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Back in the Saddle

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ah, the good life.

This is the kind of experience for which Hollywood producers jet off to exclusive, out-of-the-way hot spots. A nice massage, a soak in a tub, some mood-elevating acupuncture. Then for dinner, how about a smorgasbord of . . . well, alfalfa and oats?

If that doesn’t sound appetizing, it’s because this hot new spa is designed to appeal to a horse of an entirely different color.

Goodenough Farms in Fillmore is opening a “horse spa” this week designed solely for the equine epicure. And while layup facilities--places where tired and injured horses recuperate--are not uncommon in California, Goodenough says it goes the extra mile, or even mile and a quarter.

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Here a horse can get a bone-crackling round of chiropractic therapy, a trail of acupuncturist’s needles rising in ridges across its back or a trip on the aqua tread, walking in place in a warm tub of water.

These therapies, which 10 years ago might have been considered new-age quackery in the veterinary community, are slowly making inroads into the mainstream, even if old-school vets haven’t embraced them.

It’s only natural they be used on animals, says Goodenough Farms’ owner.

“Horses are athletic beasts,” said John Lockhart, who compares his facility to such human spas as the Golden Door and the Oaks at Ojai. “They need to be kept in athletic shape.”

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What that amounts to is personal training for the equine set. Lynda Kovisto, ranch manager at Goodenough Farms, was working with Manny’s Prospect, a 9-year-old retired thoroughbred, and one of the first guests at the spa. She hand walks the horses, massages aching backs and even hooked Manny’s Prospect up to a cold-laser contraption that stimulates the animal’s injured leg “to get rid of toxins and debris.”

To treat soft-tissue injuries, the spa says it can bring in a cadre of specialists, armed with needles and strong hands, to align, shift and brace aching horse muscles as needed.

Chiropractic--musculoskeletal manipulation--and animal acupuncture clinics have begun popping up in California, said Dr. Bob Sahara of the California Veterinary Medical Assn.

Such techniques began to squeeze into veterinary medicine for the same reason they appeal to humans: where Western medicine hadn’t been able to help, perhaps alternative therapies could. And horse owners were among the first to try the techniques on animals.

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The owners, whose interest in their animals often crosses over from the emotional to the financial, had an economic interest in keeping their animals healthy.

“The clients are the ones who are pushing it,” said Dr. Kevin Haussler, a lecturer at Cornell University’s vet school. He said the idea has been met with resistance by some mainstream vets.

“The universities and veterinarians don’t want to deal with it, but we’re trying to do real research here, so it isn’t just a fad and five years from now just like pet rocks.”

So far, however, there is little research, and most accounts of success are anecdotal.

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“In a situation where nothing else will help, you try therapy you might once have thought wacky,” said Lisa Warden, Goodenough Farms’ director of research and spa therapies. “In the West, we seem to be consumed with the scientific. We dismiss some of these things as a new-age scam, but I think there’s enough anecdotal evidence to make it reasonable.”

That’s enough for Kovisto, who says she can tell when a horse is feeling better. The animal becomes less tense or less cranky, its back straighter and less swayed. The placebo effect is meaningless in horses, she points out, and something has to be making them feel better. For Kovisto, such techniques are far preferable to the treatment available in years past for lame horses: euthanasia.

The room and board doesn’t come cheap, however. Horses can stay at Goodenough for $200 a week, with prices ranging from $100 to $200 for a session of acupuncture and chiropractic therapy. The facility is also working with an equine dentist, available for regular checkups and tooth grinding.

Typical layup facilities may not be enough, some say.

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“A lot of times, we’ll just put them out and let them rest,” said Haussler. “And a lot of times nothing happens. And you say, ‘Well, of course. You haven’t done anything.’ ”


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