Kissing spines in horses.
In order to fully understand kissing spines in horses, let’s get into some basic anatomy of the vertebrae – those bones that make up your horse’s spine.
- The vertebrae of the horse connect his skull to his tail! The spine is divided into several sections, each section consists of multiple vertebrae lined up in a row. We hope. Each vertebra has a dorsal (meaning pointing up to the sky) spinous process that varies in length.
- Cervical vertebrae are in your horse’s neck. There are seven cervical vertebrae, numbered one from your horse’s poll area and seven towards his body. Weirdly enough, only the first couple of vertebrae are close to the mane, the rest swoop downwards steeply.
In this photo – cervical vertebrae on the far left, scapula wing on the left, spinous processes (withers) and ribs.
- Then there are the thoracic vertebrae of your horse’ back under the saddle. Starting at the wither with thoracic vertebrae number one, your horse will have 18 thoracic vertebrae in total. You sit on these! What you know as the withers are really the tops of the first few spinous processes, and they give the muscles of the neck a place to attach. Sometimes a horse will have 19 thoracic vertebrae. Because horses.
- The lumbar vertebrae extend from the back of the saddle area and stop before the point of the hindquarters. Numbered one to six, or sometimes just one to five, depending on the horse. Again, because horses.
- Then the sacral vertebra heads down towards the top of the tail. The five vertebrae are fused together to make up the sacrum. Your horse’s hind legs and major muscles and connective tissues of the pelvis attach here.
- The caudal vertebrae finish things off as they make up your horse’s tail. Here, horses get really weird and can have anywhere between 15 and 25 caudal vertebrae.
- Kissing spines typically occur in the thoracic region, just below your very own butt sitting in the saddle. In this area, the spinous processes are quite tall, several inches or so. Kissing spines can also happen further back in the lumbar region.
The pelvis of the horse! Super cool.
What are kissing spines in horses?
- The technical term for kissing spines is overriding dorsal spinous process or spinous process impingement. Loosely translated, the spinal processes of your horse are starting to touch, interfere, or overlap with each other.
- A “normal” horse, whatever that is, has mostly even spaces between the spinous processes that allow the horse’s spine to flex and extend, also known as rounding and hollowing, or lifting and dropping his back. In some horses, that space is smaller than others.
How does kissing spines happen?
- Researchers really don’t have a clear idea of how this happens. It’s fairly safe to say that genetics plays a role here, as the normal space between the spinous processes is determined by your horse’s anatomy, and some horses just have less space than others. A horse might also be short-backed, or have some other genetic anatomy feature that makes kissing spines more likely to happen.
This horse clearly had kissing spines.
- There is also the possibility that a horse’s training style, saddle fit, overall health, and even a previous accident or fall can influence the development of kissing spines.
- It has been noted that horses under the age of 5, Thoroughbreds, dressage horses, warmbloods, and even Quarter horses develop kissing spines. It doesn’t seem to be too discipline-specific, and can generally happen to any horse.
- This revelation about dressage horses confused me for a bit, as the entire purpose of dressage is to lift the back. Then the hind legs can come under and take more weight and carry out more advanced movements.
- When a horse rounds his back and lifts his belly, the spaces between the spinal processes opens up. Which makes this confusing! Except that many researchers suspect that lots of dressage horses have kissing spines because of the sitting trot. And perhaps the learning curve needed to truly teach a horse to lift his back.
- It’s also noted that hard-working performance horses of many different disciplines, such as racing and jumping, also develop kissing spines. In these cases, it’s suspected that the amount and intensity of the work over time can create change.
The same horse with kissing spines, you can see that the damage was past the withers, which appear mostly normal here.
How do you know your horse has kissing spines?
- This is another wonderful question followed by vague and broad sweeping answers. Some horses with overlapping spinous processes have back pain. Some do not. A lot of other signs of kissing spines coincide with training issues, lameness, poor saddle fit, and a snarky or bad attitude.
- Anytime a horse reacts to his back, be it grooming, tacking up, mounting, riding, doing a transition, cantering, building a top line, bucking, stiff muscles, or a cranky attitude, it’s your job to figure out why. It might be something as simple as your horse doesn’t like his job, his saddle fit is wrong, he’s sore from playing with his buddies, or it’s something physical in his body.
- Your Vet needs to perform some tests and rule some things out before a diagnosis can happen. This starts with your observations of your horse and your feedback while in the saddle. Your Vet will want to do a complete physical exam including specific lameness checks to get a total picture of your horse.
- Most often, X-rays are done of the spine, perhaps following a nuclear scintigraphy scan to look for hot spots. X-rays are fairly definitive when diagnosing kissing spine, but scans, ultrasounds, and even thermography can help as well.
From the withers looking towards the tail. Notice the giant scapula!
What can be done for a horse with kissing spines?
- Yowsers- this is largely dependent on a few factors – such as how much pain your horse is in. Treatments range from exercises to do with your horse, to medications, to injections, to surgery, to retirement or euthanasia.
- A great place to start is saddle fit. Finding the proper fit for a saddle is like finding a good pair of jeans. It’s a process, and it’s a difficult one at times.
- Your vet might suggest chiropractics, acupuncture, therapies such as shock wave or therapeutic ultrasound, or medication. Corticosteroids are anti-inflammatory and can be injected directly into the space between the spinous processes. Muscle relaxants and pain drugs without steroids (NSAIDs) can be given orally.
- Your horse might also need to start living in a long and low frame to open up the back, as well as work towards gaining top-line strength and abdominal, back lifting strength.
- Your horse might also benefit from a combination of these therapies, so expect to spend significant time and allow for exploring lots of options to give your horse relief.
- If surgery is recommended, there are a few options here as well. Surgeons can perform an Interspinous Ligament Desmotomy (ISLD) which cuts the ligaments that are connecting the spinous processes that are causing the problems. Your horse can also have his spinous processes shaved down or partially removed to create more space.
Saddle fit isn’t a one-time deal – it needs to happen regularly, like every six months or so.
What can you do on a daily basis for your horse if he has kissing spines?
- Saddle fit is a place to start.
- Make sure your horse has plenty of soft and cushy bedding, also, as many horses with back pain are reluctant to lay down and rest.
- Massage might help your horse, as might some cooling or heating products for your horse’s back.
- Your warm-ups and cool-downs should be long, allowing your horse to take his time limbering up.
- Let your horse stretch over his topline.
- Learn some exercises to do under saddle, or on the ground, to strengthen his belly.
What does this mean for your horse?
- Well first, don’t get paranoid and think that because he crow hopped he needs surgery for kissing spine. He might just a bit of a fresh jerk.
- As with all things horse, be the detective and really start to memorize your horse’s behaviors and how he reacts to grooming. Go one step further and notice how he reacts to being touched and gently squashed on everywhere.
- Kissing spines is just another reason to have a great relationship with your saddle fitter as well, and finding someone well versed in your favorite discipline to help you ride.
- I’m all about being able to ride your horse without someone in your ear all the time, but it absolutely helps to have eyes on the ground to make sure your horse is lifting his back and his spine stays supple both side to side and up and down.
- Involve your veterinarian and keep good notes on your horse’s behavior and training!
Supplemental ice or heat may help your horse, and so can therapeutic blankets.
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