In the first part of the series on hirudotherapy, “Organic Little Pharmacies: Leeches for Horses,” Martsje Bergsma explained the ways in which leeches can help solve several common problems and conditions in equines. For the second installment, Bergsma and HorseGrooms dive into the details on how leeches actually work their magic, what to expect during and after a hirudotherapy appointment and the FEI’s stance on the slimy creatures.
How Does a Leech Work?
When Bergsma treats a horse, she uses about eight to twelve leeches, depending on the problem and the size of the horse’s problem areas.
“Once the leeches are placed on the horse’s body, they will bite and feed themselves with the horse’s blood,” Bergsma explains. “Most leeches have three jaws with a row of small teeth on each jaw. With that mechanism they make a small Y-shaped incision. As soon as they bite, a light, mildly painful bite will be noticed. Subsequently, they almost immediately release saliva with substances that deactivate sensation at a local level, causing most horses to relax. After the bite, the leeches absorb the horse’s blood, simultaneously releasing their unique substances.”
Saliva with 80 Unique Active Substances
“In that process, the leeches’ saliva goes into the horse’s bloodstream,” Bergsma says. “That is what makes them so special. Their saliva contains between 80-100 active substances, hirudin being one of them, that have a positive impact on all kinds of systems in the body, such as blood pressure. It has anti-inflammatory, hormone regulating, anticoagulant (blood thinning), analgesic (pain relieving), antibacterial, and expectorant (mucus dissolving) properties. In addition, the immune system and the production of joint fluid are stimulated, and it improves the transmission of stimuli between the nerves.”
Little Organic Pharmacies
Due to the unique combination of all these different substances, the ailments often improve surprisingly quickly. Waste products from the bloodstream are removed; the immune system is activated; the lymphatic and capillary flow improves; and the horses get more energy. Pain often decreases significantly or disappears completely. Leeches really are little organic pharmacies,” says Bergsma about the animals whose emitted substances cannot be copied by pharmaceutical companies.
Practical Treatment with Leeches
Treatment with leeches takes time and patience.
“Before I treat a horse, I’ve actually already discussed a lot of things with the owner, manager, or groom so that I get an impression of the management of that specific horse,” Bergsma says. “Because, as we all know, a lot of complaints can be the result of poor management.”
Local Placement of Leeches
“If it is a fairly specific condition, such as mud fever, a haematoma, or wind puffs, then I place the leeches locally, i.e. at the place where the saliva mainly has to do its job,” Bergsma explains. “I almost always also place a few systemically on the lymph nodes to help the body clear out all the waste. Depending on how big the leeches are and how fast they can bite, they suck for half an hour to an hour. When they’re done, they eventually let go on their own.”
Bleeding up to 12 Hours
The small bite spot stays open due to the substance Calin [from the saliva of the leech], which means that the desired bleeding can last up to twelve hours.
“That is a good thing,” says Bergsma. “Because as a result, even more waste products are removed and healthy blood is supplied. The healing effect often occurs immediately after the treatment and often persists for months. Immediately after treatment, a horse often has less pain and stiffness is generally gone right away, but a decrease in capped hocks and wind puffs will usually only occur after a few days or weeks.”
80-90% Respond Positively
Bergsma is very excited about hirudotherapy, and many horses she treated have responded positively.
“It won’t work for every horse, but my experience is that about 80-90% of the horses respond positively to a treatment,” Bergsma says. “I am really deeply impressed by those critters. Of the treated horses with osteoarthritis, 80% are significantly improved. Treated capped hocks are gone or 75% smaller. And the big advantage of hirudotherapy is that it is natural and not chemical. It has a positive effect on so many systems in the body, and it does so much for the overall wellbeing of the horse that I see it as all-encompassing; the substances released by the leech stimulate the body’s self-healing capacity.”
Supported by Scientific Research
Bergsma’s experiences are supported by extensive scientific research into the medicinal use of leeches in laminitis. The results of this study conducted in Germany in 2008 and 2009 showed that the use of leeches in the treatment of laminitis is a useful measure, especially in the acute condition. In 84% of cases, an improvement in clinical symptoms was observed after application of hirudotherapy. The U.S. National Library of Medicine also talks about positive effects of treatment with medicinal leeches in humans. Read here about their findings and conclusions.
No Negative Side Effects
Bergsma has not yet experienced negative side effects after treatments.
“Horse legs are very sensitive, so sometimes horses don’t like it when we put a leech there,” Bergsma explains. “I keep the leeches in place by placing them in a sock. Once the leeches have taken hold, most horses relax immediately.”
“The risk of wound infection and allergic reactions is very small,” she continues. “The medicinal leeches that all good hirudotherapists work with all come from certified nurseries that work according to strict quality standards. The animals may also only be used once to prevent infection of other horses.”
The FEI and Leeches
Hirudotherapy is one of the oldest treatment methods for humans and animals that has been widely used long before the beginning of our era. There are known cases of lame cattle or animals with painful joints or injuries that sought out waters where leeches lived. Then they stayed in the water and patiently allowed themselves to be bitten. But what does the FEI actually think of hirudotherapy and is it legal to use?
HorseGrooms founder Dinette Neuteboom asked the FEI in May 2022 and received the following answer: “The use of leeches on horses is not prohibited by the FEI. Although hirudin, a substance produced by leeches, is also a very potent anticoagulant, it is not listed on the Equine Prohibited Substance List by the FEI, but could be considered as equivalent in its action to listed anticoagulants. The substance is also available as a pharmaceutical. To be on the safe side, the use of leeches on a horse planned to participate in an FEI event (within a few days to a couple of weeks, no data is available) should be avoided.”
While growing up doing jumping and dressage in the Netherlands, I’m now addicted to dressage as a way to keep the horse physically healthy. I love exploring ways to develop the horse as a happy athlete up to Grand Prix level.
As an equine massage therapist, I’ve learned even more about equine biomechanics. I am fascinated by the horse’s internal and external physics.
My training as a hirudotherapist opened up a whole new world of knowledge for me. It is amazing to see the often magical outcomes after treatments of diseases and disorders with medicinal leeches, and it’s a life goal of mine to educate horse people about it.
Therefore, I’m honored to write for HorseGrooms.com, a great place to gain knowledge that can improve the well-being of the horse.