Once a month TheHorse.com hosts a live "Ask the Vet" question and answer session on a specific topic. Usually when I'm listening in I'm one of the wizards behind the curtain, fielding live audience questions and helping listeners troubleshoot technology issues.

Lily showed little reaction to her first-ever acupuncture session--she even snoozed through part of it.

Photo: Alexandra Beckstett

But this past month, when Dr. Rachel Heart Bellini came on to discuss complementary therapies, I submitted a question of my own:

"When the veterinary acupuncturist came out to my barn to work on a friend's horse, she offered to run her hands over my horse just to see if she needed any treatments. What is she actually feeling for? I find it difficult to believe an acupuncturist can give a horse a once-over and know what areas need work."

Dr. Heart Bellini explained that with experience you'd be amazed at what your hands can tell you about a horse's tissue and muscle. Using a needle cap or fingertips, she said she feels for tensions and restriction in the tissues and muscle and whether the acupuncture points themselves feel deficient or hollow, hot or fiery, or lack energy.

Okay, I thought, so maybe a trained professional can pick up on issues this way. But I'd still be more inclined to believe it if I saw it.

What did cause my ears to perk up mid-podcast, however, were some of the issues Dr. Heart Bellini said acupuncture might benefit. She said, for instance, that the therapy can help horses that chronically "stock up" in their lower hind limbs by increasing blood flow to that area. It might also help the perpetually stiff or lazy horse gain energy.

It's like she knew I had a stiff, lazy mare who stocks up when standing in her stall for long periods of time!

That was the prompt I needed to give my barn's acupuncturist a call. While I've never been terribly concerned about Lily's periodic "sausage legs," as I like to call them, which dissipate as soon as she gets turned out or moves around, I also had always assumed there was no cure for them besides nightly standing wraps. If a noninvasive therapy could do the trick and increase her energy to boot, then why not try? (For the record, yes, I've mentioned the sausage legs to my vet and she did not find them worrisome.)

Dr. Tranquillo performed electroacupuncture on Lily's hip, liver, and immune system points.

Photo: Alexandra Beckstett

So Dr. Gina Tranquillo, an associate with Hagyard Equine Medical Institute, met me out at the barn last week to give Lily her once-over. She was extremely thorough and asked me dozens of questions about Lily, from her diet, temperament, and performance, to her medical history and even her urine color and stool consistency. She checked her pulse (apparently there are many different "pulse diagnoses" in Chinese medicine depending on whether it's slow, soft, rapid, hard, etc.) and tongue color (darker areas of the tongue can be visual indicators of potential problem areas). Lily's pulse was superficial, and the sides of her tongue were darker pink, which Dr. Tranquillo said correlated with the liver.

Then she ran her needle cap over many of the 361 acupuncture points on Lily's body and determined she was sensitive at the liver, immune system, and hip. The liver and immune points, she said, made sense, as those correlate with blood flow and white blood cells. The reason for the hips was less obvious, as she watched Lily jog soundly and could not find any other soreness or back issues. But, she said, this isn't unusual, as the acupuncture points are often more sensitive than the horse itself.

Dr. Tranquillo performed electroacupuncture on the liver, immune, and hip points; Lily stood like a statue and actually seemed to enjoy herself. The entire evaluation and treatment lasted well over an hour, and I found the process very interesting--even if I'm not entirely convinced of what it does. I wouldn't say I'm a skeptic, but I'm never sure if something works until I see results.

I've since been tasked with relaying back to Dr. Tranquillo whether I notice any differences over the next few weeks in Lily's legs and energy level. She admitted that acupuncture isn't likely to fix stiffness if it's joint-related. A week and a half have passed; Lily hasn't stocked up once, and she does have slightly more energy than usual. Coincidence? It has, after all, been so cold lately that all the horses are a bit frisky. To be determined, I suppose!

Have you ever had acupuncture performed on your horse for any reason, and have you seen noticeable results?