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Q. I recently bought a seven-year-old 15hh gelding who I intend to use for hacking. He is a perfectly healthy horse, but I am interested in alternative therapies as an option if he should ever require treatment in the future.

I have read about herbal therapies and homoeopathy but I can’t find any information about acupuncture. Could you please explain exactly what acupuncture is and how it works?

Nick Thompson MRCVS replies: Acupuncture is a treatment method developed by the Chinese over the last 2,000 years. They discovered they could initiate healing by stimulating special points, which they call acupoints, with needles.

They believe that energy, or Qi (pronounced Chi) circulates around the body and maintains the health of tissue. When this Qi flow is blocked, disease flourishes. These blockages can occur through trauma, scars or through exposure to wind, damp and cold. Acupuncture is one of an array of treatments used in traditional Chinese medicine.

Choosing the right treatment

Modern western medicine has come to similar conclusions throughthe scientific route, eg: poor blood circulation can lead to fibrositis in the muscles, angina in the heart and strokes in the brain. Western medicine uses drugs where the Chinese would use needles and herbs.

Needling acupoints has been scientifically proven to release morphine-like substances called endorphins, as well as “re-educating” the way the brain and nervous system recognises disease. Chinese medicine can sometimes work better than the scientific approach, especially when dealing with long-standing disease or illness.

If you have a lame horse, however, an initial assessment by a veterinary surgeon is essential. It would be poor medicine to wade in with acupuncture (or any other alternative treatment) until broken bones or severedtendons have been eliminated.

The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, in their Guide to Professional Conduct (www.rcvs. org.uk), states that only a veterinary surgeon trained in acupuncture can treat animals with needles.

The benefitsof acupuncture

Modern equine acupuncture, after an initial veterinary assessment, is useful in musculoskeletal conditions. Where the conventional veterinary approach to lameness is to use box rest and bute (phenylbutazone) to allow healing totake place, acupuncture may enhance and speed up the healing process.

Tendon and ligament sprains and other soft tissue healing can be be helped by using acupuncture. Degenerative joint disease, arthritis or rheumatic problems have also responded positively.

I would always use acupuncture in conjunction with manipulation, such as osteopathy or chiropractic, carried out by a trained practitioner. Remember that horses were not designed to carry people around on their backs, any more than humans were meant to wear high heels or sit at their computer terminal all day long.