In the late 1990s my aged Hanoverian gelding who had once been an upper-levels eventing horse and show jumper was retired to the job of a lesson horse. Old injuries he’d sustained in his younger years as a competitive athlete were catching up with him and his level of discomfort increasing. He had a large amount of scar tissue on the underside of his neck, bad hocks, spinal deformity and arthritic joints. By the time he was essentially bracing himself on two legs and not wanting to roll any longer, my options for his care and comfort were diminishing. I’d already rescued him from a trip to the slaughterhouse when he was 18, and was glad to have given him a good “second chance” in life and a far better ending than the one he’d been threatened with. I thought maybe he’d reached “the end” for sure this time and was considering euthanasia.
Given the results I’d seen with light therapy in humans and other animals however, I decided to give it a chance as a new company had emerged at the time with a system designed specifically for horses.
For some who may not have been introduced to Low Level Laser Therapy*, this might sound like it’s straight off the Holodeck of the Starship Enterprise. I can assure you of the science behind it however, and will present both anecdotal accounts from my own experience with this remarkable healing modality as well as scientific references. Oh yes, and if you search for the opinions that say it isn’t effective or that there isn’t supportive research, you’ll find them, and generally they stem from sources who don’t actually quote the lengthy list of well-funded studies that do prove the known mechanisms and successful case studies, in particular the currently FDA-approved monochromatic red wavelengths. Everyone comes through their own belief systems, even scientists. However, I’ve now used the technology for over 20 years and still use it to speed up the healing of sports injuries, wounds, and dental surgery. Results are consistent with both humans and animals in my experience.
Some of the contemporary history leading to the FDA-approved research came through NASA and the University of Wisconsin’s Dr. Harry Whelan, M.D.:
Dr. Harry Whelan, M.D., has been inducted into the NASA Space Technology Hall of Fame for his research into the use of near-infrared LEDs for wound healing and the treatment of brain tumors and neurofibromatosis:
I was personally introduced to photo-therapy, or the application of colored light, via Dr. Jacob Liberman O.D., Ph.D, D.Sc. (hon), (author of Light; Medicine of the Future http://www.jacobliberman.org/jacob/bio/). He invited me to attend the annual conference and professional training session of the College of Syntonic Optometry in 1991. I then experimented with the specific frequencies of visible light on myself, on waterfowl that were rescued from various states of illness and injury and brought to our ranch, as well as dogs, cats, horses and anyone who wanted to try it for themselves. Over and over again the results were nothing short of miraculous.
The originator of syntonic phototherapy was Dr. Harry Riley Spitler, D.O.S., M.D., M.S. Ph.D who first published the Syntonic Principle in 1941. Scientific research that began in the 1920s speculated that the power of light was primarily transmitted to the core of the human organism via the organ of sight – the eyes. Dr. Spitler theorized in great detail the role of the eyes in phototransduction, as well as the role of light and color in total organismic function and development. Most of his work has been scientifically validated, and that of the work of many others in the field. Their collective bodies of work have formed the foundation for today’s most advanced approaches to light therapy.
The issues up until the 1990s were conflicts between the FDA, DEA, and classifying both the devices and frequencies of light into their respective categories of drugs and medical devices. It was NASA’s work in developing the technology with the Marshall Space Science Centre and Dr. Whelan that brought at least a portion of photonics research into the mainstream.
After I was trained in the application of colored light through the eyes, I made a set of filters and worked with those and a light source. The technology that emerged at the time my Hanoverian, Wilhem, was literally on “his last legs” was that of BioScan Light, then out of New Mexico. The application was quite different than what I had been taught, but understanding the mechanism of light on the cells of the body made me call a local woman who occasionally rode at our barn and had been through the BioScan training. Desperate, I called her and had her come out to treat Willy.
I found the scanning unit took quite a long time and when Sandra was finished the initial session, Willy had dots of grease pencil all over his body. Then she treated each dot with a cluster-head set of red LED lights. I noticed he immediately began taking deep breaths and almost fell asleep in the cross ties. His whole body relaxed so much by the end of the session he looked like a different horse. I was anxious to see how he moved. His tail was up for the first time in quite awhile. It had been clamped in chronic discomfort as his soundness deteriorated. As it turned out, the old scar tissue under his neck had been causing him more pain than I’d originally thought too.
Conventional veterinary medicine had done all it could for this horse, saving his life when he was injured after flipping over a cross-country fence and splitting his neck near the jugular vein. His hocks had been x-rayed, determining the condition they were in and finding a bone spur, and the farrier did everything he could to put a good, supportive foot under the big gelding’s aging body. Everything else Willy needed, he got, but life had caught up with him and it was time to find an alternative and compassionate way to make him comfortable, or else let him end his life in peace.
After Willy’s first light treatment I put him back out to the pasture with the other old horses and he proudly marched to the middle of the field, stood up square like a statue, then took off in an elevated trot towards the horses. I was amazed to say the least. The other horses saw him coming and they all took off running too!
Sandra came back two more times and each time the number of grease-pencil dots from the Bio-Find unit decreased. I noticed the old scar tissue softening under Willy’s neck. The real test would come when I put him into one of the outdoor pens that he loved to roll in, but hadn’t done so in months. I believe he thought he might not be able to get back up from the deep, soft dirt, once he got down into it for a roll.
Sure enough, after the final treatment I put Willy in the turnout and he immediately tossed a big hoof-full of dirt into the air. That was the signal he was going to drop and roll. He pretty much had a big grin on his face, as much as a horse can actually smile, then collapsed into the dirt and rolled, and rolled and rolled! I knew from that point on he was going to be alright.
He stayed serviceably sound and remained bright and happy. The other horses seemed to enjoy hanging around him more as well. He even managed to commandeer two of them to swat flies from his face out in the pasture and his gentle nature made him a favourite for babysitting youngsters, sick horses and horses that needed to calm down.
I had an LED pad custom made and began to experiment on other horses, some with horrendous spinal deformities, dropped hips and sacroiliac displacement. The results were consistent and every horse improved, some dramatically, even just using this very basic, simple version of light therapy. It is a completely non-invasive, gentle method of remediation for injuries involving soft tissue and seems to help with joint stiffness as well as reducing the effects of old scar tissue. I noticed the spine and hips realign, most likely due to the release of tightness and muscle damage that was pulling the musculoskeletal system out of alignment, allowing the bony structures to move back into a more normal state. The horses all showed a marked increase in their ROM (range-of-motion).
In recent years, many new companies have emerged and new research and information continues to support the use of LLLT. Dr. Schoen and I are looking forward to following the progress of the latest devices to enter the market for advanced and professional delivery of red light for the healing of horses.
Dr. Schoen and myself both recommend a thorough veterinary workup if your horse exhibits signs of pain or lameness or is otherwise in apparent distress as there could be many causes. A good lameness veterinarian is invaluable to every horse owner and sometimes they may recommend a second or third opinion also. It isn’t unusual to find several causes of lameness in a horse and some are very difficult to diagnose. As each practitioner comes from their own areas of expertise, you may find putting a good diagnostic team together the most compassionate thing to do for your horse’s wellbeing. This includes a neurologic workup and checking for Lyme Disease if your horse’s behaviour has changed and he seems to have chronic, yet indeterminate symptoms of discomfort.
LLLT works wonderfully in conjunction with conventional medicine and is highly applicable as a supportive mechanism for speeding up healing along with standard protocols for treating sport-related injuries, wounds and post-surgical conditions.
*Laser Therapy is a form of phototherapy which involves the application of monochromatic light over biological tissue to elicit a biomodulative effect within that tissue.
Low-level Laser Therapy (LLLT) – the most widely-used name given to this form of photobiomodulation – can have both a photobiostimulative effect and a photobioinhibitive effect within the irradiated tissue – each of which can be used in a number of therapeutic applications.