Snake Oil


Dale Forbes

According to Wikipedia, this is what Snake Oil is made of:

Mineral Oil

1% Fatty Oil (presumed to be beef fat)

Red Pepper



You may be relieved to hear no snakes were harmed in the production of this product.  And probably not surprised to hear there are still a lot of people out there selling it–except most of the time now there is not even a product to go with it!

Webster’s definition of “charlatan”:

“A charlatan is one making usually showy pretenses to knowledge or ability.”

I am going to tell you my bias right up front.  I love alternative medicine–quackery, if you will.  In the right hands and in moderation, it can have a great effect.  In the wrong hands–well-intentioned or not–it is not a good idea.

Do I like and use: Homeopathics?  Yup.  (Get the right one and it’s great.) Massage therapy?  Absolutely. Been Rolfed probably 100 times and I am a certified equine massage therapist. Took the course.  Energy work?  You bet.  I have trained through level 2 Reiki, which means I think I can direct energy through my hands as well as send it over distance. Chiropractic?  Wouldn’t want to be without it.  Acupuncture? Ditto.

But if I am in an auto accident I want none of these and I do want an emergency room, hopefully with a skilled staff ready at hand.

I have a vet, three of them in fact, and I use them as the basis for my routine with my horses and my pets.

In my humble opinion, there are quacks with and without a DVM behind their names; but you tend to see them less often in the truly professional fields because I think to get through medical school you have to have some significant humility.  And the actual practice of medicine reinforces that.  Sometimes things do not go as planned–often, in fact.  And it is very obvious when they do not. This breeds humility.

If there is one thing horses teach us, it is humility.  Think you are a pro?  Try to catch a Shetland Pony.


(If this photo does not make you feel helpless, then you have never been a child in a field with one of these things.)

So humility, observable results,  genuine care for the creature, AND the well-being (financial and otherwise) of the human involved are all important.

Here are some important examples of quackery:

Problem: Horse arrives at barn with $400 “corrective shoeing,” consisting of four non-shapeable, front foot, nylon-shock-absorbing-spongy things.  (Is understandably finding it difficult to walk.)

Cure: Take “the sneakers” off, trim and balance his feet, and quit “correcting.”  He’ll be better off for it.

Problem: The Local Witch Doctor proclaims, “He has trouble in his neck because he cribs! The nuchal ligament is in terrible shape!”  Hmmmmm. . . Diagnosis contained a word you had never heard so you are ignorant.  But you have had horse in the barn for months and never seen him crib.  (His teeth are rounded on the front from grazing too close a pasture. Noted on pre-purchase.)  But, is there really any trouble in the neck?  Not that you noticed, but you COULD be wrong. . . Seeds of doubt equal transfer of cash from your account to that of Local Witch Doctor.

Cure: Take a deep breath (this is not horse abuse) and say Thanks, I’ll keep an eye on that.

Problem: Vet in large dressage barn populated by uber-rich riders with imported horses  comes once a month to inject eight joints in each of twenty horses, “because they all need it.”  All of them?  Really?  Shouldn’t you be doing that too?

Cure: Accurate diagnosis of condition that would warrant such invasive and risky “care.”

Problem: Horse “not quite right” under saddle.

Cure: Do the basics. Go to your trainer first (before Snake Oil Salesperson).  Check the fit of the saddle, the girth, the horse’s teeth.  Get a vet out, do flexions and see if he is actually lame.  (I know you don’t really want to know he is lame: that diagnosis is expensive and has no sex appeal.  But do it anyway.  Modern equine meds are a darned sight more effective than Bute these days.  If you are really strapped for cash, ask your trainer to help you do it. It’s a place to start.)

Once you have ruled out these actual problems you can basically go one of two routes:

1. The body work route: Employ and pay vast numbers of “helpful professionals” to work on your horse.

(Or, with healthy skepticism, dip your own toe into alternative therapies–slowly at first, by finding a good, certified massage therapist.  Alternative therapies can be helpful–like most things, in moderation and with a grain of salt.  Consider being Rolfed.)


YOU!  Not the horse.

2. The ride better route: After you have gotten connected to your own body, employ a very good trainer who knows something to help you improve your riding.  Because, yes, riding better is very often the key to problems on the “other side” of the saddle.

The Germans do know this–you can’t buy your way out of learning to ride.  (Please see post on Saddle Sores. .  .)

Take-home message: Be very wary of people who want to envision (and perhaps profit from) an invisible, undiagnosed problem with your horse.