A Day in the Life of Equine Chiropractor
Dr. Victoria McKinney
(an article which ran in “Ireland’s Equestrian” and “The Donegal Democrat”)
By Julie Costello
“Oh my aching back!”
We’ve all heard it said by back-pain sufferers who are human.
But have you ever heard it said by a horse?
Dr. Victoria McKinney, a Donegal chiropractor, has.
That’s because Victoria is trained as a chiropractor not only for humans, but also for horses.
“I would like to be thought of not as the horse whisperer, but as the horse listener,” said Victoria, who splits her time between a practice for humans, known as McKinney Chiropractic in Letterkenny, and one for horses, which involves house calls to farms and race courses throughout Ireland.
To make a chiropractic assessment on a horse, Victoria “listens” with her eyes and hands by watching the horse’s gait, feeling along its spine and legs, and pulling on its neck and tail.
“Sometimes less is more,” said Victoria, who lives in Newtoncunningham. “Horses can’t speak, so you have less verbal information and are more dependent on your own palpation skills and gait analysis.”
With a human patient, she said, the verbal information can be misleading. “A patient might say ‘it hurts there,’ and that might not be the problem. Where the pain is may not be the area where the original subluxation is,” she said.
A subluxation is a misalignment in the spine that puts pressure on the nervous system. In the chiropractic view, such misalignments can result in discomfort that may be felt almost anywhere in the body.
Chiropractic treatment usually includes manipulation of the spinal column in order to re-align the spine. Sometimes the manipulations result in loud cracking sounds that can be startling to hear, but are painless all the same.
Victoria learned chiropractics, both for humans and for horses, in her country of origin, America. She grew up in Detroit, Michigan, and was 2-1/2 years old when she rode her first horse, 9 when she got her first pony. For her third-level studies she enrolled in a school called Black Forest Hall that offered courses in horse care and riding.
Upon finishing school, Victoria started a ten-year marathon working as a groom at horse farms and race tracks all over America, including Churchill Downs, site of the legendary Kentucky Derby. In her work as a groom she was responsible for applying a wide range of therapies to the high-strung race horses’ legs, including jacuzzis, electrotherapies, and laser treatments.
As Victoria was trying to decide on a more permanent career, she hit on the idea of training to become a chiropractor, both for humans and for horses. “I went into chiropractic because I knew I could be an equine chiropractor,” she said.
It is only since the 1980s that the application of chiropractics to animals has become formalized through certification standards and training programs, such as one offered by the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association (AVCA).
Victoria studied two years for her AVCA degree, as well as seven years at the National College in Chicago for her human chiropractic degree. Upon graduating from the National College in April of 1996, “the first thing I did was treat myself to a trip to Ireland.” she said.
Victoria’s father’s grandparents were from Ireland, but she said connecting with her family roots was not a motivation for the trip. She chose to visit Ireland for one reason only: “to see the horses.”
Throughout her years as a groom, Victoria had admired the gorgeous Irish-bred horses that had made their way America. Once she got here and saw them on their home turf, she said, “I fell in love with the place. Ireland has a great reputation for sending the best horses around the world. Because of that reputation, I decided to move here, and that’s the only reason.”
Victoria worked for three years as a chiropractor in Sligo before moving to Donegal and opening her own practice. She spends three days per week treating human patients, two days on horses, and fits dogs in here and there, including prize-winning greyhounds.
One equine patient of Victoria’s is a horse that belongs to Juliet Jobling-Purser of Dublin, who used to ride competitively for Ireland. “I had a very good experience with Victoria,” Juliet said. “I had a young horse and when I went to ride it, it was turning its neck to the left persistently. Victoria worked on it, and she cured it.”
Another client of Victoria’s, D. Doherty, owner of the show jumping pony Begin-go, raved, “Victoria made a great job of my pony!”
Other fans of McKinney’s work include Grand Prix show jumping rider Peter Smyth and his wife Gill, who is the daughter of acclaimed Waterford horse dealer Michael Connors, and a sister of Grand Prix rider Francis Connors.
Gill Smyth said that her husband was skeptical about Victoria’s skills at first. “Then when Peter realised that yes, Victoria wasn’t just full of spoof, that yeah, she is good,” she said, the skepticism melted.
“They would have been a lot more flexible in their work and a lot of them would have been jumping better, jumping more clear rounds,” Gill said of the horses’ performances after Victoria had worked on them. “We like to get them checked out regularly now, in case there’s a minor adjustment that will enhance their performance at the weekend.”
A recent Wednesday afternoon found two human patients in the waiting room at McKinney Chiropractic, with a third in receiving a treatment from Victoria. Once the three patients had been seen it was time to close up for the day, as the rest of the afternoon was to be devoted to horses at the Smyth’s farm.
Before heading off, Victoria changed out of the grey pant-suit she was wearing and into blue jeans and a red quilted jacket with the words “Equine Chiropractor” and her telephone number, “(074) 9167007,” embroidered in gold on the back.
Victoria’s first patient during this visit was a lovely dark brown mare named Zara’s Pride, a star in the world of Grand Prix show jumping. “Sheila,” as she is known at the barn, has won Grand Prix competitions throughout Ireland, including at the Dublin Horse Show and in Kerrygold Grand Prix Super League competitions, as well as abroad, including the Grand Prix of Zagreb, Croatia.
Sheila, is a big, well-muscled example of her breed, the Irish Sport Horse. Members of the breed typically measure 16.2 hands (5’6″) or more at the withers/ base of the neck (their heads would be over six feet high), and weigh in the neighbourhood of 1,200 pounds.
When Victoria, a warm, bubbly woman, started her check-up on Sheila she instantly became all business, with her concentration totally focused on watching and feeling the horse. As she worked on Sheila she communicated with the horse through eye contact, voice, and touch.
“I have a great rapport with horses,” Victoria said. “I’ve gone to horses that haven’t seen me in three or four years and the horse starts whinnying in recognition.”
First she analysed Sheila from head to hoof, watching her gait as she walked, probing her spine, and even pulling on the huge horse’s tail to check for tension in the back.
“Fine, fine,” she said after completing the tail-pull.
Victoria then withdrew from her bag two rubber-headed mallets, which are used to relieve pressure on a horse’s back.
It would seem almost the definition of insanity to approach a horse of this size with these things.
But Victoria was unfazed, positioning one mallet on Sheila’s lower back and hitting it firmly with the other as the horse stood, cool as a cucumber. Victoria hit Sheila once more with the mallets for good measure.
“She’s never worried about it,” Victoria said of Sheila. “Typically with a young horse I would hit the mallets together so they would hear the sound.”
Victoria proceeded to her next patient, a chestnut gelding. Facing the horse she put her hands behind his ears at the first bone of his neck, and pulled his head toward her. “There’s great bounce,” she said of the flexibility with which the horse yielded to the pressure. She continued by feeling the horse along his withers and spine, to see if the saddle might be bothering him.
Before Victoria had started working on this horse several weeks previously, Gill said, “he was very stressed out with a rider on him, and I’d say it had to do with the back.” On his way into a ring to jump, she said, he was “stressed out, he knew it was going to hurt him, I’d say. Now he’s like a different horse. Now he’s got his ears pricked going into the ring.”
Victoria continued her examination by lifting the horse’s legs, extending his shoulders, and feeling his ankles. She then hooked her foot around the horse’s right front hoof and curled his head around to the right, pushing against the middle of his neck until…crack! It was the classic chiropractic adjustment, equine-style.
Immediately after the crack, the horse suddenly became playful with his lips. “When she’s relieved pressure on them they go like this, with their lips,” Gill said. “It’s their way of telling you she’s relieved pressure. A lot of them will tell you that.”
Much as she loves working on animals, Victoria said, she has no plans to give up the human side of her chiropractic practice. “I’d miss people,” she said. “You always have feedback from people.”
Reflecting a moment she found another reason. “You don’t get bored when you’re going between three different species!” she said.
For more information or to schedule an equine chiropractic appointment, please contact Victoria McKinney on (00353) 074 9167007 or (00353) 086 2393535. Victoria travels to Northern Ireland and throughout the Republic of Ireland.