WELLSVILLE — It could be any college classroom in the country — except for the full-size skeleton of a horse in the corner of the room.
Students at the Options For Animals College of Animal Chiropractic, south of Wellsville, learn to provide animals with chiropractic care that can ease pain, maintain good health and promote general well-being. The first and oldest school of its kind in the country, Options turns chiropractors and veterinarians alike into hands-on healers.
Why perform chiropractic medicine on a horse or a dog? Because those animals are just like people — with a spine and nervous system that sometimes get out of whack, Dr. Heidi Bockhold, one of the school’s owners, said.
“If you think about horses that have to do all the things that we make them do — people riding on their backs — larger animals, people are seeking chiropractic to improve performance,” Bockhold, a doctor of chiropractic medicine in Cartersville, Ga., said.
Just like human athletes, race horses need to be in top physical condition to perform, and chiropractic care, or getting adjusted, can help them do that, Bockhold said. But more and more, a lot of people are seeking animal chiropractors to work on their dogs, cats and even dairy cows.
A class of about 40 sits in dark classroom watching a video of equine physiology; some of them copiously taking notes, others watching intently. About 30 of the students already have their veterinary licenses, while the other 10 are licensed to practice chiropractic medicine on humans. The classes typically are split pretty evenly between chiropractors and veterinarians. They all are looking to add another tool to their toolbox by taking the rigorous 210-hour course, Bockhold said.
“Probably the economy has really helped us because there’s a lot of veterinarians that are looking to add another service,” Bockhold said. Because of the economy, people are trying to minimize the amount of vet care they have to spend on the animal.”
One four-day class is planned each month with classes lasting about eight hours a day. In that time, students take both practical and paper exams based on animals’ functional neurology — which helps to explain why manipulating the spine works to help the entire body — and some pathology and physiology, chiropractic philosophy, as well as diagnosis and practice. Animal chiropractic is much the same as human chiropractic, with some obvious differences.
“Of course, you have to consider four legs instead of two legs,” Bockhold, who completed the course in 2000, said. Options only works on dogs and horses.
Options is unique, Bockhold said, because it is the only one that is owned by chiropractors rather than veterinarians. This school also is the only campus strictly for animal chiropractic with animals on site, in a classroom environment. When class is in session, the horses used in the course — named Dusty, Barbie, Mega and Love Bug — are on loan from a local resident, Bockhold said.
Animals typically respond more quickly than humans to the adjustments, Bockhold said. In her 15-year career working on animals, she said she has not had an animal respond negatively to the treatment.
It’s a labor-intensive practice simply because the doctors are working on 1,000-pound or more animals. Since animal chiropractors use their hands to adjust individual joints, which requires a certain amount of skill and speed, Bockhold said, they must work to ensure the safety of both the doctor and the animal.
Like Bockhold, many of the instructors are former students of the school. Kyla Awes, a doctor of chiropractic medicine from Plymouth, Minn., joins about 10 other instructors each month to teach more eager students. Always drawn to animals, Awes said the school offered her a means of working with animals while following her chosen career path.
“I always wanted to work on animals. Even when I went to human chiropractic school, I wanted to go on and do this,” Awes, who has been an instructor for two years, said.
Also like Bockhold, Awes no longer has a human practice, instead working solely on animals. In a week’s time, Awes said, she works on about 40 horses and 10 to 15 dogs.
The excellence of the Options program, Awes said, is what drew her back to eastern Kansas to help teach students at the school where she learned.
“I think all the instructors are very passionate about what they do, and really the focus so much is what is best for the animal,” she said. “I wanted to be part of that.”
Dr. Sharon Willoughby-Blake established the school in 1988 in Illinois and began the movement toward modern animal chiropractic practices. Bockhold and her business partners, Dennis Eschbach, St. Louis, and Andrew Spisak, Wellsville, purchased the school in 2000 and moved it to the Wellsville location in 2005. On 10 acres, the 16,000-square-foot facility offers students the opportunity to interact and practice with different animals during their five-month course.
The school has about a 90-percent pass rate, Bockhold said. Successfully passing the school’s course qualifies graduates to take either the American or International Veterinary Chiropractic Association exam. Passing that course allows professionals to get officially certified as an animal chiropractor.
Animal chiropractic has become more widespread and well-known, Bockhold said. The school, located in Wellsville because of its central location in the country, gets students from as far away as Germany and Australia, as well as all over the U.S. Only two other schools like it operate in the country — in Wisconsin and Texas — but the practice of animal chiropractic is continuing to gain traction.
“Some of the top athletes get adjusted,” Bockhold said. “The trend for the general population seeking animal chiropractic has really, really grown.”