Taking an alternative approach to veterinary medicine

November 24, 2012
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John Harthorn of Avella performs chiropractic work on a racehorse at Rich Gillock Stables in Belle Vernon. (Scott Beveridge/Observer-Reporter)
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Scott Beveridge / Observer-Reporter
John Harthorn of Avella performs acupuncture on a racehorse at Rick Gillock Stables in Belle Vernon. Order a Print

Dr. John Harthorn has been a fixture at racetracks along the East Coast – including The Meadows – for more than 40 years.

The Avella veterinarian has established a niche within the horseracing industry, dispensing alternative therapies to heal the aches and pains that pacers and trotters commonly develop.

A graduate of the Michigan State University veterinary school, Harthorn long ago turned away from conventional Western medicine. He relies instead on a variety of remedies, including chiropractic, acupuncture and homeopathy, to correct physical problems without using drugs.

“For me, it’s about doing the best I can without doing harm. That’s the key,” said Harthorn. “Injections, especially joint injections – which are the biggest-priced items and therefore the most profitable for veterinarians – aren’t the best solution over the long haul, and aren’t as effective as what I can do with alternative therapies. I want to do what’s in the best interest of the horse.”

Among Harthorn’s clients is harness racing trainer Rich Gillock of Belle Vernon, whose stable includes $1 million earner Winning Mister and $300,000 winner and Breeders Crown participant Major Athens.

“I’m a believer,” said Gillock, noting how physically demanding racing is for horses. “This is a therapy that’s not severe for the animal; it’s a mild therapy that provides relief with no drugs, and that’s the big thing. It keeps these horses on their game. Long-term, it’s healthier because the less times you have to go into a joint, the better.”

At a recent visit to Gillock’s stable, Harthorn treated nearly a dozen horses, including The Meadows 2011 2-year-old colt Trotter of the Year Boytown, who was “off” and stiff.

Harthorn demonstrated his techniques on Boytown, who received acupuncture and chiropractic (which resembled a hug – Harthorn wrapped his arms around the colt’s neck and pulled firmly).

By the end of the visit, Boytown – who at the outset tensed in pain at different points when Harthorn ran his hands along the horse’s body – was relaxed and pain-free.

Harthorn said the purpose of the holistic therapies he endorses is to stimulate healing and to return horses to their full athletic capabilities, without relying on medication.

“My goal is to have pain-free racing, without giving them stuff,” said Harthorn.

Harthorn, a Michigan native, began his veterinary career as a traditional equine practitioner. He was introduced to acupuncture in 1978 by a Canadian veterinarian, and soon became interested in chiropractic and homeopathic remedies.

In the late ’70s and early ’80s, when he switched to alternative therapies, Harthorn said he had a hard time finding horses to treat because those methods were met with skepticism.

Today, Harthorn is semiretired but is as busy as ever, traveling frequently to racetracks and stables to work on racehorses and to private homes to treat pleasure horses.

Dorothy Tecklenburg of Washington has relied on Harthorn to fix her horses’ ailments for several years.

She first contacted Harthorn after a veterinarian told her that her pony, who was allergic to dust and hay, would need to take Albuterol for the rest of her life.

Tecklenburg said Harthorn performed acupuncture, and her pony’s breathing problems stopped. Every six months, Harthorn performed acupuncture, and the pony’s allergies no longer bothered her.

Harthorn’s acupuncture and herbal remedies have also worked wonders on Tecklenburg’s Tennessee Walker trail horse, whose ailment was misdiagnosed by a veterinarian, Tecklenburg said.

“I am definitely an advocate for equine chiropractic and acupuncture,” she said.

“I think I’ve taken the right approach. The people I’ve worked with don’t have any preconceived ideas. They’re open-minded,” said Harthorn. “My practice is word of mouth, and over the years I’ve had some dramatic results. It’s never dull.”

Karen Mansfield is an award-winning journalist and mom of five who has been a staff writer for the Observer-Reporter since 1988. She enjoys reading, the Pittsburgh Steelers, a good glass of wine and nice people.

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