A desire to provide superior quality care encouraged veterinarian Meghan Qualls to integrate eastern medicine into her conventional practice.

Whatever is best for the horse is what should be done. That’s the mantra by which equine veterinarian and Eastern medicine practitioner Meghan Qualls, DVM, lives. Combining modern veterinary medicine with equine acupuncture, herbs, chiropractic treatment, laser therapy and pulsated electromagnetic field therapy (PEMF), Qualls helps the horses she treats move more freely and think more clearly. Her mobile practice in Weatherford, Texas, is part of a growing, nationwide trend amongst veterinarians and is known as integrative medicine. Qualls and practitioners like her have built reputations for treating pain, lameness, reproductive issues and skin problems as well as the physical and behavioral issues that may be the result of anxiety or stress, using both Eastern and Western medicine.

“Sometimes integrated medicine is exactly what the horse needs, but sometimes it’s complementary, meaning that it needs to be used in conjunction with traditional medicine. There are also times when it’s not what the horse needs,” Qualls said. “The person who is best at that specialty, for example a lameness surgeon or an internal medicine specialist, is who should be looking at that horse if that’s what’s needed.”

Qualls’ client list includes barrel horses that have gone to the National Finals Rodeo, cutters and reiners that have made finals in major aged events, as well as racehorses, jumpers and backyard pets. Sometimes an owner will call her in a last-ditch attempt to get help for their horse, while others will want to try traditional Chinese medicines first.

“The people who want to use integrated medicine before they go to the lameness guys and internal medicine guys are usually regular customers or people who’ve either had acupuncture work on themselves or have a friend who recommended they try it,” Qualls said. “The last-resort stuff is usually the most fun though, because Western medicine won’t have worked for the horse.”

Like many people, Qualls wasn’t always open to the idea of alternative medicines. In her youth, she’d seen some backyard practitioners who were less than impressive. After graduating vet school, she was still skeptical until she had the opportunity to work with a veterinarian whose specialties were chiropractic treatment and acupuncture.

“There was a horse in the ICU that couldn’t urinate, and no one could work out why,” Qualls said. “He put the needles in, hooked up the electrodes and the horse dropped and urinated. That started to open my eyes. After that, there were too many examples of it working for them all to be coincidences. Horses are extremely honest, there’s no placebo effect with them, so I knew that what he was doing was making them better and I knew in my core that’s what I was going to do.”

That realization led Qualls to undertake further study at the Chi Institute of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine in Florida—a school that only accepts veterinarians. She then studied chiropractic treatment at Options for Animals in Kansas.

“The way the Eastern practitioners look at their horses is the same as Western practitioners, but just in a different language so to speak—they have a different approach,” Qualls said. “I believe by using both of them we get the best of both worlds and can better treat the horse.”

Overall Health and Well Being

A happy, healthy horse is one whose nervous system, endocrine system and immune systems are working effectively.

The nervous system transmits information from the brain to the body, and from the body to the brain. If a message in either direction is interrupted, then it may not be received or it may be corrupted. This can be likened to talking on a cell phone with one bar of service. An example of an interruption in the nervous system would be the feet not being able to tell the brain where they are, or the brain not being able to tell the feet what to do. This could be the result of malformation of the cervical vertebra known as wobbler syndrome, trauma to the vertebra from falling, a viral infection such as herpes or rhinopneumonitis or an infection from a protozoa such as Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis (EPM).

The immune system is the body’s defense mechanism against infections and illnesses. An under-stimulated immune system may not be able to fight off viruses and bacteria effectively. An overactive immune system may make the body kill its own healthy cells as happens with the autoimmune skin disorder Pemphigus foliaceus.

The endocrine system is the network of glands that produce and excrete hormones that are responsible for regulating growth, reproduction and mood. Problems in the endocrine system include Pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID), which is known as Cushing’s syndrome, Equine metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance.

Alternative Treatments

To treat the whole horse, the horse’s symptoms, ailment and compensatory issues need to be treated. A compensatory issue is one that arises due to the original issue. For example, if the horse has a hoof issue it may place its hoof on the ground at a different angle to what it usually does in an attempt to alleviate pain in the hoof. The different angle could cause injury or pain in the knee or shoulder. Qualls uses a variety of proven methods and tools to treat primary and secondary pain and issues.

Chiropractic Treatment

The structure and function of the joints directly effects the nervous system and the muscles. Chiropractic work on a horse helps ensure that all of the joints are moving appropriately. The common terminology that a joint or bone is ‘out’ is incorrect. Preferable terminology is that the joint is not motioning properly—it is either moving too much or not enough.

Joints can become misaligned due to trauma, a misstep in training or competition, repetitive use, ligament laxity, overuse and exhaustion. When joint motion is changed, nerve impingements can also occur. The inflammation that accompanies an impingement can cause the messages that are sent to and from the brain to be conveyed incorrectly.

When a joint isn’t moving properly, the body will compensate by tensing the muscles around it. Constant tensing will create a trigger point. A trigger point is an area where the muscle has become tight.

A body that is moving appropriately requires fewer drugs, for example joint injections, which can be detrimental to the long-term health of the cartilage associated with that joint.

Adjustments are made by applying the pressure to the correct point, at the correct angle with the correct force.

Equine Acupuncture

Eastern medicine called PEMF.
PEMF is being used to treat the back and the shoulders. Photo by Bridget Kirkwood.

Acupuncture is the stimulation of acupuncture points with a needle. An acupuncture point is an area that is dense in pre-nerve endings and mass cells. It stimulates the nervous system, the endocrine system and the immune system. Acupuncture can be used to deactivate trigger points, which are referred to as ashi points—an area that is tender.

Equine acupuncture is used to both prevent and treat disease. Mass cells contain histamine, and when an acupuncture point is stimulated, histamine is released. The body’s reaction to acupuncture can be likened to its reaction to a bug bite.

“When you get bit by a bug, histamine gets released. You’d get redness, increased blood flow, and signals are sent to the brain saying, ‘this area of the body needs help,’” Qualls said. “In Chinese medicine, acupuncture is used to relieve stagnation. When you think of stagnation, think of an old man in an old car on the highway that you’re sitting behind. In order to get the Chi flowing, you simply take the old man and old car away.”

Different branches of acupuncture can be used including:

  • Acupressure—stimulation of the points with pressure
  • Electro-acupuncture—electrodes are hooked up to the acupuncture needles, causing a contract- and-release sensation in the surrounding area.
  • Aquapuncture—B12 is injected into the acupuncture points
  • Hemoacupuncture—blood is drained from an area that has extreme excess heat
  • Moxa—the burning of an herb over the acupuncture points. It is especially useful for horses in extreme pain that do not want those acupuncture points to be touched. It relaxes the body and relaxes the mind, enabling further treatment.


PEMF is often referred to by the brand name Magnawave. It combines magnets and an electrical field to increase bloodflow and oxygenation. This increases the permeability of the cells, which enables toxins to be released. PEMF is Food & Drug Administration (FDA) approved for use for non-healing bone wounds, muscle wounds, urinary incontinence and depression.

Herbal Therapy

Herbal therapy can be used in place of some Western medicines, or it can be used to complement them. Prescribing herbs is similar to prescribing medicines—the appropriate herb and the appropriate dosage are required, and the more accurate the diagnosis, the more effective the herb will be.

“The Chinese believe using herbs is like stimulating the acupuncture points daily,” Qualls said. “They are good for ongoing management of the horse and for balancing the horse.”

Balancing the horse refers to helping the horse’s body and mind work in harmony. This can be done by decreasing its pain and stress.

“For example, if a horse doesn’t sweat, then it’s parasympathetic nervous system isn’t working appropriately so you’re going to use acupuncture and herbs to stimulate it,” Qualls said. “To balance a non-sweater, you’ll increase the parasympathetic nervous system, which enables the horse’s body to relax and decrease the sympathetic nervous system, which prepares the horse’s body for intense activity.”

Herbal therapy can also be useful for low-grade gastrointestinal ulcers and to help balance highly aggressive mares.

Cold lasers are used in eastern medicine.
The cold laser is treating the Lumbar epaxial muscles. Photo by Bridget Kirkwood.

Cold Lasers

Cold lasers increase oxygenation and blood flow. They can be used to deactivate trigger points and stimulate acupuncture points. Cold lasers are useful in areas that are hard to treat with acupuncture, for example, corneal ulcers. Cold lasers are preferable to hot lasers as they eliminate the risk of thermal damage to the horse’s tissue. When in use, the cold laser gives a cool sensation to the treatment area, however, the area will often feel colder after the treatment is complete.

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