Understanding the Difference Between an Equine Physiotherapist and a Chiropractor

When looking for support for your horse, it can be difficult to decide who to turn to. Often many horse owners question the difference between a physiotherapist and a chiropractor for their animal. The answer to this question can be quite confusing as they both deal with many conditions, some of which cross over. It is important to understand the main differences, however, so that you can get the right help for your animal if it needs it.

At StreamZ Global we work alongside many therapists and recommend both physiotherapy and chiropractor services to all horses of any age, obviously used alongside our EQU StreamZ advanced magnetic horse bands.  

To help your understanding, we are here to break down the difference between chiropractors and physiotherapists for horses by explaining their end goals during their treatments. While they are different, both occupations do share some similarities.

Firstly, they are both watching a horse's movements, performance in competition (if relevant), and its' behaviour, as these may indicate what is troubling the animal.

They then both implement techniques (albeit slightly different ones) to help the horse return to normal. There may be more than one treatment method for a number of conditions, but both chiropractors and physiotherapists will use treatment and exercises to help rehabilitate the horse. The treatments are where the process differs. Let's take a closer look.

What Is A Chiropractor And How Can They Help?

A chiropractor's main role is to work on the horse's skeleton with a specific focus on the spine and the pelvis. If these areas are out of alignment or uneven, it can lead to a number of different complications. By fixing the root cause of the spinal disfunction, the consequent issues are likely to be alleviated. For example, if a horses hips are not at the same height when the horse is standing upright, its spine will be compensating accordingly by curving, meaning that the horse will find it more difficult to move. Often this will present as the horse having stiff movements, bucking, not jumping or losing forward movement.

When it comes to treatment, chiropractors use a series of small adjustments facilitated with their hands in order to try and manipulate the horse's body in all its areas of movement. While the treatment is on the skeleton, it has an impact on everything surrounding it, including the nervous system, muscles and connecting tissues. Often it has been found that adjustments to the skeleton can lead to less stress and reduced tension on key areas of the body. These adjustments are generally gentle and pain free, with many horses finding them relaxing. It is not uncommon for horses to get a bit drowsy during the treatment. One of the most common treatments used by chiropractors is a pelvic rotation, as this is a structural issue that a large number of horses experience. If the pelvis is not where it should be, use of the legs for jumping and moving around can be impacted, and the horse may experience both pain and lameness in the legs due to this.

What chiropractors also find is that if a horse has soft tissue or tendon and ligament damage, it may adjust its movements accordingly in order to get by. Suppose this is not rectified quickly through a chiropractor's adjustments. In that case, the horse will keep this movement when the original issue has healed, leading to further issues and additional pain over time.

What Is A Physiotherapist, And How Can They Help?

On the other hand, a physiotherapist deals with a larger amount of techniques compared to a chiropractor. These techniques help target a number of different injuries, stiffness or soft tissue damage. Rehabilitating soft tissue can help the horse reduce its pain levels, increase its movement and begin to move normally again.

When your horse first visits a physiotherapist, it will be for an assessment appointment where the physio will perform a number of tests and examinations to determine the correct treatment option for your horse. Firstly, the physio will consider the medical history of the horse, including any previous injuries or treatments. Then they will perform a general health check on the animal and compare it to a standard horse of that breed to identify any issues. Next, they will undertake gait analysis and assess the limbs for any lameness before looking for issues with muscle tone, asymmetry and lesions by examining them. Finally, a physio may also investigate the horse's range of motion in their joints to help identify any movement issues.

A physiotherapist can use a number of different technologies to aid their treatment. Laser treatment, for example, can help soft tissue injuries and wounds heal at a faster pace, while ultrasound treatments can help connective tissues conditions such as tendinitis. It is also great for scar tissue, helping it break down and heal more effectively.

Physiotherapists can also use pulse magnetic field therapy which can help soft tissue and muscle injuries, help with relieving pain, reducing fluid retention and increasing blood flow. Finally, a physiotherapist may also turn to neuromuscular electrostimulation in order to help promote muscle regrowth.

All this treatment using technology is combined with physical therapy and massage on the horse. This could include a number of different stretches to strengthen joints and muscles and exercises to improve their motion. Many of these stretches can also help with blood flow which can remove any waste products and deliver nutrients to all areas of the body. Much of the treatment performed by physiotherapists is focused around one specific problem area at a time, allowing them to really hone in on the issue at hand. Often, they perform their work when the horse is sedated to allow them to work deeply in this area.

Are There Any Alternative Options For Treatment?

If you are looking for an alternative treatment for your horse, some horse owners turn to osteopaths. Osteopaths look at the body of the horse, taking a holistic approach to the body. They base their theory on the fact that a horse's body can generally look after itself and therefore look to support it. They focus on the musculoskeletal structure of the horse, massaging, stretching and manipulating it to try and increase mobility levels and blood flow. This, in turn, encourages the horse's body to self-heal.

How To Choose Between A Chiropractor and A Physiotherapist?

So, now that you understand the difference between a physiotherapist and a chiropractor for your horse, which is the best choice for you? Many conditions that your horse may have can be treated by both.  The best way to choose which profession to go for is to look at the injury that you think your horse has.

In general, chiropractors will focus more on the skeleton of the horse, stabilising and balancing it so that the rest of the body works well around it. Physiotherapists within the veterinary field can better help deal with the soft tissue of the horse, creating programs that will help rehabilitate it over time. You can often find experts that are trained in both these techniques, who are able to use both alongside each other for best results.

No matter which of the options that you choose for your horse, it is important to ensure that the person is fully qualified and registered and that they have insurance, as this is essential should accidents happen. Within the UK, both physiotherapists and chiropractors should be listed on either the Register for Animal Musculoskeletal Practitioners (RAMP) or the Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Animal Therapy (ACPAT), which is there to ensure that professional standards are met, and animals are well looked after. Before taking your horse to either, seek the advice of a vet who will advise on which is best. A vet will have to sign off on the treatment in order to allow the physio or chiropractor to begin treating the horse.

If possible, it is best to find an expert that has been recommended by a friend as then you can trust them. Alternatively, look for reviews of the service provider online to ensure that they have a good reputation and treat the horses well. If you do choose a physiotherapist or chiropractor for a few sessions but then determine that it is not right for you, do not be afraid to change practitioners until you find the right fit for you and your horse. Their health and comfort is your priority. 

Horse Physiotherapy and Chiropractor Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How Long Do These Appointments Tend To Last?

Generally, your initial consultation appointment with either a physiotherapist or a chiropractor will last slightly longer in order for the professional to build up an accurate picture of your horses condition. Expect this first appointment to last between one and one and a half hours. Subsequent appointments tend to be around 45 minutes to an hour long.

Do You Need A Referral From A Vet To Attend A Horse Physio Or Chiropractor?

You will need a completed referral form to be able to access this treatment. Under the Veterinary Surgeons Act passed by Parliament, your vet must refer you to an appropriate professional if they believe your horse needs further treatment. If a practitioner does not ask for this consent, it is best to double-check this as this means they may not have the correct insurance and credentials, leaving your horse vulnerable.

How Many Sessions Will My Horse Need To Complete Their Treatment?

There is no one answer to this question, as it depends on the medical condition that your horse needs treated. Your physiotherapist or chiropractor may be able to give an estimate of how many sessions are required after consultation, however, this may change as the sessions go on depending on how well your horse is responding to the treatment.

Will My Horse Require A Break After Treatment?

As both treatments involve manipulation of the joints or stretching, your horse may require a few days to rest after the appointment to allow its body to recover. The length of time that it needs to rest will depend on the specific treatment, but your physiotherapist or chiropractor should be able to advise on this.

Will My Horse's Health Insurance Cover These Treatments?

This will depend on the individual insurance company, but most will cover some kind of treatment if referred by your vet. It is, however, important to contact your insurer before beginning treatment in order to confirm what will be covered and what you will be expected to pay for by yourself.

Should I Be Present During My Horse's Physiotherapy or Chiropractic Appointment?

It is best if you are present for the appointments, particularly the first one. This is because the first appointment is used to collect an accurate medical history of the animal, which you will need to discuss with the practitioner. Additionally, in further appointments, you may be given 'homework' to complete with your horse, such as particular activities that are designed to aid their recovery.

How Should I Prepare My Horse Before Its Appointment?

Firstly, it is important that your horse has been cleaned and dried in order for it to be easily worked on. If your horse is due a tooth check, consider getting this done before your treatment. This is because if a horse's teeth need treatment, it may be causing the horse to have jaw pain and tension, which could be the root cause of their problems. Therefore, it is best to rule this out before attending a physio or chiropractor appointment.

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