Horse Side Vet Guide ®

Equine Health Resource




Acupuncture is a complementary therapy that can be of benefit in the treatment of various musculoskeletal, gastrointestinal, neurologic, immune-mediated and other conditions. It is not meant to be a substitute for conventional veterinary medicine or surgery. It can help when medications are not working or might result in side effects, and in cases in which surgery is not an option.

In horses, acupuncture is most commonly used to treat subtle or difficult to diagnose musculoskeletal issues. Commonly used terms for such complaints include “my horse is not lame, but not right” or “they seem to have a sore back” or seem “crooked”. Often times, acupuncture may help resolve musculoskeletal issues before they result in a clinical lameness.

Acupuncture can be used to treat “primary” as well as “secondary” conditions like neck and back pain, acute and chronic laminitis, and various lower leg lameness conditions. In many cases, conventional treatments may address a primary problem and acupuncture may help resolve some of the secondary compensatory issues thereby improving the overall recovery and outcome for the horse.

Gastrointestinal issues that acupuncture may help include non-surgical colic, gas colic, impactions, diarrhea, gastric inflammation, gastric ulcers, inflammatory bowel disease and others.

Neurologic issues that may benefit from acupuncture include nerve paralysis, infectious neurologic diseases, neurologic weakness and paralysis.

Acupuncture may be a beneficial support and “balance” the immune system in any immune-mediated condition, including acute or chronic infections, immune mediated reactions to foreign substances as well as chronic immunosuppression.


Veterinarians tend to use acupuncture most commonly to treat various musculoskeletal conditions either as an adjunct to conventional treatments or when a condition could have better results from acupuncture.

For instance, if a horse has a chronic back problem and the veterinarian has diagnosed and treated the primary issue with conventional approaches, they may use acupuncture to relieve the specific muscle spasms, pain and biomechanical imbalances that the horse is exhibiting secondary to the primary issue.

If a veterinarian is treating a non-surgical colic condition with conventional medications, they may choose to add acupuncture to help relieve the acute pain and help normalize the gastrointestinal motility.

Once a diagnosis has been made, your veterinarian can decide if acupuncture is an appropriate adjunct to the primary treatment.


Acupuncture stimulates specific acupoints on the skin, which help rebalance any imbalances in the body. It works through the nervous system, vascular system, neurohormonal and immune system via the body’s bioelectrical circuitry to help return the body to a state of homeostasis or balance.

From an acupuncture perspective, any disease or condition is considered an imbalance in the body’s normal regulatory actions and the goal of acupuncture is to help bring the body back into balance. It helps relieve muscle spasms, pain, inflammation, overactive or underactive immune systems, neurologic activity, hormonal imbalances etc.

This Treatment Might be used for a horse exhibiting these signsRelated Observations

Hypersensitive to Touch on Back or Topline
Cold-Backed, Rigid through Back
Back Spasm, Muscles Feel Swollen, Tense or Hard After Exercise
Bolting Under Saddle
Hind-End Leans or Falls to One Side, One Hind Limb Seems Weak
Extending or Stretching Out Neck
Drags in Hand, Won't Lead Up
Difficulty Backing Up or Walking Backwards
Crab Walking or Uneven Tracking
Choppy or Short Gait, Short-Strided
Back Sore, Dips Away from Pressure with Hands
Splints or Braces Against Pressure from Hands
Pain Response when Pressure Applied to An Area
Abnormal Head or Neck Position at Rest
Loss of Muscle Mass, Generalized, on Top-line or Back
Rider Experiences Back Pain
Stiff Neck or Back, Resists Lateral Bending
Estrus or Heat Behavior in Mare Interferes with Work
Head Tossing or Shaking, while Ridden
Depressed, Dull, Sick or Lethargic
Change in Personality, Strange Behavior
Circling Compulsively in One Direction
Resists Moving Forward Under Saddle, Lazy
Resistance to Mounting
Fearful, Flighty or Spooky Under Saddle
Intestinal, Gut Sounds with Stethoscope Less Than Normal
Cannot Seem to Get Up, Lying Down, Seems Aware
Intestinal, Gut Sounds with Stethoscope Seem More Than Normal
Tail Raised or Held Off to One Side
White Hair Appearing on Back
Will Not Stand for Farrier, Will Not Hold Leg Up for Long
Wound is Very Slow Healing or Not Healing
Roach or Hog Backed
Persistent or Irregular Heat Behavior in Mare
Catastrophic Injury, Suffering Horse, No Access to Vet
Mangy Looking, Widespread Hair Loss & Poor Coat
Mare Not Eating or Depressed, Soon after Foaling
Obvious Stumbling or Tripping, Even when Not Under Saddle

Know Related Treatments

Consider Potential Side Effects & Complications

Potential side effects include needle breakage in the horse if the horse rears or bucks. Injury to the veterinary acupuncturist or the handler is possible in difficult to manage horses. Caution should always be used in handling the horse as with any procedure.

Although extremely unusual, infection at an acupuncture site can occur (there may be greater risk in immune compromised horses and horses allergic to needles).

Acupuncture needles should not be inserted into infected or dirty areas.

Sometimes there is concern that acupuncture can mask pain in a colic case where surgery is indicated. In my experience, it may only mask pain for a few minutes.

Consider Reasons Not To Use This Treatment

Acupuncture may not be advised in horses that are severely needle-shy or difficult to handle. It is not advised in horses that may roll because of colic pain

Acupuncture should not be used in lieu of other conventional treatment that have a greater success rate, unless a client specifically requests acupuncture first.

Is It working? Timeframe for effect

In my experience, clients may see immediate improvement - sometimes during the treatment and immediately afterwards. I usually combine acupuncture with various manual therapies such as chiropractic or stretching. The horse should appear much more relaxed, drop its head, give a sigh of relief, etc.

My goal is to find and correct the original cause of the problem (i.e. saddle fit, shoeing, inappropriate riding). In this case, the problem should resolve quickly, within one to three treatments. If unable to resolve the inciting cause, then continued treatments are needed to maintain the horse.

Most of my clients have me evaluate their horses regularly, treating with acupuncture and chiropractic care preventively in order to prevent issues or treat them before they become serious.

Questions To Ask My Vet

  • How does acupuncture work?
  • Can you explain acupuncture to me in western terminology?
  • Why use acupuncture for this particular condition in my horse?
  • Will my horse be bothered by treatment?
  • How do horses normally respond to treatment?
  • What should I look for following treatment?
  • How do I assess the effectiveness of this treatment?
  • How many treatments are needed before I see any improvement?
  • How frequently are treatments needed for this particular issue?
  • How long should it take to see improvement?
Author: Allen M. Schoen DVM MS PhD (Hon.)


Schoen A. Equine Acupuncture for Lameness Diagnosis & Treatment, in Lameness in the Horse, 2nd Ed., Ross, M & Dyson, S, Elsevier, St. Louis MO, 2011.Schoen A. Veterinary Acupuncture, Ancient Art to Modern Medicine, Mosby/Elsevier, St. Louis, MO 2001.Rettig, MJ, Leelamankong, P, Rungsri, P, et al. Effect of sedation on fore- and hindlimb lameness evaluation using body-mounted inertial sensors. Equine Vet. J 2015 doi: 10.1111/evj.12463.


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