Qi or Energy is just one of a few vital substances needed for ultimate health and soundness in the horse, or really any living body, including you and me.  Every health ailment and lameness condition in the horse roots back to one of 5 vital substances, from a traditional Chinese medicine perspective. A failure to resolve that health ailment or lameness condition in the horse is due to a lack of understanding or proper application of methodologies and therapies available.  Qi or energy is what makes the body go around, muscles to contract, ignites cellular function, immune health, proper healing, digestion and many other facets of health and soundness.  In fact, for many TCM practitioners, Qi is viewed as the most important substance in the body.  Let’s take a deeper look in this first article, regarding Qi or Energy in the horse and how it plays a major role.

In the world of Chinese medicine, health revolves around 5 vital substances and 5 organ systems:

Qi and Energy in Horse Lameness and Health

Qi and Energy in Horse Lameness and Health

5 Vital Substances:

  • Qi
  • Blood
  • Yin
  • Yang
  • Jing Essence

5 Organ Systems / Elements:  (In Promoting Order)

  • Heart (fire)
  • Spleen (earth)
  • Lung (metal)
  • Kidney  (water)
  • Liver  (wood)

The details regarding the organ systems is beyond the scope of this article, so for now, we will be focusing on the vital substances, keeping it general, but nonetheless, hopefully informative and insightful for application to your horse.

Qi and Energy in the Horse

When it comes to energy, most of us think of energy as being physically active or capable of being active, having ‘physical’ energy.  Now, while this is true and is a manifestation or by-product of internal energy or Qi, it is not the complete story.  Qi is viewed as being a ‘circulating life force’ within a person or animal.  In plain terms, it is viewed by myself as being internal energy.  Qi is created at a cellular level, and in terms of science, we could refer to it as ATP, which is a form of cellular energy.  Now, how that energy is created is dependent upon two systems; digestion and lung function.

Food that is taken into the body, into the horse, is converted into energy.  Simple philosophy right? Well, it makes sense, but first the food must be of high enough quality or nutrition to actually provide the substrates to produce energy.  This means proper vitamins, minerals, proteins, fats, carbohydrates etc, to fuel the body and allow for energy production.  The digestive tract, however, must be working properly to take advantage of this food which is being supplied, to help support Qi or energy production within the horse.

Lung function is also involved as the lungs take in air, which contains oxygen and is swapped out in the distal lungs for carbon dioxide.  This oxygen then also fuels the cells and allows for more energy production.

In either case, every facet of bodily function in the horse, from immune health to performance and stamina is dependent upon energy or Qi production.  There is no way around it.

This energy or Qi allows for:

  • proper cellular function
  • supports immune health
  • supports digestion
  • supports performance and stamina
  • supports healthy tissue function and healing
  • supports tissue regeneration and growth
  • supports bone and joint function
  • supports eyesight, hearing, and lung function
  • proper blood circulation and nutrient supply to the body tissues

                  Bottom line, Qi or Energy is vital to health and soundness in the horse,                                but there are caveats!

Qi or Energy in the Horse; A River of Goodness

Qi or energy is vital for health and soundness in the horse, but often it is a concept that is overlooked in therapy options.  A lack of understanding and proper application of knowledge of the vital substances is what creates a lack of therapy response, a partial response then a relapse, or why a therapy works for one horse and does not for another.  It’s not rocket science, but does take a certain level of understanding to wrap your head around the concepts.  However, in reality, once you understand the concepts, even on a rudimentary level, it becomes apparent that these are life laws to an extent, and laws when broken lead to bad things in most cases.

Think of a river, flowing with water smoothly with no rockets or obstructions.  The water in the river is at the perfect depth or height, not overflowing the banks, nor is it tortuous or rough.  This water is like energy in the body, flowing smoothly downstream, flooding every aspect of the body with goodness. Downstream, is a water turbine that is running a factory, or the horse’s body.  The water is perfectly flowing to make this turbine work, thus promoting health and balance in the body.  This picture that you have in your mind would be kin to an ideal situation, but this is rarely the case. There are a few scenarios that I commonly see that create the illness and lameness conditions in the horse.

Scenario One:  Think of that same river, but now the water is overflowing the banks and is not flowing well, almost stagnant and not feeding the turbine downstream.  In this scenario, as you look a bit down stream, you see a big blockage or dam that has formed due to storm debris, which is blocking adequate water flow.  This ‘blockage’ is creating Qi or energy Stagnation in traditional Chinese medicine terms.  Qi stagnation leads to improper energy flow, due to accumulations at certain points in the body.  In this scenario, relieving the obstruction or dam, would resolve the problem, considering all else is normal in the equation.  If Qi stagnation continues for a prolonged period of time, other facets of health and soundness are impaired, most importantly being the blood, resulting in BLOOD STAGNATION.  This is an example of simple, straight forward Qi stagnation, which is often directly related to emotions or a primary blockage of energy flow, such as an injury or otherwise.

Scenario Two:  Think of that same river, same scenario as above with a blockage or dam formed due to storm debris.  You see there is Qi or energy stagnation, and the turbine running the body is not being fed properly to facilitate health.  Your response is to remove the dam, which is a good choice, and upon relieving the dam, you then note that the water or energy is flowing smoothly and the turbine is working properly.  Job well done!  But wait, you come back 3 hours later and note that the river is now very low, very shallow, pooling in some areas and that turbine is not working again.  What happened?  In this case, the water had pooled initially due to the obstruction or dam, creating the illusion of excess water.  However, in reality, there was a brief excess, but due to periods of drought over the past few weeks, there was insufficient water upstream to keep that river flowing after the dam was removed. Given the inadequate input or flow of water from upstream, the water is now pooling again and stagnation is evident.  This is an example of a primary deficiency, often a Qi deficiency, which has led to a temporary perceived excess situation.  

Scenario Three:  Let’s picture that river once again, however this time, there is evident pooling of water, reaching far outside it’s banks and not flowing well.  You look downstream and there is no blockage or dam that is obvious.  The turbines are not turning well because water is not flowing well and essentially overwhelming those turbines.  You then look upstream and every where you look, there is water reaching out of the banks.  This is Qi stagnation again, but it is due to excess energy input or creation, like having a storm come and dump inches of rain in a short period.  This excess energy or Qi input into the equation creates problems, especially if the body is not capable of handling it properly or expelling it.  This scenario of Qi excess, resulting in Qi stagnation is not too common, but often the result of other factors.  One situation where it is common in my experience, is a horse placed on a high plane of nutrition, but stalled many hours out the day with little turnout or exercise.  The input for Qi production is high, but the output for that energy is low.  This often contributes to negative vices such as cribbing, weaving, pawing and other behaviors.

Qi, Energy and the Vital Substances in the Horse

We seem to be focusing on Qi, but what about the other vital substances??  Qi is very important and one of the most important aspects of health and soundness in the horse, there is no doubt, but the other vital substances play a role as they are all intertwined.

Keeping terms very simple for understanding, let’s look at the other vital substances:

  • Yin (cooling and moisturizing aspect of the body)
  • Yang (warming aspect of the body)
  • Blood (refers to the blood component of the body)
  • Jing (a life essence or ‘battery charge’ that we are all born with, often localized to the kidney)

For health to be present, there must be a balance between the 5 vital substances, but in my experience with horses, myself and other people, this is not common to see.  There is always an imbalance and this imbalance is what creates the ill-health or lameness in the horse.  All 5 substances work together, facilitate one another, and aid with generation and movement of Qi or energy in the body.  Every substance also plays a role in the 5-organ system mentioned above, facilitating health in that organ system, which then promotes and supports the next organ system in line.  If there is an imbalance, health or balance in the system is disrupted on some level, and to that level, health is impaired as is soundness.

Qi or Energy stagnation is often one of the main components present within a health condition and especially in a lameness ailment.  In Chinese medicine, Qi stagnation is not a cause of disease itself, but in the long-term, this Qi stagnation can create a condition termed blood stagnation, which does create clinical disease.  Qi or energy is needed to ‘move’ or circulate blood in the body.  If the Qi is deficient or blocked from proper flow, then the blood that it moves may also suffer.  This is when you start to deal with more serious ailments and ongoing lameness conditions.

This can get complicated with terminology and concepts, so I will do my best to keep it simple through the use of examples.

Yin is a cooling and moisturizing aspect of the body, often found in more predominance within the female of all species.  Women (females) are often more Yin than they are Yang.  So, Yin, in reality is a female characteristic, but is present in men despite.  Yin deficiencies often result in dryness in the body, from dry skin or hair, to dry stools or feces in the horse, and in people.  A Yin deficiency can also result in a dry cough, or red, dry irritated eyes.  It is also noted in cases of dry and brittle hooves, but could also be related to ongoing tendon or ligament cases that fail to mend or heal.  Yin is often related to the kidneys or liver, but is also related to the heart.  Yin can be in a state of deficiency, a state of excess, or a state of relative excess/deficiency.  In a state of excess, Yin can contribute to dampness conditions as outlined below, and digestive upset.

Yang is the opposite of Yin, and works together in balance with the Yin components to keep the body in a state of balance, proper energy circulation, and health.  Yang is of a more warming nature and quality, and more of a feature of the male gender than the female.  Now, both genders possess Yang qualities, but as with Yin being more predominant in the female gender, Yang is more predominant in the male.  Yang can be in a state of excess, deficiency or relative excess/deficiency.  In excess or relative excess, it creates more heat to the body and often more irritation, which can result in clinical ailments or often more behavioral.  Gastric ulcers, hyperactivity or irritability can all be related to, but often not a direct cause, of excess or relative excess Yang within the body of the horse.

Blood is blood, referring to the vital substance or fluid that is present within the horse’s body, delivering nutrients, oxygen and other substances to different areas of the body.  In most cases, blood is viewed as being deficient, but can occur in a relatively excess state in some instances.  When the blood is viewed as being deficient, the diet is often to blame and is not of high enough pure nutrient value.  In other cases, there is a digestive deficiency, which often relates back to Qi and a Qi deficiency impacting the digestive tract.  Those horses with a blood deficiency, either primary or secondary, usually have a pale tongue color, weaker pulses, dull hair coat, poor body condition, poor healing of wounds and injuries, poor hoof growth, and sometimes are obviously anemic on laboratory testing.

Jing is referred to as a vital force or energy, often present at birth, which is housed in the kidneys.  I view it as a battery of life, given to us or the horse at birth.  This battery of life, for some, dictates longevity, but also impacts overall well-being in the animal.  A horse born with birth problems, contractions of the tendons, weakness, illness or other perceived defects or challenges, may be suspected of having a weak Jing or essence.  The problem here, for many is that this battery of life as I view it, is like a reserve energy bank for the body.  As health problems, lameness, or improper overall care leads to problems in the horse, leading to deficiencies, the body often pulls from this Jing or reserve essence to keep the machine running.  The main issue is that Jing is hard to replace or even tonify.  It can be tonified with some herbs, but they are not recharging the life battery as I see it, but more so tonifying or supporting other pathways that hopefully lead to less utilization of the Jing source.  A primary Jing essence is noted in some horses as they have a history of problems as a foal, and continue to ‘fail to thrive’ even as adults, with ongoing health or lameness issues.

The main point here is that of the 5 vital substances, all of them are important as they feed and support one another.  One can have a horse with a Yin deficiency, which may be primary or secondary, but over time that Yin deficiency produces a relative excess of Yang, contributes to Qi stagnation, and contributes to overall health and lameness conditions.

Aside from blatant states of excess, deficiency, or stagnation, there are other predicaments that develop which include dampness, damp-heat, states of cold, or stages of heat.  To me, these are all very serious contributors to health and lameness issues, but are often the result of a primary problem usually being related to a Qi deficiency or Qi stagnation.  A state of dampness is really viewed as being fluid accumulation in the tissue planes.  This is almost always a result of improper digestion in the horse, which is associated with Qi stagnation (liver) or Qi deficiency, which is often complicated by the chosen diet.  Dampness is seen in multiple forms in the horse and includes the overweight horse, with fat accumulation as being viewed as a form of dampness, the horse with stocking up issues, the horse with loose stools, a horse with a greasy skin coat or mucous in the feces, or a horse with coughing and phlegm production.  Damp-heat conditions are a state of dampness that has also created Qi or blood stagnation.  This can be evident in the horse with ongoing inflammatory skin problems, with obvious heat, redness, and discharge.  It can also be seen in some laminitic cases, especially acute conditions.  Dampness is not easy to remedy and takes time with the right approach between diet and herbs, but is a strong contributor to further Qi or energy stagnation, as this ‘fluid’ accumulation inhibits proper flow of that energy.

State of excess cold or heat are often secondary to other primary deficiencies or excess, and are often made worse with the right environmental conditions or contributors.  A horse that tends to be worse clinically in the winter or cooler times of the year is often suffering from a state of internal cold, which may be related to Qi stagnation, blood stagnation, Yin excess or Yang deficiency on some level.  A horse that tends to get clinically worse during the heat of the summer is suffering from a state of internal heat, again related to Qi stagnation, blood stagnation, Yang excess or Yin deficiency.

Vial Substances and the Horse; Summing it all Up!

The world of traditional Chinese medicine is really fascinating but can be very complex much the same. TCM does not differ very much from Ayurvedic medicine, but takes it to another level, making things a little more complicated.  Chinese medicine also tends to use other herbs, while the two practices of medicine do share many.

In this first article, my goal was to share with you the basic concepts, and I do mean ‘basic’.  There is much more to share, but I reserve much of that due to complexity.  I will share more understanding and herbal usage in future articles.

My main goal was to relay these basic concepts and hopefully allow you to get a little better insight into how I see a horse or equine patient, versus you, your trainer or even your regular veterinarian.  I do not just see a horse with laminitis, navicular disease, allergies, foot pain, or a tendon ailment.  I see the condition as you do, but I dig deeper and want to understand the cause.  As we begin to understand and see that cause or contributor, then our chances of success in helping that horse improve dramatically.

Through this basic understanding, you as the horse owner, can understand why I ask the questions that I do and why I put emphasis on certain key elements.  It is also possible why, if I state that 5 things need to be corrected with your horse, why it is important to address and correct all 5, not just 2 or 3.  When we fail to correct all factors, this leads to failure in helping that horse.  The concepts or causes of disease of lameness in the horse are not always evident, and more often than not, there is a lot of junk obscuring our clear vision.  In those cases, we tend to manage what is evident, resolving it hopefully, which then sheds light on other problems which may be the primary issues. This is what the Chinese practitioners refer to as ‘peeling the layers of the onion.’.  I do not always get things right, even when I have the patient on hand.  Thus, we call it ‘practice‘ for a reason.  In most, however, we can certainly get on the right tract.

Through even a basic understanding of traditional Chinese medicine or Ayurvedic medicine, it then becomes obvious why I use and create so many different herbal formulas and why no two horses are often treated the same, despite having what you or your veterinarian may perceive as the same clinical ailment.

There is not a disease or even a lameness condition that I feel cannot be rectified or enhanced on some level.  More often than not, the failure is created by ourselves, either in recognizing the pattern incorrectly or not truly applying the therapy options to their fullest potential.

In part two of the article series, I hope to expand on clinical examples which may help to make the topics a little clearer to understand.


Author:  Tom Schell, D.V.M.





1 Comment

  1. […] Chinese medicine and theories to help in resolving health and lameness events in the horse.  In part one, I discussed the very basics of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and the concept of Qi or energy, […]

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