Animal Chiropractic and Chinese Veterinary Medicine for Horses: Getting to the “Heart” of the Matter

As seen in: Midwest Thoroughbred
Published: March 2010
By: Liane Davis

Finding the true matter of a problem to treat the equine athlete and their many ailments is the life’s work of Dr. Rachel Heart, whose specialty reaches far beyond the normal services of a large animal veterinarian.

Frustrated by “fixing” the outward symptoms of soreness and lameness with traditional western medical practices, the native of Massachusetts set out to gain knowledge in eastern forms of treatments, such as acupuncture and chiropractic therapy. Acupuncture in animals has been used for thousands of years by the Chinese, and horses respond well to these treatments. Today, it’s often used on race horses and performance horses to restore the natural balance to their bodies, and in many instances the treatment relieves pain, enhancing performance potential.

Acupuncture treatment consists of the careful placement of sterile needles in or near the affected region of the body. These points are determined by the body’s flow of energy which was “discovered” by the ancient Tibetans and Chinese. They called this energy release “Qi”, pronounced “chee.” According to the Chinese, every organ has its own function and corresponding Qi. When acupuncture points are stimulated, the body releases different chemicals in accordance with the placement of the needles.

One way that Qi can be used to help race horses is when the animal is experiencing shoulder or back pain. The needles can release the blocked energy allowing pain killing hormones, such as enkephalins and met-enkephalins into the central nervous system. These hormones ease the horse’s pain, and promote healing of the joints by reducing swelling and inflammation.

Acupuncture has been credited in helping horses overcome other problems such as liver and kidney ailments and digestive problems, which can contribute to colic. In some cases, the vitamin B-12 is injected into the acupuncture points to give a longer lasting effect. In addition, sometimes small wires are connected to the needles, which send electric impulses to the specific areas for added stimulation.

Despite the wonders of these treatments, Dr. Heart believes in treating the whole horse, including skeletal and muscular structures. Chiropractic adjustments to horses are just as important as treating any illness that a horse might have. She often sees that a horse seems to be fine, but, little by little, subtle changes in the gait, or the horse not moving as freely at the trot or canter, or, perhaps, refusing to change leads for no apparent reason, are problematical.

There are approximately two hundred joints in the neck, back and tail of the average horse, and just one of these joints being incorrectly positioned results in what is known as subluxation, which could mean a partial dislocation. For any horse, especially a race horse or performance horse where great physical demands are made, being out of alignment could greatly reduce performance.

Imagine having a bad back or sore muscles, and carrying the weight of a saddle, not to mention the weight of a rider. It’s not much different for a horse with the symptoms of subluxation. Add to the fact that the horse runs from a standing position, or jumps over obstacles, and you add to the stress.

The spinal column carries nerves for all the vital organs, and if one of the nerves is pinched, the result is a slightly decreased function of the organ. Look for warning signs from your horse, such as head shyness, nipping or biting and stiffness and general lack of coordination, as well as obvious lameness. Sometimes it may be a slight refusal to move forward when a rider is on a horse’s back.

Watching Dr. Heart work is inspiring. Though petite in stature, in a matter of less than one hour, Doc Heart’s highly skilled hands can transform an unhappy equine into a relaxed and much relieved patient. Recently, I had an opportunity to watch Dr. Heart treat a horse in a stable in Barrington Hills, Ill.. She seemed to become “one” with the horse, even when the animal was resistant. When Dr. Heart put all of her concentration on the animal, and dictated to her assistant the detailed findings, I found myself nearly envious of the process!

To the observer, Dr. Heart’s work is exhausting. It generally takes two hours for her to work on one horse. After her evaluation is completed, she gives recommendations to the owner and trainer, and then reviews the session to make sure nothing has been missed. She inputs her findings to a file on an onsite computer.

The number of treatments needed, types of medications, both medicinal and herbal, will be prescribed. An accomplished equestrian, and Dr. Heart’s knowledge of the sport helps her relay future training for her equine clients.

While she has great gift for treating horses, and has perfected techniques for doing so, Dr. Heart is just as enthusiastic about treating other animals, including dogs and cats. While these animals are much smaller than the equine, the challenges are often the same, and she is just as passionate about keeping them fit, as she is with horses.

Horse trainers and owners are becoming more aware of chronic performance problems in horses. The concepts of restorative healing have come a long way in recent years. One reason is due to the dedication that practitioners like Dr. Heart have brought to the forefront of veterinary medicine.

For more information about Dr. Heart and her practice, Heart Equine Veterinary, Barrington, Ill., visit, or call 847-271-7724.

How it all started for Dr. Heart

Dr. Rachel Heart is a 1985 graduate of McGill University in Montreal, P.Q. with a BSc. in Biology. She attended Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in Grafton, Mass., receiving her DVM in 1991.

She worked 10 years on the backside at racetracks all over the U.S., specializing in sport horses. Her experience in the backstretch provided her with opportunities to learn from some of the top veterinarians and trainers in the country.

Moving on to focus on other disciplines in the equine industry, she spent six years at an equine referral clinic in Illinois, working on lameness. This allowed the doctor to experience the most advanced diagnostic and therapeutic techniques available in the sport horse industry.

She began her training in acupuncture at the Chi Institute of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine in 2003, with Dr Huisheng Xie DVM, MS, PhD. and completed her certification in veterinary acupuncture in 2005.

Currently, she is working on a Masters Degree in Chinese Herbal Medicine. In 2007, she obtained her certification in Veterinary Spinal Manipulation Therapy (Also known as Animal Chiropractic) from the Healing Oasis Wellness Center where she was trained by Pedro Rivera, DVM. She was certified by the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association (AVCA) in 2008.