COLUMBIA — Randy Huenefeld placed his arms around Mr. T's neck and pulled the horse's head forward, behind his own. During a brief pause, during which Mr. T's eyes bulged and rolled white in terror, Huenefeld pulled the horse's neck sharply toward him.
Almost instantly, Mr. T, an 18-year-old paint horse, looked happier.
Barb Martin, the horse's owner, calls the practice "Dr. Randy Hug." Her horses have been Huenefeld's patients for five years.
"They just love that," Martin said as Mr. T took a deep breath and licked his lips.
Mr. T was among several patients waiting their turn at Pine Dell Farm in Pleasant Hill to see Huenefeld, a veterinarian who has received special training in veterinarian chiropractic. He performed equine chiropractic on seven horses that day, along with acupuncture and dental work, before moving on to his next appointment in Kansas.
Filling a need
When Huenefeld first started a clinic in Adrian with his wife, Kathy, who is also a veterinarian, equine treatment made up very little of the work they did. He became certified in veterinary chiropractic and Chinese care after witnessing the positive impact of holistic health care on horses, he said. Now, 60 percent of his equine work is chiropractic and acupuncture.
"In the veterinarian field, you gravitate towards filling a need," Huenefeld said.
There is a definite demand. Huenefeld travels all over the Kansas City area for chiropractic, acupuncture and dental work appointments. Some weeks he has more than 70 appointments for chiropractic and acupuncture treatment alone. He has regular clients as far as 120 miles from his clinic.
The American Veterinary Chiropractic Association has nearly 600 active members in the U.S., of whom six are in Missouri. There are also animal chiropractors unaffiliated to the association. Huenefeld is registered with the International Veterinary Chiropractic Association, which has about 180 members in the country.
Deborah Buzby-Cope is on the board of directors for the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association. She has seen an increase in the demand for equine chiropractors since the practice began in the U.S. in the 1980s.
"It's more known now," Buzby-Cope said. "More and more owners are choosing to get their horses adjusted through a chiropractor, just as they are with acupuncture. People are more open to it."
Animal chiropractors cite many benefits for animals who receive their treatment. Among them are increasing flexibility, clearing any nerve interference, easier range of motion and improving the overall health and well-being of the animal.
"(Treated horses) feel freer, and you see that because they aren't as agitated or irritated," Buzby-Cope said. "They are just a happy animal when they are well-adjusted."
How it works
The theory of chiropractic and acupuncture work is based on the body's innate ability to heal itself, Huenefeld said. Chiropractic proponents claim every function is controlled by the nervous system, and the body can only heal itself if the nervous system is working properly.
"If the nerve flow is normal, then the body is able to take care of itself," Huenefeld said. "The purpose of a chiropractic exam and treatment is to find areas of the body that are not moving properly and treat those areas with an adjustment. The purpose of an adjustment is to relieve muscle spasms and pain, allow increased motion to a local area and cause a neurogenic reflex that lets the body reset itself."
Huenefeld begins every appointment by asking the owner whether the horse is experiencing any new issues. Then, he does a basic rundown of the horse by looking at how the horse stands and moves.
He then performs chiropractic and acupuncture exams, which involve taking the casing of an acupuncture needle and running it along the horse. If the horse reacts, there is likely a problem in that area, which can be treated with adjustments and acupuncture, Huenefeld said.
Sometimes Huenefeld discovers problems that require further veterinary medicine. In these cases, he recommends a treatment or refers the owners to their veterinarian. He said 80 percent of his clients use him solely for chiropractic and acupuncture services.
Although Huenefeld is trained in both holistic and traditional animal care, it wouldn't be a gigantic leap for him to work on people. Animal chiropractic and human chiropractic are very similar, Buzby-Cope said. There are strong similarities in the spine, range of motion and in how we move.
Huenefeld doesn't seem interested in gravitating toward human patients any time soon.
"I don't work on anyone that can scream," he said.
Cocoa, a 23-year-old chestnut quarter horse with arthritis, finds relief through acupuncture.
The Chinese medical theory behind acupuncture is energy, or Qi, that flows through the body can be disturbed by injury, stress or disease. This can be remedied by inserting fine needles to stimulate certain points on the body. The acupuncture can help with pain and elevate mood, Huenefeld said.
Martin, Cocoa's owner, believes Huenefeld can tell when Cocoa is not behaving right emotionally.
"When she had a stressful event in her life, Dr. Randy could tell," Martin said. "He knew it without me even telling him that she had emotional issues."
Huenefeld also uses a more modern technique involving a laser instead of needles. On Cocoa's front left leg where she has arthritis, he used a Class IV laser to apply heat to specific points. This way, he can cover many points without making her leg sore. He used the technique "circle the dragon," applying a laser to many points around a certain area. The laser did not seem to hurt Cocoa at all.
"She's putting her leg out," Martin said. "Like, 'Here's my leg!' As in, fix it, Dr. Randy.'"
Blending traditional and holistic care
Huenefeld believes holistic care should accompany traditional Western medicine, not replace it.
He is a registered veterinarian, as all horse chiropractors are required to be in Missouri. Human chiropractors are legally allowed to perform work on animals, but there must be a veterinarian on hand.
Often times, owners can use the chiropractic appointment to ask questions they would usually ask their veterinarian.
"If they eat something they shouldn't, how long does it take to come out?" Martin asked, referring to a bottle cap Mr. T swallowed.
Skeptics of the science
Despite the high-demand Huenefeld has seen through his work, not everyone in the veterinarian field is convinced alternative treatment on horses is effective.
Nat Messer, a professor of Equine Medical and Surgery at MU, calls himself a skeptic of equine chiropractic.
"The reason I’m a skeptic is because the basic premise of chiropractic medicine is that disease originates from subluxations of the spine, and those have never been proven to exist in horses, or even in people," Messer said. "So when you have a whole field of medicine based on a false premise, that brings in the validity of the whole medicine."
A subluxation is a slight misalignment of the vertebrae.
Messer also said those in traditional veterinarian medicine are skeptical because no one has ever proven that a horse's spine is out of alignment using X-rays, CTs or any other form of imaging.
"In order for me to believe that they are actually doing that, they would have to show me an X-ray that the spine is out of alignment, do the adjustment and then show me another X-ray proving that the spine is realigned," Messer said. "It’s unrealistic to think that a human being can manipulate a horse's body enough to realign the spinal column, which is what horse chiropractors claim they are doing."
He said that what chiropractors are actually doing is similar to massage therapy.
"I’m not saying this doesn’t do horses any good," Messer said. "Just maybe what they're saying they're doing isn’t what they are actually doing."
Messer is also skeptical of the basic theory of acupuncture and calls it "abstract."
"It's not something that has been proven to exist, except in the minds of the acupuncturists," Messer said.
Dena Hoefert believes her horses, Chai Tea and Merica, know a chiropractic appointment is unlike a typical veterinarian appointment.
"Merica hates the vet," Hoefert said. "But real quick she realized there is a difference between the vet and the chiropractor."
This was also the case for Tessa, an 8-year-old Arabian, who had her first appointment with Huenefeld that day. Her owner, Dale Feagans, was worried Tessa wouldn't behave well since she's usually skittish with stuff she doesn't know.
But she enjoyed the Dr. Randy Hug and Huenefeld said he couldn't have asked for a better first visit.
She licked her muzzle, as Huenefeld voiced what Tessa couldn't say herself, "Someone understands me."
Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.