Sunday, June 11, 2006

Hoofbeats - The Argument for Woo

There has been an ongoing discussion in the letters column of hoofbeats magazine recently on the merits or otherwise of their rabid promotion of all things alternative (herbs, acupuncture, homeopathy, craniosacral, red penlights, dowsing etc etc) for horses.

The April/May 2006 issue included a letter condemning them for this unquestioning approach. The letter was 3 column inches. In response, one of the magazine's advertising herbalists was given 9 column inches to argue for things such as
[Some people believe] alternative therapists are unscientific because they don't have scientific evidence to support their claims.

Well said. The herbalist then goes on at length about how her ilk never diagnose, never harm animals, have lower insurance premiums than doctors, "support the recovery of homeostasis" and Big Pharma is "driven by greed and power" to limit our knowledge. She also states that it is impossible to scientifically test whether herbal treatments work or not. She concludes:
Stay away from Pseudo scientific alternative therapists. They have missed the point. We are holistic- first and foremost.

So the fake alternative therapists are a con, but the true ones are real. So how do we tell if there's no evidence, and no possibility of obtaining any evidence?

The issue also contains an editorial defending the magazine's promotion of these "alternatives".
Herbal and alternative therapies have been around for hundreds of years and some of the equine treatments are variations, or derived from, human treatments. Only a relatively short time ago, acupuncture and chiropractics were considered to be "alternative therapies" but have now been accepted into the fold of many a veterinary treatment "tool kit".

EoR considers that should be "fool kit", though he's pleased to learn that alternative therapies have only been around for "hundreds" of years, not the "thousands" usually claimed.

In the June/July 2006 issue the debate continues, with an anti-alternative letter (3.5 column inches) juxtaposed with a testimonial about the efficacy of herbs (21 column inches! - while space allocated doesn't relate to quality of truth, it does demonstrate the bias of the magazine as to what they fill the magazine with) as well as a further paragraph from the editor again defending the indefensible:
As long as a horse's health and well being are restored [...] does it really matter who helps along the way?

EoR wonders how you can tell who helped if there's no evidence? And why should you pay for all the people who aren't helping?

The lengthy reader testimonial tells the tale of a horse found standing in the paddock, shaking and sweating, unable to move and unable to lower his neck to graze. Despite consulting four (or possibly five, the letter is unclear) vets and having various tests done no cause could be found. One of the vets, visiting from England, told the reader to take the horse off bute (phenylbutazone) and put him on Devil's Claw, advising her
that in England they rarely prescribe bute as an anti-inflammatory, but rather devil's claw the herbal alternative as it is kinder on horse's guts and just as effective.

Lack of bute prescription would probably be news to English vets (but what about Welsh and Scottish vets?) - EoR keeps up with the British equestrian establishment and while devil's claw is pushed quite strongly there, he wasn't aware that vets were also pushing it, particularly since evidence for its efficacy is contradictory to say the least, and it is contraindicated where stomach ulcers are present.

Anyway, back to the reader testimonial: After two weeks of "arguing" with her vet, the reader called out a physio and a herbalist. This particular herbalist advertises in hoofbeats, and is mentioned by name in the letter no less than five times. The vets and the physio all go unnamed. EoR will preserve the anonymity of the herbalist here, to prevent any embarassment to her.

Immediately, the physio diagnosed broken withers, and the herbalist set to with various arcane "mixes". This was rubbed into the affected area twice daily. When the reader contacted her vet they "refused" to believe her and "virtually wiped their hands" of her. Since the horse was recovering so well, she took him to the vets who were "astounded" and "amazed" from what they described as (after taking spinal x rays) "the worst spinal injury they had seen in a horse still able to stand or move". Apparently he had fractured six vertebrae. Normally such an injury, they said, would warrant six months rest, but the owner could take him home and start riding him that day! His recovery was "phenomenal". Nonetheless, she opted to give him the six months rest (why? it appears he had healed almost overnight). The last third of the letter is an encomium to her herbalist, who is someone who will "work holistically with the animal, they are not just somebody you call upon in a time of crisis as with vets."

It took EoR thirty seconds to look up Veterinary Notes for Horse Owners by M Horace Hayes (a book many horse owners will have a copy of) and find the following information:
Fractures of the dorsal spinous processes in the cranial thoracic (withers) region occur as a result of trauma: for example, a horse rearing up and falling over backwards. There is swelling in the withers region and crepitus may be felt. The horse tends to stand with its forelimbs close together and is reluctant to lower its head and neck and graze. It may move in a restricted manner. The diagnosis is confirmed by radiographic examination. Treatment other than rest is usually unnecessary and the prognosis is favourable, although a specially fitted saddle may be required.

EoR is surprised that four (or more) vets failed to consider this as a possibility. He also wonders why none of the vets were contacted to provide their side of the story. He's also concerned that right near the beginning of the letter, before the miraculous intervention of the healing herbalist, the writer states
Within a couple of days he was dragging himself painfully and slowly around the yard.

So the horse was getting better even before the herbal treatment that is credited by this person as the sole reason her horse is living today.

This month's editorial loudly proclaims an alliance between the magazine and the Equine Veterinarians of Australia association. EoR wonders if they know what they've gotten themselves in to.

Strangely enough, the current issue of Nova magazine has a discussion in the letters page resulting from an article questioning the effectiveness of soy products. A reader responds about the miracle cure of her son after putting him on soy products "and made numerous other health conscious changes" (though what these are, and whether they had an impact or not, is never specified). And the editor responds
NOVA takes a position of seeking to inform our readers on many and varied issues so that we can all better make our own choices.

EoR suspects the editor of Nova is channelling the editor of hoofbeats. Or the other way around. Or they're actually the same person.


  1. I see a fair number of doctors, and none of them have ever recommended chiropractic care or acupuncture. Where is this "acceptance" the editor was referring to? Maybe it's a horse thing . . .

    Speaking of horses, horse "enthusiasts" typically have a higher-than-average income, as well as an unconditional love for their pets. It makes them ideal victims - er, clients - for practitioners of woo.

    I also wonder if the feeling is that these things are more "natural," and therefore better for an animal (which is more "natural" than a human)?

    It's a disturbing trend. People can make their own foolish decisions, but animals can't.

    My curiosity, too, is piqued by the notion that four (or maybe five) veterinarians failed to diagnose what appears to be something fairly obvious. It seems unlikely.

    Thanks for a great post.


  2. Incredible how Hoofbeats encourages owners to inflict treatments on their horses that the herbalist herself admits is untested and unsubstantiated. This is a bizarre form of paperless vivisection.

  3. msprint -

    Perhaps a variant of "Munchausen-by-proxy" that owners apply to their animals instead of their kids?

  4. Good thought. Typically women, as are most horse owners (gulp). But how come there's so much around? It's like it's infectious.


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