Hannah looked like a million bucks when she stepped off the trailer in Lexington from her winter stint in Ocala (a week before the EHV-1 scare, whew!). But when I hopped on her for a hack the next day, my normally well-balanced and forward-moving mare felt short-strided and unwilling to engage her hind end. I immediately called my trainer and asked how soon we could get the vet out to diagnose the problem. (Could she have a soft tissue injury? Painful gastric ulcers? Raging hormones?)

But my trainer had a different idea. Chiropractor-of-the-equine-stars Shirley McQuillan was scheduled to come to the barn in a few days to pop several horses' bodies back into place--why not add Hannah to the list? I've neither been to a chiropractor myself, nor have I actually watched one work on a horse, so this wouldn't normally have come to mind. But hey, maybe it would be cheaper than a vet bill.

It was fascinating to watch the chiropractor work, as she quickly identified and corrected problem areas.

Photo: Alexandra Beckstett

Watching Shirley work was rewarding in and of itself. Her hands have graced the spines, hips, and polls of horses the likes of 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Funny Cide and Reed Kessler's Olympic show jumping mount Cylana. As she went stall to stall down the barn aisle, she would ask each horse's owner what they were feeling under saddle and then migrate toward the area of the animal's body she suspected hurt. You could tell by a horse's reaction--head tossing, ear pinning, teeth gnashing, and even a few kicks--when she hit a sensitive spot. And with each adjustment she made, the horse would immediately relax, lick his lips, and droop his ears.

When I mentioned to Shirley that Hannah had days before endured a 12-hour trailer ride, she quickly moved to the pelvis area. Yep, something was out of whack. Then she felt and observed Hannah's head and neck movement; her poll needed some readjusting as well. After running her hands over the rest of Hannah's body and finding her in otherwise good shape, Shirley theorized that my mare had likely been sitting back on the trailer butt bar during much of her transit. She watched me ride Hannah for a few minutes, was pleased with her way of going (as was I--there was that impulsion again!), and advised me on which muscles might be sore for a few days.

While I won't necessarily call the chiropractor before the vet each time I feel something's awry with one of my horses, I've discovered another equine therapy I can add to an ever-growing list. There's only one thing that concerns me, however, about the world of equine chiropractics: its subjectivity. Everyone seems to have their own opinions as to what's "best" when performing these complementary therapies.

One fellow horse owner, for instance, swears by manually stretching her horse's limbs, neck, and back before each ride; another believes you should never ask your horse to perform a stretch he would not do naturally. One veterinarian pooh-poohs complementary therapies altogether; another believes chiropractic is a useful modality that should be performed regularly. A major reason chiropractic and other complementary therapies are so subjective is because of the lack of published, evidence-based research on the topic until very recently.

Personally, I'm still on the fence. I've had a very positive first chiropractic experience with one horse, and I'll certainly consider it again. But is it something I feel like I need to employ regularly with my show horses to keep their parts in place? Maybe not quite yet.

I'd love to hear your experiences and beliefs on the topic though!