By Sarah Syverson

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Let’s face it: we all have spines. Some of us have longer, straighter, yogic-like ones, while others have of what we could call creatively curved, slouchy, writerly ones. Regardless, all of them are composed of vertebrae piled up like the leaning tower of Pisa until they reach our heavy little craniums. These remarkable vertebral bone bodies encase the nervy wonder of the spinal cord in an effort to keep us upright, mobile, and well adjusted.

Our animal kingdom friends are no different. Though our furry farm compatriots romp around with spines of a more horizontal nature, those spines have the same duty – to protect their precious nervous system channels so that what the brain says to the toes gets heard and understood correctly. Without this amazing network of communication, we’d all be left in a confused ball of panic-stricken craziness. Thank goodness for spines!

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So, one might wonder what recourse a 12-pound Polish hen has if she throws out her neck diving for a worm at the wrong moment. Or how about a 120-pound nanny goat after a particularly challenging birth of four kids? (You try having four kids in a barn in March!) She can’t just sign up for a yoga class or get a massage. That’s not in the farm animal cards.

And what about those enormous beasts of burden? How is a 1200-pound steer supposed to tend to his duties when his back goes out of whack? After all, life in the field can be harsh: gopher holes, bovine roughhousing gone wrong, and sometimes you just tweak your back while pulling away from the feed trough too quickly. It happens.

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Your first thought might not be to call an animal chiropractor. But maybe it should be. Durango-based animal chiropractor Dr. Petra Sullwold has worked on sentient beings of all sorts since she launched her practice nine years ago. Initially, she practiced on her own barnyard friends. Soon, she found the health benefits and resilience she was seeing in her personal array of creatures (from barn cats to mustangs to Nana the Pig) could be extended to any creature that needed an adjustment.

Certified by the International Veterinary Chiropractic Association, Sullwold went through a 6-month process to earn the credentials to adjust in the animal kingdom on top of her degree in the human chiropractic realm. Adjusting animals is nothing new. It’s been happening since the start of the 20th century, right alongside human chiropractic. An article from the March 2012 Chiropractic Journal of Australia is an anecdotal story from the early 1900s that BJ Palmer (son of DD Palmer, founding father of chiropractic) recounts about a “stud bull that suddenly would not ‘bull’. The bull was adjusted and suddenly began ‘bulling’ again.” May we all experience such great success in our lives.

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Though her specialty is equines, Sullwold works on a wide assortment of farm animals in her weekly travels throughout Southwest Colorado – llamas, pigs, goats, sheep, cows, cats, rabbits, and herding dogs to name a few. If it breathes and has a spine, you’ll likely find her there probing along the spinal column, feeling for the next subluxation (misalignment of the vertebrae) to correct.

Today, I accompany Dr. Petra on her rounds. She is called to adjust a 1000-pound steer named Bam Bam who had fallen on a concrete pad a month prior. Keana Smith, Bam Bam’s owner, remarks that “when they’re out of alignment, they become very heavy headed,” meaning cows will carry their head low to the ground, much like humans slouching over with the weight of their craniums, but times ten. After Dr. Petra performs a series of what can only be called Samurai Cow Chiropractic moves…YES! Bam Bam begins licking and chewing, licking and chewing. Smith points out that this is the steer’s way of integrating the adjustment.

To see Sullwold adjust an animal is like watching an Italian chef in the kitchen with his favorite fresh ingredients, singing along to Rigoletto and sipping a glass of fine red wine. She moves with a kind of deep love for the creatures that shows how much she cares for them. It doesn’t matter how scrappy or beaten down or incapacitated they are. She’s like the Mother Teresa of animal spines. Each one is special and interesting to her.

That puffy Polish chicken that tweaked her neck? Sullwold found her one morning with her head dangling between her little chicken legs, wandering around disoriented and disabled. Dr. Petra thought it couldn’t hurt to give her an adjustment and, in no time flat, Adrian the hen was flapping around just like all the other barnyard fowl.

Sullwold adjusts Adrian by popping her head up as if it were a little ping-pong ball, and the hen looks out at the world as if to say, “Did you feel that? I’m a Supah Star!” Yoda the barn cat sidles up behind Adrian as if queuing up to be adjusted next. It was all I could do to not get behind Yoda and moo like a cow in hopes of some spinal tapping magic making its way to my backward side.

At another farm, there were goats to be fine-tuned. Becky Schleeter’s boar goat, Emerald, had been sashaying around “like a lady, not a goat.” Sullwold does a bicycle move with the goat’s hind legs and points out that the muscle vibrations that occurred indicated a subluxation in the lower spine. Lower lumbar vertebrae, along with the sacrum on animals, are directly correlated to the lower organs, according to Sullwold. Both Schleeter and neighbor Jan Bradbury get their nanny goats adjusted to support fertility and easier pregnancies for their caprines.

As you might imagine, they aren’t all easy customers in the farmyard. Some animals are skittish and unpredictable, especially when in pain. This requires a unique kind of communication and awareness, particularly around horns and hooves and 2000-pound bodies. For most of us, the most dangerous thing we do is drive to work. For Dr. Petra, she regularly cavorts with bulls and donkeys and llamas that spit and kick and throw their weight around. When she approaches an anxious animal, she drops into a kind of Zen-sensei zone. She stops listening to any humans that may be droning on about farm-life-what-have-you and goes into direct communication mode with the animal. She re-aligned the spinal column of a particularly tense 6-year-old mule named Abby with a case of laminitis, and by the end of the adjustment Abby was eating out of Sullwold’s hand.

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There is something deeply joyful in watching these sweet (and sometimes ornery) creatures get adjusted. We so often look at farm animals as solely a source of food or productivity for us. While this may be true as the necessary bottom line, there’s also a heart line that runs through these farmers and ranchers. They adjust their animals not only to increase productivity but also because it gives the animals better, happier, healthier lives. May we all be that well adjusted.