organs, and a place for muscles to attach. It also serves as the protective housing for the spinal cord, which extends from the base of the brain to approximately the first sacral vertebra then tapers and continues to the fourth sacral segment. The nerves branch off and exit the spinal column between the vertebrae. There are typically six lumbar vertebrae in the lower back of the horse, though some Arabians have only five. The sacrum, which consists of five fused segments, joins the vertebral column to the pelvis.

The sacral region is an area of great importance when it comes to nerves. There are six pairs of lumbar nerves and the last pair emerges between the last lumbar vertebra and the sacrum. The last three lumbar and first two sacral nerve branches form the lumbosacral plexus, which is the origin of nine major nerves, one of which is the sciatic nerve, the largest nerve in the body.

Nerves are extremely sensitive structures and even the slightest amount of pressure can interfere with their function. Misalignments between vertebrae can cause varying degrees of pressure on the sensitive nerves.

"When the cauda equina, part of the spinal cord, is pinched by the sacrum, the motor neurons that are pinched cause paralysis of the muscles they enervate. The pain neurons that are pinched create pain," explains Dr. Hathaway. "Cauda equina", or "horse tail", is known as such because of the way the spinal cord begins to separate into distinct nerve bunches which resemble something more like a tail than a cord at that point of the spine.

"The continual pain caused by the sacrum pinching pain neurons causes the brain to stimulate hormone secretion that activates the adrenal gland. This causes the continual secretion of adrenalin," he explains. "The continual secretion of adrenalin greatly reduces the neural impulse and blood supply to the skin, mucous membranes, reproductive system, and digestive system. The immune system is suppressed. The biomechanic movement is also adversely affected. By simply realigning the sacrum, it allows the neural impulse and blood supply to return, and the biomechanics to return to normal."

The chirovetpractor's extensive knowledge of the individual vertebrae and how they work together allows him to locate problems through palpation. He identifies the subluxations and performs the realignment of the affected vertebrae to return the bones to their proper positions, thus restoring proper mechanical function. Mobilization of the horse's spinal joints involves rocking, pulling, or pushing motions along the vertebral column. Improvement is due to the return of neural impulse and increased circulation.

Chirovetpractic is an important part of the horse's total health care plan. "Veterinary medicine as it is taught today," Dr. Hathaway points out, " only treats the symptoms of a dislocated sacrum with drugs and surgery. It does not address the cause of the symptoms. Chirovetpractic eliminates the cause, which eliminates the symptoms."

Chirovetpractic can identify sources of locomotor and biomechanical problems, gait abnormalities and other problems in the horse. Because they deal with the relationship between the nervous system and the spinal column, the potential benefits are endless.


Subluxations can cause numerous problems in the horse. Not only are the biomechanics of movement impaired, the functioning of the entire body is too. Among the many things to look for that may indicate back problems and subluxations are:

  • Uneven strides, short strides, toe dragging, stumbling, and forging (front and back feet collide)
  • Unusual wearing down of the shoe or hoof
  • Abnormal posture while standing, uneven hips, 'hunter's bump' (rump muscles have atrophied), choosing to stand on uneven ground, not squaring off behind when urinating, and tail off to one side
  • Unusual behavior patterns such as biting or threatening in a previously gentle animal, unusual sensitivity to touch, head-shy, bucking, rearing, grinding teeth, showing discomfort or objecting when being saddled or mounted, wringing tail, and pinning ears
  • Poor performance, laziness, reluctance to perform, running off, picking up the wrong lead, cross-cantering, refusing to jump or having trouble jumping, having difficulty collecting, using hindquarters, changing leads and performing lateral movements or circles, having difficulty traveling up or down hills and backing, having extended head or neck, hollowing the back, shortening the strides behind, working below capacity
  • Chronic tying up or stocking up, chronic front leg problems, arthritis, dull rough coat, colic, chronic ulcers, weak immune system, reproductive problems, other chronic health problems

Pinched pain neurons

Dr. Hathaway explains, "The continual secretion of adrenalin as a result of pain from subluxations and pinched pain neurons greatly reduces the neural impulses and blood supply throughout the body." This results in problems anywhere and everywhere. For example, the oil glands of the skin stop functioning, resulting in dry skin, dry mucous membranes, a drab, dull, rough hair coat, and susceptibility to skin diseases and parasites. According to Dr. Hathaway, even respiratory problems can result. "Immunoglobulin A has difficulty crossing the dry membranes to protect the horse from respiratory diseases," he explains.

"Subluxations weaken the immune system as well because adrenalin suppresses the immune system. The horse is more prone to microbial infections, parasites, and cancer. I believe Equine Protozoal Myelitis (EPM) would not be a problem for a normally functioning immune system. In EPM, the protozoan is an opportunist, affecting horses with a weak immune system," he says.

"The continual secretion of adrenalin greatly reduces the neural impulse and blood supply to the digestive system too. This can cause a host of digestive problems," he says. Among them are:

Pancreatic insufficiency due to lowered production of digestive enzymes and base fluids to neutralize stomach acids

Ulcers, usually chronic, from over-production of stomach acid

Colic from lack of proper digestion, low intestinal motility, and spasm causing increased food fermentation and putrefaction, excess gas, and parasite opportunity

Dr. Hathaway says, " By simply realigning the sacrum, I have relieved horses of colic. Allowing the neural impulse and blood supply to return brought more calcium to the smooth muscles, allowing the spasm to subside. The gas passed and the fermentation stopped due to the increased levels of enzymes being produced."

Also affected by subluxations are the hormonal and reproductive systems. Dr. Hathaway explains, "The continual secretion of adrenalin causes a hyperthyroid condition - the thyroid continually produces more thyroxin than normal. The thyroid gland eventually exhausts and produces less than normal thyroxin, a hypothyroid condition. Other hormonal problems can be seen in the reproductive system." Problems from reduced neural impulse and blood supply to the reproductive system include:

Low sperm count in the stallion, lack of conception in mare

Cycling problems and uterine problems in the mare, and the inability to complete gestation

Weight-bearing difficulties occur in both stallions and mares due to pain in the sacral area. "Stallions have difficulty mounting and mares have difficulty supporting the stallions' weight," says Dr. Hathaway.

Pinched motor neurons

"When the cauda equina portion of the spinal cord is pinched by the sacrum, the motor neurons that are pinched cause paralysis of the muscles they enervate. Also the pain neurons that are pinched create pain," says Dr. Hathaway. He explains, "The horse usually has more pain and paralysis in one rear leg than the other. This causes the horse to pull the good rear leg more central to bear more of the horse's weight. When this happens the line of force is no longer down through the center of the leg. Instead the line of force goes through one side of the hock. This is the cause of hock problems. This also causes the horse to shorten the stride, and throw his weight forward, compounding the front leg problems."

Dr. Hathaway continues, "To avoid or relieve the pain occurring in the sacral region, the horse with a subluxated sacrum carries its head and neck higher than normal and does not lower the head and neck low enough for the rear end to rise as it should in a stride. The horse is unable to reach forward with its hind legs, shortening the stride behind, which in turn shortens the overall stride of the horse. Because the horse is unable to leap as normal, its front legs land prematurely, causing a short, choppy gait. This adds concussion to the front legs, leading to front leg problems such as bone chips, fractures, bowed tendons, strained or sprained check ligaments, ring bone, and arthritic changes," he says.

"Also due to sacral dislocation, the horse is unable to shift leads behind. Most horses will do a little hop to bend the spine laterally to bring forward the hip that is stuck to the rear. This curve in the spine causes the horse to shift its front legs to one side, causing most of the weight to be thrown onto one front leg," says Dr. Hathaway.

The sacrum is an integral part in the health and biomechanics of the horse; it affects the entire body. The importance of a properly functioning and unimpaired spinal cord is essential. Addressing problems through chirovetpractic can provide an effective alternative to drugs and surgery, and opens new doors to the holistic treatment of the horse.

Natural Horse Magazine thanks Dr. Robert Hathaway, DVM, MCvp, for his assistance in preparing this article. Dr. Hathaway operates a mixed practice in the San Francisco Bay area of California where he treats all four legged animals. He makes house calls anywhere in the world. He can be reached at:

Home Office: 510-245-1894

190 Starling Way

Hercules, CA 94547

Business Exchange: 925-930-3339