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Pain management: Acupuncture can be useful in treating horses

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Some veterinarians use non-traditional techniques in treating animals, often combining these with traditional medicine. One of the most useful complementary modalities is acupuncture.   

            Dr. Bruce Connally, an equine sports medicine veterinarian in Colorado, grew up in Wyoming and practiced for many years in Buffalo. He has been using acupuncture since 1999.

Understanding acupuncture

            “I took a veterinary acupuncture course at Colorado State University. I use acupuncture for treating pain in many situations, but also as a diagnostic aid,” he explains. “There are acupuncture trigger points all over the horse’s body.” 

            He continues, “The ones along the back and hips are fairly easy to figure out.  There’s also a trigger point in the side of the neck that affects the stifle. It’s not quite so easy to understand, but I’ve seen it work.”

“There is a trigger point in the shoulder and another in the girth area that have to do with front foot pain,” he says. “I am a trigger-point acupuncturist. I’m not a traditional acupuncturist.”

“The Chinese focus doesn’t work that well for me, this is not my thing. So, I look for trigger points, especially the ones associated with pain. My main purpose in using acupuncture is to treat pain,” he says.

“I don’t use acupuncture for treating liver dysfunction, constipation or the other things some veterinarians use it for,” Bruce says. “A book written by a medical doctor named Mark Seem talked about osteopathic acupuncture, or trigger point acupuncture, and this book really hit home with me.”  

Bruce uses this technique in conjunction with some of the other things he is doing for the horse.

Working with needles

“Sometimes I use dry needles, and sometimes needles with electrical stimulation, using an electro-stimulator attached to the needles.”

“The theory is we can create a micro-current at that spot to stimulate nerves,” Bruce explains. “When using the dry needle, I stick it through the skin and work it down into different areas.”

Many of these points are tiny collections of nerves and blood vessels in one little spot.  

“If we put a dry acupuncture needle into one of these spots and move it up and down and wiggle it around, pecking at the tight spot, it’s amazing the horse doesn’t think it hurts,” Bruce explains. “I can work it around and the tightness will go away.”

 “These are very thin needles, much smaller than for giving injections, so they don’t stimulate much response,” Bruce explains. “Occasionally, however, a horse tries to kick. I had one patient that really hated acupuncture, but his owner liked me to work on that horse because afterward the horse would feel good.” 

 “The dry needles, picking and pecking at the tight spot, provide some kind of release, probably by sending a signal up the nerve to the brain,” he says. “Endorphins are then released in the brain and that’s where the pain relief comes from.” 

“Then the horse feels good, some will actually stand there and go to sleep while I’m doing the acupuncture. I have actually gone to sleep when someone does acupuncture on me,” he explains.

“For electrical stimulation I put the regular needles into the horse and stick little alligator clips on the needles and hook them to a small battery-operated hand-held box that creates a pulsing type of electricity, rather than steady current,” Bruce explains. “It sends pulses and then rests, more pulses and rest, which stimulates the nerve.  

“There is a slightly different version used in human medicine where they just stick patches on the skin hooked up to electrical stimulation rather than needles through the skin, to stimulate nerves on the back, for physical therapy.  I use this method on horses’ backs because it seems to work very well,” says Bruce.  

He uses acupuncture methods mostly for sore backs and sometimes for hamstring muscles.  

“Sore backs are often secondary to something else like sore hocks or front foot soreness.  It is usually just treating a secondary symptom, some other problem that’s made the back sore. The pain relief helps the back, while we deal with the primary problem,” he explains.

“I was not very good at recognizing and pinpointing back pain in horses until I started doing acupuncture,” Bruce admits. “It has changed my physical exam and helps me recognize and identify back pain and made me so much better at diagnosing it.  

“I probably missed a lot of things before I started using this tool,” he says.

Heather Smith-Thomas is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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