Back problems are often one of the most common causes of poor performance and disobedience in horses, yet all too often they go undiagnosed and untreated. Kissing spine sounds weird, but it’s one of the more common conditions that can cause an otherwise great horse to turn uncooperative or start bucking and resisting training. So what is it, how can you recognize it, and if your horse has it, what can you do?
Kissing spine – also called dorsal spinous process impingment or Basstrup’s disease – occurs when the bony ‘spikes’ at the top of the horse’s vertebrae start to rub together, causing pain and swelling, especially on moving. The vertebrae involved are most often the ones at the back of the ‘thorax’ – these are the ones that have the ribs attached, so in other words, the ones under the saddle!
What causes it? The horses most commonly affected are top level dressage and jumping horses, where the constant flexion of the spine can be extreme, and where the stresses of this type of top-level work can cause misalignments that cause the vertebrae to rub together. As a horse ages too, their spine will change shape, and this can lead to vertebrae touching – horses with sway backs or dipped backs, either because that’s the way they are or because they are getting on in years, are prime candidates for kissing spine. Poor shoeing can cause it too if the horse’s hind legs are not properly balanced – and this starts at the hoof – the unbalanced or unnatural movement causes uneven muscle development, which can push the vertebrae together.
How can you tell if your horse has kissing spine? The first things to look for are the usual signs of equine back pain. A horse that suddenly starts refusing jumps, starts bucking, biting when the girth or cinch is being tightened, wincing when the rider gets on, or shows a reluctance to move may have back pain. The first thing to do is to call you vet and get your horse properly checked out. Your vet will be able to diagnose most cases of kissing spine simply by feeling along the horse’s spins and looking for the misalignment of vertebrae that causes them to rub together, although he or she will also look for signs of heat, swelling, or pain in pressure. They may ask to see your horse ridden or lunged too, to see how the pain is affecting your horse’s movement and attitude.
To be absolutely sure, some vets may want to X-ray the spine, and fortunately the vertebrae involved in kissing spine are usually pretty easy to locate with an x-ray, so you won’t normally need to make a trip to an equine hospital. Many horses will – over time – develop minor injuries and show some changes to their vertebrae in an x-ray anyway, so the interpretation of the x-rays can be tricky.
If your horse has kissing spine, what can you do to help it? There are several options, but unfortunately whatever you choose your horse is going to need quite a bit of time off. Rest alone will help to ease the pain, but as soon as the horse goes back into work the problems are likely to resume. Some pain relief can be given with injections of cortisone and other drugs which will keep the swelling down, but again, these won’t fix the problem.
Surgery is often recommended, especially if the horse is a competition animal or still young enough to justify a long recovery time. In the surgery, the vet will actually reshape the vertebrae so they don’t touch when the horse moves. The surgery is not especially complicated or risky, but to be effective you will have a lot of post-operative care to do to help your horse recover. Surgery or not, physiotherapy is usually recommended to help develop the muscles around the vertebrae, and massage, acupuncture, and other treatments can help to keep the horse comfortable and keep the inflammation down.
With surgery, the prognosis is good. Even for horses where surgery isn’t a reasonable option, physiotherapy and pain medications can often make a horse comfortable enough to handle light work. Corrective shoeing can help to keep the back aligned, and sensitive riding – long warm ups especially – can help affected horses stay under saddle. Magnetic and infrared therapy are showing good results for reducing swelling and keeping horses with kissing spine pain-free. Horses living with kissing spine may not be able to return to high intensity sports like jumping or barrel racing, but can often cope quite well with pleasure riding of they have the right care.
If your horse is diagnosed with kissing spine, the main thing you need is patience. Whether you choose surgery, physiotherapy, medication, or an alternative therapy, your horse is going to need plenty of rest and very sensitive riding. Most horses with kissing spine – unless they have very bad conformation that caused the condition – can find a way back to being ridden happily and pain free, but it is going to take a while!
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