Updated: Apr 17
Ah kissing spine, the two dreaded words that will stop any equestrian in their tracks! You may think that this issue will end a horse's career, rideability, etc. But I am here to bust that negative thought and say you are so wrong!
Kissing spine is a subject close to me since my mare has it. It took me a while to find the right vets to diagnose her and to learn how to heal her. And now I want to help you understand kissing spine and to have all the knowledge I received! Check out my video below or skip on past and read all about it!
First off let's define kissing spine! Kissing spine is where the dorsal spinous processes (those weird almost fin-like bones sticking up from their spine) are touching or overlapping each other. In a normal horse without kissing spine their should be space between each process. The most common area affected is from the withers to the point of the hip (right where we riders sit...yippee). Take a look at my mare's X-rays below for an example!
When grooming or saddling - shifts weight, demeanor changes, anger, aggression, makes faces, biting
Change of demeanor in general when working or riding
Not standing for the farrier
Difficult to mount- refusal to stand when getting on, or you put some weight in the stirrup and horse runs forward or backwards
When moving they may look stiff or refuse to go forward
Struggle to do transitions
May start to not accept the bit - toss head, open mouth, pull on reins
Buck, rear, bolt, kick out, or shy when riding
Canter becomes messy and not a true 3 beat
Loss of muscle mass on topline - occurs since they are doing all they can to not use their back and instead use every other part of their body to carry themselves
Hard knotted muscles that should not be
Some will be reluctant to roll or lie down
Phew!! You may be thinking that's a lot of symptoms! And yup you are a 100% correct which means....even if your horse is showing some of these symptoms it may not mean the back is really the issue. The only way to know is for the vet to do a full physical, watch how they move, and then do X-rays.
HOWEVER studies have shown 30-40% of horses have kissing spine and many do not show signs! It is very similar to humans in that one person could have an absolutely awful back but feel fine and another person with a similar back can't move and is in pain! In these studies many owners only found out about the kissing spine because they were looking at another issue or were selling their horse.
So again the spine may not be the issue or the only issue! For my mare, after the hospital vets watched her move they said they definitely wanted to look at her back but also her hocks. When they did the imaging they found the kissing spine of course, but also arthritis in her hocks! So make sure your vet thoroughly examines your horse!
My Story of Healing My Mare's Back
My mare started to have issues saddling, accepting the bit, moving, standing for the farrier and allowing people to touch her. I also started to see a huge bump in her lower back. I had a vet look at her in Massachusetts where she was but he did not think it was skeletal since she was only 4. Well it was not until I moved to Michigan that the vet, my instructor, and farrier were both like go get her checked at Michigan State! So we hoped on a trailer and headed there and that was where I finally got the answer of kissing spine with arthritis in the hocks! And that bump in her back was inflammation since she was trying to protect certain areas of her spine!
So after I found out about the kissing spine and hocks, the hospital vets recommended MSM and Cosequin immediately, to think about doing injections and to start stretching my mare's back and doing exercises to get her core strong. I started the MSM and Cosequin and had my local vet inject her hocks. I started to see tons of improvement in her movement and some changes in her behavior but felt I needed to get her back injected.
So we went on another ride to this amazing vet who truly helped me understand how much you can fix kissing spine! He looked at her X-rays and said "Yup that's not great but I have seen a horse similar to yours. We injected him and let the owners re-strengthen his back and when we did imaging of his back a year later we couldn't believe what we saw! It was a whole new back and he had space between each process!" He told me to keep on stretching and strengthening her back, doing hill work, to try acupuncture, and massage.
A few days after the back injections I saw tremendous improvement and started really working on re-strengthening and lots of relaxation in the spine! I tried acupuncture twice with her but she gave a big NO to that! But she does love massage!
Her bump in her back started to go down and eventually went away! It has been 3 years and I have not had her back redone and her last hock injection was two years ago! She is moving better and her back is so much stronger!
Post Diagnosis and Healing
Now your horse's journey will be different! Each horse will need/like different exercises at different stages in their healing. AND this is something no one ever talks about BUT as your horse is healing not all negative behaviors will magically go away immediately!
My mare started to stand better for the farrier immediately but was still iffy about people touching in her in certain areas. Also she still didn't like being saddled and wasn't into the bit. It took me a good year to unblock her negativity towards saddling and touching her body in certain areas. The bit she has accepted more but still has issues here and there.
DO NOT GET DISCOURAGED! Even though they may be feeling better, those habits of biting while saddling or bolting/bucking have become conditioned in them since they are anticipating pain! The don't trust that their back wont hurt anymore!
DO NOT COLLECT IMMEDITATLY!! FOCUS ON RELAXTION! - their back muscles are so tight from trying to protect their spine, focus on getting them to relax their head nice and low, rebuild their topline, then slowly you can start to collect little by little
DO NOT HIT - this will just worsen the issue and break any trust you have with them
Make sure the saddle fits perfectly
Focus on groundwork first if you have some dangerous issues under saddle
Re-teach - whether it be mounting, collecting, using their hind
DO NOT USE GADGETS TO KEEP THEIR HEAD LOW OR COLLECTED!! - these items will just cause tension and knotted muscles in other areas or could even cause them to tense back up their back! Let your horse choose where to put their head and how much they want to stretch!
Ride bareback for a bit
With cold weather keep their back warm!
Do hill work!
Do pole work!
Do back stretches!
It is okay to get frustrated and upset but I want you to know kissing spine is manageable and can be healed! There are so many therapies out there and tons of great exercises to help your horse! Keep going!
If you need support or guidance on your journey feel free to reach out to me!
Until next time!