Guest Post from Alison Averis–The Rise of Equine CAM in the UK

Alison has offerred another interesting piece that offers insight into the role of CAM therapies in equine medicine “across the pond.” I’m not sure whether to be comforted or saddened by the fact that the retreat from rationality and the new Age of Endarkenment is an international, rather than primarily an American, phenomenon.

Alison Averis

Thirty years ago, equine CAM wasn’t an issue in the UK.  If your horse was ill you called the vet.  Twenty years ago, a few people were giving their horses homeopathic remedies, but there wasn’t the huge range of therapies that is on offer today, and the vet was still the first port of call.  It wasn’t until the early to mid 1990s that alternative therapies became really popular for horses in this country.  In her book For the good of the horse (1997), the riding teacher Mary Wanless was one of the first to introduce the reader to a large range of New Age ideas and alternative treatments: “… many horse owners who have successfully used complementary techniques in their own healing now call on these approaches [for their horses] at the beginning of treatment – they no longer wait for orthodox veterinary medicine to fail”… “both systems [conventional and alternative] are valid and useful when the appropriate choices are made” … “Whilst many vets remain sceptical, the tide of public opinion is increasingly behind complementary practitioners”.

Since the mid-1990s, acupuncture, shiatsu, osteopathy, chiropractic, massage, reiki, homeopathy, Bach flower remedies, aromatherapy, herbalism and many others have become accepted as valid and useful in the care and treatment of horses.  The tide of public opinion has become a flood.  When a British trainer and well-known advocate for horse welfare wrote “It should be appreciated that such therapies are no longer regarded as ‘alternative’ to what is presently known as orthodox or conventional veterinary (or medical) treatment.  Nowadays complementary practices and treatments can be used in conjunction with other therapies to enhance the all-round healing effects for both animal and human.”, she was simply stating the current consensus of opinion.  Owners are now considered strange if they don’t use alternative therapies.

These therapies are practised by many veterinary surgeons, uncritically promoted in the mainstream magazines and on website forums, endorsed by successful competitors and cheered on by the power of The Testimonial.

While in the 1990s many vets were still sceptical, in 2010 the majority, at least in my small part of the UK, now offer acupuncture or homeopathy or both as an adjunct to mainstream treatment.  Mary Wanless also raised the question that the reluctance of vets to endorse alternative therapies might have had less to do with the intrinsic implausibility of those therapies and more to do with protecting their own area of expertise and their own income.  It is impossible to say.  It may be that they now embrace some of the alternative therapies for the same supposed mercenary motives.  It may be for equine welfare –  if owners are going to use these therapies anyway, surely it’s better if the practitioner is someone with enough knowledge and experience to know when an alternative method isn’t enough.  It may be that they, too, have been swayed by the power of personal experience – and it is powerful, especially with horses who often respond enthusiastically to any sort of human attention.  Whatever the reason – and I suspect that there are more than one – this apparent endorsement of CAM by mainstream vets has made the sceptic’s job more difficult.  The believer will retort that her therapy has been validated: “See – even the vets know that it works.  They wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work, would they?”

The monthly equine magazines receive a considerable income from advertising and sponsorship by CAM therapists and companies.  Most readers seem to be unaware that the editorial and articles in the magazines might be strongly slanted towards supporting those businesses.  In one magazine the ‘Ask The Experts’ feature was sponsored at one time by a company manufacturing herbal supplements: herbal remedies were suggested in the responses to each query from a reader.

In 2009, a UK-based horse magazine published an article entitled Weird or Wonderful?.  It was an excellent illustration of the widespread acceptance of equine CAM.  It began, “When conventional medicine fails to work, many owners turn to alternative therapies”, and went on to describe 24 of these.  Each account had three sections: What Is It?, How It Works, and What It Helps.  There were no questions on the lines of Does It Work?, Can It Possibly Work?, Is There A Simpler Explanation For What Is Observed? or What Harm Can It Do?.  Readers were not given enough information to make an informed decision and would have finished the article thinking that every therapy was wonderful and nothing, but nothing, was too weird to contemplate.  They would also have been given the idea that alternative therapies could help to cure everything from most forms of lameness to skin conditions, digestive problems and nervous disorders.  The article was peppered with little boxes in which the heading ‘Fact!’ was followed by a snippet of totally implausible information.  Some samples:

“Cranial sacral therapy has been known to restore the proper position of misaligned bones.”

“Hair samples taken from the mane or tail can show evidence of weaknesses and emotional disorders.”

“Radionics can treat almost all physical, mental and spiritual problems”.

… and from within the text itself:

“Chromotherapy can help horses through many problems … Green … is good for killing off germs … Purple … effective against bacterial infections”

“Crystal and gem therapy … can help almost any ailment”.

“Faith healing can treat any illness or ailment – it has even been known to perform what we consider ‘miracles’, healing horses with terminal illnesses.”

“Bach flower remedies … are great for healing the horse’s emotional and mental state”.

“Iridology can diagnose a disease before any symptoms appear … it can detect deficiencies and genetic abnormalities”.

“Horses suffering from allergies show great improvement after treatment with homeopathic remedies made from the things that trigger the allergy”.

“Magnets can help arthritis, rheumatism and navicular, as well as tendon problems and muscle cramps.”

“[Reiki] promotes healing in general, so any problem can be treated.”

 “Horse whispering can be used … to detect physical problems in a horse”.

“Copper therapy is beneficial for any horse who suffers with osteoarthritis and rheumatism”.

Indeed, the only “Fact!” that I couldn’t find was the fact that almost all of this is illegal unless done by a qualified vet trained in the method.  Now, one cannot blame the average horse owner, reading this in an award-winning reputable magazine with a circulation of tens of thousands, for believing that all this is true.  I also think that the writer of this article probably took his or her information from the websites and promotional literature put out by the therapists themselves – it obviously hadn’t been informed by anything like the Skeptic’s Dictionary or Quackwatch – or even Wikipedia.  Reference to these would have made it quite clear that these ‘facts’ are not widely accepted by scientists, and for very good reasons.  No – all the ideas seemed to have been taken at face value and presented to the public without a shred of scepticism.  I don’t want to give the impression that the writer of this article was negligent, or less than conscientious.  Far from it.  A lot of work went into it and it is well-written.  But the point is that the validity of these approaches to treatment is now so thoroughly accepted by the horse world that nobody even thought to look for contrary evidence.

Demographic studies show that the typical user of alternative therapies is a middle-aged, middle-class, reasonably well-educated woman with spare money and time.  This description fits a large number of horse owners, too, so perhaps it isn’t all that surprising that matters have reached the point where Andy Lewis could write on his Quackometer blog, “horse ownership and quackery could form a whole blog in its own right.”  To many modern horse owners, the vet is merely one of many options to call on when a horse is ill or injured.  Despite what the law says, and despite what many therapists assert, it is common for the owner to make her own diagnosis and select the practitioner she thinks will do the most good for the least money.

What is really worrying about all this, though, is that the horses themselves have no choice in the matter.  Many of these innocent beasts have had their healthcare taken out of the hands of science-based vets and put into the hands of people who may know a great deal about their therapy, but very little about the actual anatomy, physiology, biochemistry and pathology of their clients.  People who through no fault of their own are simply not able to recognise when a horse has a problem that needs medical treatment.  People who have been taught to believe that their therapy really does everything that they think it can, in a world where personal experience is considered the highest form of proof.  People who have been taught, and who tell their clients, that vets are useless because there is so much they can’t cure.  Many owners now expect science-based medicine to fail to cure their horses.  The law and the veterinary profession are apparently being bypassed by people who are using questionable techniques to diagnose illnesses and disorders, and recommending untested or discredited treatments for those conditions.  It’s a sub-culture that has dismissed the scientific knowledge and expertise of the veterinary profession in favour of a do-it-yourself approach based on mystical beliefs.  And if anything goes wrong, it is always the horse that suffers.


Wanless, M (1997).  For the good of the horse. Published in the UK by Kenilworth Press and in the USA by  Trafalgar Square Publishing.

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4 Responses to Guest Post from Alison Averis–The Rise of Equine CAM in the UK

  1. EoR says:

    I was a subscriber to the “award-winning reputable magazine” since 1984, and watched the rise of woo in its pages over that time. Needless to say, the survey of all the Magic Therapies was the final straw and I cancelled my subscription.

    PS: The Quackometer link should be to (no ‘a’).

  2. Rita says:

    I wonder if that’s the same publication that I stopped reading some years back – partly the woo, partly the incessant links between advertisers and recommended practices (i.e., the advertisers dictated the content – herbs for “mareishness” for unfortunate animals deprived of reproductive opportunities etc) and partly the insistence that horses are “for” all sorts of sporting activities……………
    I do remember the radionics article – 🙁

  3. Alison says:

    Rita – It could well be, though it wasn’t the only mag to have the heavy and overt links between adverts/sponsorship and editorial advice by any means. A shame, as when I started reading it in the 1980s it was a sensible publication. The issue I commented on in this piece was the first I’d seen for more than ten years. I found the woo irritating – but more worrying was the incredibly low level of knowledge the reader was assumed to have. Some of the ‘write in with your problems’ questions made my jaw drop – if people have to ask questions such as those, they have no business keeping a horse.

    This idea that it’s OK and ethical to dose horses with herbs (or anything else, science-based or not), to try to change their behaviour so that they are easier for the incompetent to handle is another thing that really annoys me; I am currently writing an article for the Equine Independent on-line mag about exactly that.

    The one about the horse-as-item-of-sports-equipment is another – I’m saving that for later, though.

  4. Rita says:

    “I am currently writing an article for the Equine Independent on-line mag about exactly that. (herbs to change behaviour)

    The one about the horse-as-item-of-sports-equipment is another – I’m saving that for later, though”.

    Look forward greatly to seeing those, Alison!

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