Realignment therapy provides an alternative treatment for animals

Max, owned by Elyce Bonnell, has a release during a session with Ms. Russell. — Photo courtesy of Phoenix Russell

Our four legged friends can’t tell us where the pain is coming from when they’re hurting. As a result, when an animal is suffering from chronic pain or lameness, it may be difficult to pinpoint the problem.

Realignment treatment specialist Phoenix Russell of Vineyard Haven has made it her profession to diagnose and treat those types of conditions in animals using an alternative therapy called structural integration. Although she does some work with dogs, horse owners make up her primary clientele.

“Because horses are quadrupeds, any injury or stress will affect other parts of their body,” Ms. Russell said. “They’re always on their legs.”

She said that all horses can benefit from treatment. “I do it for maintenance, preventation, or for treating a lameness that’s been going on for a long time where the owner hasn’t found a solution.”

As Ms. Russell describes it, structural integration aims to align the body in the gravitational field to bring the body back to an ideal state of balance. It was originally used to treat people – often going by the terms Rolfing or myofascial release. Work in the field with horses began in the 1990s and has become a popular treatment option, she said.

Ms. Russell received her training with the Equine Natural Movement School in Battle Ground, Washington. She gained certification in 2008 and then completed an advanced course one year later. She works with 12 to 15 clients in the summer and a few during the off-season. She assists the Rising Tide Therapeutic Equestrian Center at a greatly reduced rate.

The treatment consists of five sessions, from one hour to an hour and a half long. She devotes the first session to gaining the trust of the horse and studying the animal’s structure.

“I start by doing light work. I build a map on a horse’s body to find out where there’s tension and scar tissue,” she said. “I like to go into a session with no intention, no direction, and let the body guide me.”

Ms. Russell said that horses enjoy the work. Many go into an extreme state of relaxation where their eyes close, lips droop, and sometimes the animal even sways into the treatment. Dogs have shorter attention spans, according to Ms. Russell, and she can only treat dogs for 45 minutes at the most. A lifelong rider, Ms. Russell prefers working on horses.

“The connection is much greater with the horse. I can go in and find the problem.” She added, “Every horse has tension. Even if you don’t think they do. Any kick will cause scar tissue.”

Big boned client

Chiropracter John LaCoste of Oak Bluffs occasionally works with animals, although he does the work after regular business hours and on a “philanthropic basis,” as he puts it.

Primarily, he treats dogs and horses as a last ditch effort, when the owner has tried every sort of medical solution available. While studying chiropactic medicine he trained with a woman who had previously been a veterinarian and who has subsequently gone on to achieve world renown as a veterinary chiropractor.

Mr. LaCoste said he has worked on all types of animals. “I’ve treated everything from a cat to a wolf to an elephant.”

The chiropractor was once called in by a trainer at the Buttonwood Park Zoo in New Bedford in an emergency situation. Ruth, the Asian elephant, had accidentally rolled into a moat in her enclosure. She couldn’t raise her head, which is a dire situation for an animal that needs to use its trunk to feed, bathe, and cool itself with water.

“They had no money to send her for x-rays,” said Mr. LaCoste. He agreed to treat the elephant with some hesitation. “I’d never been that close to a 6,000 pound animal,” he said.

The trainers used another elephant named Emily to bring a stand over and he was able to do an adjustment. “Her head popped right up,” he said. “As far as I know I’m the only one who’s ever done it.”

The National Inquirer reported the story, although Mr. LaCoste demurred at providing a photo to the tabloid. “It was the highlight of my career,” said the chiropractor.

Twenty-five years later, Ruth is still alive and well.