Acupuncture has been gaining popularity all over the world but lately, it has also been used on horses.
Selangor Turf Club's (STC) senior veterinary surgeon Dr Sfiri Kanth puts on his surgical gloves, gives a nod and the next race horse is brought into the clinic.
He swabs alcohol along the horse's spine, tears open a pack of disposable needles and swiftly inserts a few at various points on the spine. The sedated horse lets out a soft neigh and puts his head on his groom, who affectionately strokes the animal's head. .
In between the acupuncture treatment, Dr Shri also tests a young intern on the various muscles along the horse's shoulder.
His cell phone rings. Then, another visiting vet barges in to say a treatment isn't working and that the horse is writhing in pain. Worse yet, the wiremen are doing
some drilling today so it's noisy. Outside, more horses are waiting to be seen.
Dr Shri is indeed a busy man. t wonder how I'm to conduct the interview with the equine acupuncturist.
Reading my m nd, Dr Shri apologises and says, "We run a busy practice here so sorry for all the interruptions. It's like this everyday. 1 have to talk to you as I work....or multitask, as you can see!"
Over the past few years; there has been an increase in using acupuncture in veterinary medicine, especially as treatment for athletic horses with sore backs and poor performance, says Dr Shri. He is one of the few equine vets in the country to use this.treatment to complement conventional medicine.
He quickly adds, "I'm a vet first so I was trained in medical science. Usually, I use Western methods to diagnose the problem. If i feel western medicine won't work, then i use acupuncture as a last resort or I complement it with modern medicine. By combining both therapies, the results are about 10% better."
The needles used in equine acupuncture are the same ones used on humans. The longer the needle, the more strength it has but the more painful it is for the horse. Needles have to be inserted speedily or the horse might have a reflex action and kick the vet.
Dr Shri's assistant got kicked once and suffered a fractured hand. Needles are left in for a few minutes, then removed just as rapidly.
While the relief is faster in Western medicine, Dr Shri says the acupuncture appears to give pain relief to muscle soreness and helps horses recover better from the physical and mental anguish of racing and training. But, the practice is not without controversy.
"Acupuncture can stimulate endorphins and make the horse run its fastest. Some consider it an unnatural way to enhance performance," says Dr Shri.
For this reason, he is strict about the timing of the treatment. Horses must be brought in no less than five days prior to a race.
Ironically, the better the horses perform on racing day, chances are the more problems they might develop as they've been working too hard, he says. All horses are tested for steroids pre- and post-race.
Dr Shri also recommends that horses go through a detoxification programme using homeopathic medicine before sending them to a stable in Genting Highlands to "relax". Sadly, the horses sometimes only get a holiday once in two years because there simply aren't enough pastures around.
He says, "The horses are put under a lot of stress so ifl feel a,horse has had its run, I recommend to the trainer that it needs to recuperate."
The rehabilitation spell can last anywhere from a month to six months.
We've been talking for the past three hours and Dr Shri hasn't had a moment of rest. Every few minutes, someone runs up to ask something. He's a wealth of information and obviously, an experienced veterinarian though he's only 34.
Horses are his passion and at 12, he was already doing voluntary work at the Perak Turf Club, learning all he could about the majestic animal.
After finishing school, and much to his dismay, he was offered a place to study engineering at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. A year later, he applied to study veterinary medicine at Universiti Pertanian
Malaysia (now Universiti Putra Malaysia) and was accepted. Over the years, he added more certifications to his resume, equine acupuncture being one of them.
"I consider this a blue-cullar job. I don't work in an office setting. Here, there's a lot of dirt and while it's not a pleasant working environment, it's a noble profession nevertheless," says Dr Shri who has been with the STC since 1998.
The job comes with perils as one can never predict how animals might react when in pain. Three years ago, he went to inspect a horse with abdominal pain. It had been quarantined and was on the floor groaning.
Suddenly, the animal used its front legs to kick the vet on his forehead. Caught unaware, Dr Shri feff and the horse stepped on him mercilessly. He broke some ribs, a collar bone, sustained various injuries and was hospitalised for a week.
He recalls, "It was unforgettable. But, that's the unpredictability of my job."
Just then, a horse is brought in and Dr Shri points out the horse has a tight hamstring and lower back problem. The ribs stick out on one side.
"Back problems are mostly rider-induced; bad riders create bad backs. If the rider has a problem on one side of his back, he will shift his weight to his stronger side and, as a result, the horse is forced to use one side more than the other," explains Dr Shri.