OAKHURST – An Oakhurst acupuncturist who also makes Chinese herbal formulas used to treat thoroughbred race horses felt a personal connection to Saturday’s Kentucky Derby.
While Gloria Garland spent most of Saturday clearing brush at Ahwahnee Hills Regional Park, she still found time to watch the 145th running of the Derby.
“Wow, what an amazing and contentious race!” she said after 65-to-1 shot Country House beat favorite Maximum Security, who actually crossed the line first but was disqualified for interference in one of the most controversial finishes in horse racing history.
Garland says Chinese herbal remedies have become an increasingly popular alternative to traditional medications at many top-level thoroughbreds barns. Out of respect for their privacy, Garland doesn’t like to name her clients. But she did confirm that several stables fielding horses in this year’s Derby “use herbal remedies.”
Garland herself spent much of Derby Day wielding a weed whacker while managing a small crew of volunteers at the park — an effort that was part of an annual community clean-up organized by the nonprofit Friends of Ahwahnee Hills Regional Park.
Saturday’s clean up was actually part of the second “Community Wildfire Preparedness Day,” an annual event organized by the nonprofit group, which operates and maintains the facilities and trails at 400-acre park.
Garland sits on the board of the nonprofit, which received a $500 grant to put on Saturday’s clean up.
“We don’t get any local or state government funding so we have to rely exclusively on grants, donations and the volunteer efforts of the local community,” she says.
Garland is also an active member of the Sierra Freepackers, an equine-centric group that builds and maintains horse and hiking trails at the heavily forested park and surrounding National Forest lands.
When not clearing brush or cutting new horse trails, Garland has worked for nearly 20 years as an acupuncturist, using needles to treat both human and animal patients.
She earned a Master’s degree from Emperor’s College of Traditional Oriental Medicine in Santa Monica and sees about 40 human patients a week at her Oakhurst office on Road 426. She also travels regularly to area veterinary clinics to give acupuncture treatments to four-legged clients.
Garland sources most of her herbs from China and builds her formulas based on “principals of classical Chinese medicine.” She sells both general formulas and ones specially mixed for individual horses. “Especially in the racing world,” she says, “everybody has their ‘secret sauce.'”
Garland’s formulas include Chinese herbs like ‘Huang qi’ — also known as astragalus — as well as arnica, ginseng and cinnamon.
“We can help horses without the use of drugs,” she says. Some are designed to treat equine stomach ulcers and other nervous disorders. Others are used to help mares regulate their hormonal cycles.
“Just look at all the excitement and activity that’s going on around these horses at the Kentucky Derby,” Garland says. “These young animals are under a tremendous amount of pressure. Some of my most used formulas allow them to relax and just do their work without being so stressed.”
Garland has lived in Oakhurst since 1990 and began studying acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine after losing her job at Sierra Entertainment, the video game developer and publisher that at one time employed more than 400 people in Oakhurst.
“I’ve always loved horses and been a horse girl at heart,” Garland says. “After I lost my job, I had this moment when I realized I should do what I really wanted to do — Chinese medicine.”
Her interest in equine Chinese herbal therapy actually began in 1988 when Garland was looking for an alternative therapy for her own arthritic gelding, she says. “That first successful experience finding an alternative to an anti-inflammatory drug that can cause adverse side effects actually led me to studying traditional Chinese medicine.”
Garland often consults with veterinarians and trainers, traveling from Oakhurst to the Bay Area and Los Angeles and sometimes as far afield as Florida.
“I work with all sorts of horses, from ‘backyard buddies’ to dressage horses,” she says. “I’d say my practice is roughly divided, with show, racing and pleasure horses as the largest group, followed by retired horses and breeding horses.”
“I don’t discriminate,” Garland says. “The famous horses I’ve worked with get as much attention as the horse owned by the man down the street. Up here in Oakhurst, I treat a lot of roping horses, ranch horses and older, retired horses.”
Whether galloping around the track at Churchill Downs or trotting along the trail at Ahwahnee Hills Regional Park, Garland believes that “after a treatment or two,” her equine clients actually know her needles are helping them.
“When they see you coming, they will definitely tip a hip down or offer a body part so you can get to it,” she says. “After a treatment they’ll walk away a little ‘floaty’ and yawning. It’s actually quite cute to see. Or, they’ll go lie down and take a nap.”
The needles have done their job, Garland says. “The ‘chi’ is moving around, things are rebalancing, the [horses are] having a nice endorphin release. They express it a little differently, but you can tell.”
Garland said watching her clients’ million-dollar thoroughbreds race in Saturday’s Derby was “definitely thrilling. Just being part of these athletes’ wellness program is a joy.”