Acupuncture in Saddlebreds by Dr. Jan Still

Dr Jan Still

Acupuncture is a therapeutic method originating in Eastern-Asian countries. It has been practiced both in China and, increasingly so, also in many European countries and Northern and South America. Acupuncture is highly effective in alleviating pain and certain other medical conditions in man and animals.

According to traditional theories, acupuncture alleviates pain and cures disease by harmonising the flow energy Qi in the body. Modern scientific research has confirmed that acupuncture operates via selective stimulation of the nervous system. A variety of chemicals such as neurotransmitters and neuromodulators are released in various parts of the nervous system in response to acupuncture stimulation. These and other physiological changes induced by acupuncture then assist in pain-relief and other forms of healing.


So-called soft tissue injuries characterised by pain, stiffness, muscle spasm or wastage, altered movement or lameness are the main indication for the use of acupuncture in horses. Acupuncture has been used successfully in managing various riding problems, in which horses resist (and often just cannot) carry out certain tasks because of the underlying pain and discomfort. The major indications for acupuncture in sport horses, including American Saddlebreds, are:

Manifested by loss of flexibility and resistance to bend sideways; high or low carriage of the neck; tripping of front limbs etc. In American Saddlebreds in particular, neck muscles are often tender and in spasm, causing numerous performance-related problems.

This is a very common yet not always timely recognised condition. Sore back can be a major cause of discomfort to the horse and a reason for numerous riding problems. General loss of mobility; change of temperament; tail swishing; uncontrollable running away; bucking; or rearing and many other signs can indicate pain in the back region. Low back area in particular is under stress in American Saddlebred horses. This condition can be associated in particular with reduced propulsion from behind, as well as with generalised lack of suppleness.


Acupuncture treatment is efficacious in managing soft tissue injuries located in the shoulder, elbow, hip and stifle areas. These injuries can be a cause of uni- or bi-lateral limb stiffness, shortened stride, “choppy” or uneven gait, or lameness.

Because of the breed-related nature of the movement and methods of training, muscle strain and other types of injuries in the low neck and shoulder are common in American Saddlebreds. Other frequently encountered problems are stiffness in the upper neck and hamstring muscles on the back of the hind limbs. Strained muscles or ligaments, or irritated (‘pinched”) nerves are diagnosed and treated effectively with acupuncture in these situations.

Some horses showing poor performance or difficult behaviour are subsequently diagnosed with generalized muscle pain and spasm. This distressing condition can develop as a result of excessive body strain associated with training, competitions, or as a consequence of accidents. There seems to be a constitutional predisposition for the condition in particular horses.

Some horses develop extreme sensitivity in particular nerves of the head. The sharp pain can cause a range of riding problems such as excessive sensitivity on the bit, bridle lameness, head throwing or shaking, as well as resistance when turning the horse to a particular side.

The condition is manifested by excessive sensitivity of the horse when the girth is tightened. Often, the affected horses tend to run uncontrollably away or refuse to go forwards.

As a rule, whenever a horse starts to refuse to carry out his usual tasks in training or in competition, or when he behaves in an unusual/distressed way, an underlying pain within the musculoskeletal apparatus should be suspected. It is crucial for the horse’s well-being, as well as for the rider’s safety to properly manage the underlying causes of pain. Successful pain management, whether using acupuncture or other veterinary methods, can be highly rewarding in terms of the horse’s improved performance. More details about these and other issues can be found on my website

First, the owner/rider of the horse is questioned on the nature of the complaint. Then, the correct diagnosis is established using a detailed clinical examination of the locomotor apparatus including muscles, joints, bones, ligaments, tendons and nerves. Based on the gathered data, it is decided what type of treatment is the most appropriate to address the particular clinical problem. While acupuncture can be very useful in managing uncomplicated soft tissue injuries, many other conditions such as acute joint and tendon injuries, or soft tissue trauma with bleeding, swelling and/or infection should be treated using conventional veterinary care rather than with acupuncture. Indeed, any hoof or dental issues, as well as saddle and bridle related problems should be addressed before considering veterinary treatments including acupuncture.

In acupuncture, fine metal needles are inserted into certain body areas, called acupuncture points. The needles are left in place for 5 to 15 minutes, while being occasionally manually stimulated. Alternatively, acupuncture points may be stimulated by injecting specific solutions. Usually, two to four treatments are sufficient to bring about a significant improvement.
Generally speaking, acupuncture treatment is well accepted by horses; some animals can even become visibly sedated as they experience the pain-relief and muscle relaxation during the treatment. Occasionally, a twitch can be used for a limited period of time in unruly or otherwise difficult horses.

In any veterinary or medical treatment, precautions should be taken to minimise any eventual risks and adverse reactions. Generally speaking, acupuncture treatment is safe, provided that it is carried out by a veterinarian knowledgeable in modern veterinary equine medicine, as well as in the art and science of acupuncture.

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