Acupuncture for Horses

Updated July 9, 2024 | By: Joan Maree Hinken DVM, CVA, CVSMT
acupuncture needles on a horse's shoulder
Acupuncture needles are placed at specific points on the horse's body.

The Origin of Acupuncture

Acupuncture has a long history in both veterinary and human medicine. It is generally believed that acupuncture originated in China as archaeological discoveries have traced its development back to the stone age. Reference books were first published in China in the 1600’s with horses and humans being the main subjects.

It is said that the first use of equine acupuncture was performed when lame horses used in battle became sound after being hit by arrows in specific locations. In the 1950’s, reports from China indicated that acupuncture could achieve a surgical level of analgesia (pain relief).

What is Acupuncture and How Does it Work on Horses?

The word acupuncture comes from the Latin words “acus,” meaning needle and “pungere,” meaning to pierce. It can be defined as the stimulation of a specific point (acupuncture point) on the body with a specific method, resulting in a therapeutic or homeostatic effect.

Acupuncture Points on the Horse’s Body

There are 173 major acupuncture points in horses. Different points may have different influences on the body. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) the most used acupuncture points are located on the pathway of a meridian. There are 14 major meridians.

Whole-body energy flow (or “Chi” as it is called in TCM) travels in the meridians. An area of pain or inflammation is considered a blockage of Chi and stimulating acupuncture points can help alleviate the blockage.

Theories on How Acupuncture Affects the Body

A tremendous amount of research has been done to determine the mechanisms by which acupuncture works. Some of the proposed mechanisms involve the nervous system where it is believed that larger, faster nerves transmitting non-painful impulses may block the smaller, slower nerves transmitting pain impulses, therefore inhibiting a conscious sense of pain.

Other theories are based on the idea that acupuncture needles stimulate the release of endorphins, leading to decreased pain sensations. Another theory suggests that the analgesia and healing properties are a result of acupuncture needles affecting electromagnetic fields of the body.

In summary, the mechanisms and benefits of acupuncture are backed by research. Acupuncture may benefit all major physiological systems of the body. The proposed theories of how it works are complex and often interrelated. The effectiveness of this treatment for horses depends on the specific case and the skill set and knowledge of the practitioner.

Beneficial Effects of Acupuncture for Horses

acupuncture needles on a horse's hindquarters
Image courtesy of Alana Harrison Photography.

The physiological effects of acupuncture may include:

  • Pain relief
  • Helps maintain optimal function of the immune system
  • Supports reproductive health
  • Anti-fever effects
  • Hormone regulation
  • Blood pressure regulation
  • Improves micro-circulation (circulation in the small blood vessels)
  • Assists in maintaining optimal gastrointestinal function
  • Anti-inflammatory

Horses of any breed, age, or discipline may benefit from the proper use of acupuncture by a qualified practitioner. In recent years, the option of acupuncture is being incorporated more often and sooner in treating conditions. There are very few downsides, unlike side effects with some modern medicine, and treatments can be quite powerful.

When Would Acupuncture be Used as a Treatment?

Your veterinarian may suggest acupuncture when traditional methods to treat a condition have proven ineffective, have unwanted side effects, or there are concerns about medications for competition horses. Many veterinarians incorporate both acupuncture and modern medicine into treatment plans, depending on the issue.

Often a TCM practitioner will choose acupuncture as their first treatment modality, however a western medicine diagnosis should be made before treatment is initiated. Most clients opt for an acupuncture treatment for their horses in cases of nonresponsive, chronic back or joint pain.

Common Cases Where Acupuncture May Be Beneficial

Acupuncture is used most frequently to treat musculoskeletal and neurological conditions, such as:

Cases Where Acupuncture Should NOT be Used

There are a few instances when it is not a treatment option. Acupuncture should not be used on a horse that has:

  • A bleeding disorder
  • Infectious disease
  • Over a tumor or ulcerated area, open wound, or fracture

Different Acupuncture Techniques

There are many ways to stimulate acupuncture points, the most commonly used being:

  • Traditional dry needles: an acupuncture needle is inserted into an acupuncture point for a certain period of time (usually 20 minutes).
  • Aquapuncture (injection): the practitioner injects a liquid (often B12 and DMSO) into an acupuncture point.
  • Hemo-acupuncture (bloodletting): used for acupuncture points located over a blood vessel or bleeding of points (ting points) in the feet such as for laminitis.
  • Pneumo-acupuncture (air injection): Air is injected at the acupuncture point or surrounding area as in the case of muscle atrophy.
  • Moxibustion: a moxa stick (composed of the herb moonwort) is held over an acupuncture point to stimulate and warm the area.
  • Acupressure: a finger or instrument is used to apply pressure to an acupuncture point.
  • Electroacupuncture (electric current): an electric stimulation is applied to the acupuncture needle.
  • Laser acupuncture: a single wave laser is applied to the acupuncture point.

The Importance of Using a Qualified Acupuncturist

It cannot be overstated that a successful outcome from acupuncture treatment highly depends on the knowledge and skill of your horse’s practitioner. Acupuncture should only be performed by a licensed veterinarian who is certified in veterinary acupuncture as they have the advanced training necessary to make an accurate diagnosis and implement appropriate treatments. Check for the title of “Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist,” or the initials CVA, by your practitioner’s name.

Frequently Asked Questions About Acupuncture for Horses

How long is a typical acupuncture appointment?

An appointment may last for 20 – 60 minutes.

How many appointments does my horse need?

A minimum of three appointments is usually necessary depending on the duration of time your horse has had the condition, your horse’s response to treatment, and eliminating any other mitigating factors. Some horses may need acupuncture treatments at regular intervals to prevent reoccurrence of the condition.

How long are the needles?

The needles vary in length and diameter depending on where they are used. For instance, when using needles in acupuncture points in the back musculature, the needles are often 3-6 inches in length, while those used for stimulating points in the feet are ½ inch.

Is it painful for the horse?

Human patients have reported acupuncture as very tolerable. Many horses relax and are very tolerant of the needles. However, there are some horses with great needle phobia that can become quite reactive. These horses, with a bit of patience can learn to tolerate the needles.

Can you ride a horse after acupuncture?

There is no contraindication to riding your horse after acupuncture. However, the body has received a rebalancing of its energy, so a short, relaxed ride is best. It’s always a good idea to ask your horse’s practitioner about how soon after the appointment they would recommend your horse be worked.

Evidence-Based References

  1. Aljobory, Abdulmuniem Ibrahim, et al. “Using Acupuncture and Electroacupuncture in the Treatment of Laminitis in Racing Horses: A Comparative Study.” ˜Al-œMağallaẗ Al-ʻirāqiyyaẗ Li-l-ʻulūm Al-bayṭariyyaẗ/Iraqi Journal of Veterinary Sciences, vol. 35, no. 1, Jan. 2021, pp. 15–21.
  2. Angeli, Ana Laura, and Stelio Pacca Loureiro Luna. “Aquapuncture Improves Metabolic Capacity in Thoroughbred Horses.” Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, vol. 28, no. 9, Sept. 2008, pp. 525–31.
  3. Dewey, Curtis Wells, and Huisheng Xie. “The scientific basis of acupuncture for veterinary pain management: A review based on relevant literature from the last two decades.” Open veterinary journal vol. 11,2 (2021): 203-209. doi:10.5455/OVJ.2021.v11.i2.3
  4. Faramarzi, Babak, et al. “Response to Acupuncture Treatment in Horses With Chronic Laminitis.” PubMed, vol. 58, no. 8, Aug. 2017, pp. 823–27.
  5. Kim, M‐s., and H. Xie. “Use of Electroacupuncture to Treat Laryngeal Hemiplegia in Horses.” Veterinary Record/the Veterinary Record, vol. 165, no. 20, Nov. 2009, pp. 602–03.
  6. Lima, Eduardo Mm. “Acupuncture in the Restoration of Vasomotor Tonus of Equine Athletes With Back Pain.” Journal of Dairy, Veterinary & Animal Research, vol. 7, no. 4, July 2018,
  7. Thoresen, S. “Equine Sarcoid treated by acupuncture: eighteen cases.” Journal of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association, vol. 50, 2018.
  8. Xie, Huisheng, et al. “Evaluation of Electroacupuncture Treatment of Horses With Signs of Chronic Thoracolumbar Pain.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, vol. 227, no. 2, July 2005, pp. 281–86.
  9. Xie, Huisheng, and G. Reed Holyoak. “Evidence-based Application of Acupuncture in Equine Practice.” American Journal of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine, Aug. 2021,

The information provided in the Horsemanship Library is based solely on our SmartPak authors' opinions. SmartPak strongly encourages you to consult your veterinarian or equine professionals regarding specific questions about your horse's health, care, or training. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat or cure any disease or behavior and is purely educational.