Horse Placenta Therapy: Foal Play?

Robin Van Persie - Placenta Forward

Robin Van Persie - Placenta Forward

Footballers, by and large, and by largely stereotypically-derived reputation, are not widely perceived to be among humanity’s great critical thinkers. Arsenal player Kolo Toure was yellow carded last season for refusing to enter the field of play before every other member of his team had crossed the line ahead of him. In the 1998 World Cup, Fabian Barthez iconically received a good-luck kiss on his bald head from compatriot Laurent Blanc. To this day French manager Raymond Domenech adheres strictly to horoscopes, stating his distrust of Leos: “When I have got a Leo in defence, I’ve always got my gun ready, as I know he’s going to want to show off at one moment or another and cost us.” It’s fair to say, they can be a somewhat credulous bunch.

And it’s not just superstition that the players of the beautiful game have been guilty of – with the pressure to get fit and back to action increasing as stakes (not to mention financial factors) continue to rise, a whole range of alternative therapies have been trialled over the years, from the unusual-but-plausible to the downright quackish. Florent Malouda and Robert Pires have both found the cure for aching muscles can lie not in his limbs, but in the teeth – turning to a dentist to fix their fatiguing fangs. Michael Owen, Arjen Robben and Jurgen Klinsmann have all had goats’ blood and cockerel extract injected into troublesome hamstrings. Cristiano ‘pretty boy’ Ronaldo even tried turning to a local wizard when he was sidelined last month. It seems like almost anything goes. Which leads me on to Robin Van Persie – centre-forward for Arsenal and the Netherlands, and now poster-boy for a new treatment that’s causing a stir in treatment rooms, newspapers and quite likely stables across the country: horse placenta therapy.

The injury-prone Dutchman, who tore his ankle ligaments in a match against Italy, flew out to Serbia to meet with the proponent of the horse placenta therapy – Marijana Kovacevic – in order to trim his recovery time down from six weeks out of action. Van Persie, who has inevitably become the butt of a load of ‘Pla-Centa Forward’ gags, isn’t the first footballer to go in for the equine rub – with fellow Premiership stars Yossi Benayoun, Glen Johnson and Frank Lampard all putting their faith in Kovacevic’s hands.Quoting an article on the BBC site, Van Persie said:

“She is vague about her methods but I know she massages you using fluid from a placenta. I am going to try. It cannot hurt and, if it helps, it helps.” – Source: BBC News

Oh, she’s vague about her methods? But you’re still going to go along to see her? Very wise! Because vagueness is often a great signifier of trustworthyness when it comes to bizarre and unlikely healing techniques. What’s more, quite how a liquid applied to the skin might repair torn material within the ligament, I’m not sure. Presumably the placenta, being chock-full of natural goodness, is able to penetrate the skin, seep through the regular fat and tissue, locate the ligament tissue, locate the tear in that ligament tissue, and then repair the tear?

This, to me, sounded deeply unlikely, so I thought I’d take a look at the medical literature and the clinical trial data to see if they could shed any light on the methodology and proposed mechanism of the treatment. So, I took a quick glance at that excellent and vital research tool – PubMed. And then, when a quick glance wasn’t adequate, I took another look. And then I looked for a more sustained, in-depth stare. Still, my findings didn’t really change:

  • Articles mentioning ‘Horse Placenta’: 513. Of which weren’t actually about horse pregnancy or horse health: 0, in the first few pages at least. Time to refine the search…
  • Articles mentioning ‘Horse + Placenta + Ligament’: 0
  • Articles mentioning ‘Horse + Placenta + Massage’: 0
  • Articles mentioning ‘Placenta + Massage + Ligament’: 0

With PubMed offering no help, I resorted to a cautious Googling – somewhere, I’m sure, Kovacevic will have published her papers, her research, and her evidence? Well, no – at least not that I could find. I’d be happy to be proven wrong – there’s space in the comments for links. What I did find, however, was a little more detail on how the massage is applied – courtesy of former patient and Serbian player Dusan Petrovic:

“Marijana is amazing, she saved the careers of several (players). … She uses a combination of electricity and the miracle gel that is her exclusive product. The electric current goes through a stick holding the gel, which is applied to the injured spot.” – Source: San Francisco Chronicle

‘Dubiouser and dubiouser and dubiouser’, said Alice. Sort of. I’d always be wary of any practitioner selling a ‘miracle gel’ – especially when that miracle gel is exclusive to that particular practitioner. On top of that, we now have the presence of an electric current – presumably the electric activates the horse placenta juice? Again, my searches find nothing of the sort. However, a quick search for Kovacevic does provide a rather interesting twist, as explained by Miljko Ristic, the president of the Serbian FA’s Health Commission:

“The healer who has helped foreign players does possess some kind of medical licence, but the procedure has not yet been approved, and its application would effectively be illegal. I agree anything that helps players should not be discarded that easily, but I say again – only once it has been scrutinised by experts.

I assume the healer hasn’t registered the remedy she uses, just like numerous other healers and quacks when they use their creams, herbs and teas. Until it’s officially registered and approved it should be considered quackery.” – Source: Blic Online

It seems the Serbian FA aren’t the only ones to question Kovacevic’s credentials, too – reports emerged on Monday that the Serbian police visited her clinic, in order to question her with suspicion of practising medicine without a license. Unfortunately, when officials arrived, the purveyor of equine quackery was nowhere to be found.


  1. #1 by Stoko on November 30, 2009 - 22:08

    The whole thing was reported in a slightly jovial but not at all sceptical way. Btw, well done for writing the article with no reference to any songs concerning Van Persie.

  2. #2 by Gavin on December 1, 2009 - 01:00

    It’s scary how the people who believe in this nonsense are the people who have massive piles of money.

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