Protecting Your Investment – How to Recognize Compensation Before it Becomes Lameness

It happens all the time, your perfectly normal horse suddenly becomes an unsound horse or a resistant horse and nobody seems to know what happened. Sometimes your veterinarian can’t even find the problem. Sometimes even the most advanced diagnostic techniques are not providing an answer as to why your horse is unsound or resistant. A lot of times the horse may show a good clinical response to certain therapies or rest but return to normal work and problems return as well.

This scenario can be extremely frustrating to clients who are both emotionally and financially invested in their horses. At Heart Equine we recognize the multi-factorial origin of most lameness’s and feel the solution is in treating the problem before it is manifested in the horse’s gait or behavior. One way of doing this is learning to recognize compensation.

Recognizing Compensation

Horses are masters of compensation and many will contort their bodies and change their gait in such ways to hide all evidence of pain. There are far too many people in this sport who accept the horse’s willingness as an sign that it is pain free and ignore the subtle indications that it having a problem. Often things that we accept about our horses (sometimes we even purchase these abnormalities) such as a very uncomfortable canter in one direction, trouble turning left, or a difficult lead change are really just different ways of trying to cope with an underlying problem. If your horse starts to develop these subtle problems it is likely that he is compensating. Many of our sport horse live in a world of chronic compensation and often just increasing their job stress a little will turn them into inconsistent performers.

Treating Compensation

A horse that is compensating will be unable to develop proper muscling over its body because its body is not being used properly. So when this horse becomes lame he has habits that support the compensatory gait. For example if a horse always loads the left front foot more than the right front foot and he goes lame in the left front foot… it will be harder to make that foot better if you cannot change the horse’s habits. This is often why there is no diagnosis but healing does not happen either. Lameness is often an end result of chronic compensating. Learning to recognize and treat compensation is key to preventing gaits and behaviors that negatively affect performance.

Preventing Injury

A trainer had me look at a horse being ridden by its owner and said to me ‘ This horse is not lame but there is something wrong. He is drifting right and I am worried he might start stopping with his owner who is an amateur.

My observation of the horse was that he was short strided in both front and rear limbs and carried the right rear leg more extended. His back did not move at all and he did not look especially happy. The horse however had no visible limp but to me he was obviously not comfortable and was travelling as if he had pain somewhere.

An examination of this animal showed it to have some distal limb joint pain as well as some changes in the alignment of his thoracic and lumbar spine leading to some back pain. This horse was not painful enough to show lameness but he had a compensatory gait that was recognized as being abnormal. Once this horse’s back was treated and distal limb joints aligned this horse’s stride lengthened and he straightened out on his approach to fences. Had this horse not been treated at this time a more serious problem may have evolved.

Learning to identify compensation can have profound effects on maintaining your horse’s soundness.

Bridging the Gap Between Eastern and Western Veterinary Medicine

At Heart Equine our goal is true healing for our patients. Our treatment protocol masterfully combines the practices and principles of both Eastern and Western Medicine. The synergistic effect of the two approaches is overwhelmingly successful in the treatment of horses. An understanding of the strengths of each form of medicine will show that it is the balance of both that will restore health over time.

Western Medicine

In Western Medicine Doctors are trained to recognize and treat specific disease states or disorders in the body. The malfunction is located and repaired. The disease is identified by the symptoms that it causes and the specific effects it has on the patient. The illness is perceived as a distinct entity that is separate from the patient. One example where this is extremely effective is in the case of infections. There are many medications that are very important in their rapid control over acute and contagious disease states. Advanced surgical techniques are also provided by Western Medicine. In Equine Sports Medicine the identification and extent of an injury is combined with local therapy. This been very successful especially in acute or traumatic situations.

Eastern Medicine

Eastern medicine aims to restore the body to a balanced state. An Eastern style practitioner will view the patient, the disease, and then examine their relationship to each other. Every symptom as well as general characteristics are noted and reviewed as being pertinent to the patients current health. The practitioner attempts to use this information to find a pattern of imbalance in the patient’s body. A symptom is not traced back to a cause but approached as a part of the total animal. The pattern identified provides the guidelines for a treatment protocol which will restore harmony to the body. In the case of a chronic disease that does not have a specific cause this process of supporting the whole body can have many benefits over time. Often those subtle symptoms that we consider almost normal will disappear as the entire body starts to function better. The ability to handle a disease state of any type is based on the overall strength of the system. In Equine Sports Medicine, muscles that are free of stagnation and a balanced emotional and internal constitution will strongly contribute to the rate and success of the healing.

Bridging the Gap

A lot of times the injuries to our horses are accompanied by stress and pain that incite disease states like colic, founder, respiratory infections and even behavioral issues. As a Western doctor this is perceived as a normal secondary complication to a traumatic or stressful incident. We can treat the acute problem successfully but often fail in the long term due to complications and side effects of the therapies. The Eastern treatment regimes will balance the bodies homeostatic mechanisms giving it the strength to counter and prevent this cycle of complications. This strategy of maintaining harmony within the patient’s body is an integral component to restoring and maintaining long term health and soundness. Bridging the gap is learning that the balance of our therapies will treat the problems and at the same time strengthen the system to prevent the cycle of progression and reoccurrence.

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.

Dr. Heart’s Article “The Whole Horse” Featured in The Horse Magazine

As featured in The Horse Magazine, February 2011

The Whole Horse - by Rachel E. Heart, DVMEntering 2011, it’s hard to believe that my 20–year veterinary school reunion is now only months away. What an evolution our profession has seen with the advances in technology. The way we learn, communicate, and diagnose has changed, and the advantages are many. These days, as a veterinarian, it is not unusual to walk into a barn and set up more than $100,000 in equipment to do a routine exam. We have digital radiography, computerized radiography, ultrasound, and even lameness locators. Veterinarians have become very adept at using equipment to make an exact diagnosis…

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