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Acupuncture for Axial Stiffness in Horses
Bob Judd, DVM, DABVP (Equine Medicine), DABVP (Canine and Feline Practice)
Published: April 09, 2024
Photo image of a black horse receiving acupuncture needles

Acupuncture has been promoted in horses for years, and a new study indicates it may be effective. The Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association published a study in September 2023 concerning the short-term effects of acupuncture on steeplechase horses exhibiting axial stiffness. 

The axial skeleton contains the skull, vertebral column, sternum, and ribs. Axial stiffness is basically a decrease in the ability to rotate around the spine, and this study used 12 horses with axial stiffness during training. Six horses were randomly assigned to an acupuncture group, and the other six horses were not treated and were used as negative controls. 

Through the use of a questionnaire, each horse’s locomotion was evaluated by their rider and trainer before treatment and again at seven and 14 days after. Additionally, the improvement of the horse’s dorsal flexibility two days after treatment was evaluated individually at the trot. Expert clinicians assessed free jumping at the canter, and free jumping at the trot was objectively evaluated via internal measurement units.

Results showed more horses in the acupuncture group improved on days seven and 14 compared to the non-treated control group. Subjective evaluation of the dorsal (back) flexibility also showed a significant improvement for horses receiving acupuncture treatment compared with the control horses that did not receive treatment.

The authors of the study determined acupuncture may be an interesting non-drug therapy to improve clinical signs of axial stiffness and performance in steeplechase racehorses. More studies involving acupuncture and other nonstandard treatments in horses are needed, and one concern with this study is the low number of horses involved. When a smaller sample size than the ideal is used, the chance of assuming that a false conclusion is true increases.

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