More than ever, Kissing Spines in horses is becoming a familiar topic in the horse world. This is probably not because the disease itself has become much more prevalent, but rather because scientific advances have given us tools to see beyond our horse’s simple back pain.
Far from what the affectionate term would indicate, Kissing Spines is an ailment that can alter a horse’s life in dramatic ways if left untreated. While the cause is largely unknown, this disorder accounts for the majority of chronic back pain in horses.
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What Is Kissing Spines In Horses?
Kissing Spines, otherwise known as Spinous Process Impingement or Overriding Dorsal Spinous Processes, refers to when the flanges of the spine touch or rub each other.
The flanges, or spinal processes, are the long, thin part of the bone that jut up from the spine to the back.
These flanges are supposed to have ligaments and muscle tissue between them, so the rubbing caused by their close proximity can cause back pain, bone cysts, and even arthritis.
Kissing Spines is most common in Thoroughbreds, Warmbloods, and Quarter Horses, but can occur in any horse breed.
Most recent trends have found Kissing Spines most commonly in Dressage and Show Jumping horses, especially those between five and ten years of age.
While Dressage and Jumping are more physically intense sports, the root of this trend is not completely certain.
It is possible that riders in these fields already need to be more attuned to their horses because of the intensity of their sport, or that the back pain surfaces more often because of their consistent engagement of the hind end and back.
Kissing Spines can be found anywhere on the back between two to six vertebrae, but it mostly occurs in the region below the saddle.
Where we place the saddle also happens to be the region where the spine curves, allowing a higher chance for the spinal processes to impinge on each other.
Kissing Spine Symptoms & Diagnosis
Kissing Spines is often blamed on rider weight or another external injury to the horse (such as a fall), but these causes are very uncommon.
This disorder is most commonly found in horses with short backs or horses that simply have misformed vertebrae.
As of now there is no strong evidence to link it to genetics, but future research may indicate otherwise.
Diagnosis is sometimes difficult, because many of the horse’s symptoms manifest as possible training issues or results of other ailments. Some signs that your horse may have Kissing Spines include:
- Sensitivity to grooming or tacking
- Bolting or fidgeting when rider mounts
- Aggressiveness when tightening the girth
- Perceived misbehavior or discomfort under saddle
- Limited range of motion with or without a saddle
Any of these signs could indicate that your horse can be exhibiting back pain related to Kissing Spines. Keep in mind that some horses will be more “vocal” in these signs than others.
While some horses are more prone to extreme expression, like bucking, a milder-tempered horse might show its pain in subtler ways, like his willingness to take the bit, the expression on his face, or hesitancy to release his back and engage his hind end.
Since all of these symptoms could also be related to training or another ailment, you will need a good vet to dig deeper.
In order to diagnose Kissing Spines in your horse, the vet will need to take a full history, including normal and abnormal behavior, and an X-ray. A vet may also utilize a thermograph (heat mapping), a bone scan, or ultrasound technology.
The tricky part about Kissing Spines is that nearly 40% of horses show signs in their spine formation that could indicate the disease, and most do not demonstrate back pain.
So the diagnosis must come from a careful vet who combines a change demonstrated in your horse’s X-rays and tests, as well as elements of their history that indicate that they have pain resulting directly from it.
If the vet confirms Kissing Spines as the root cause of your horse’s issues, there are many options to rehabilitate or improve your horse’s quality of life with the disease.
Prevention & Treatment
While prevention of the disease altogether isn’t typically avoidable, all horses can benefit from exercise that builds up the tissue in their back surrounding their spine.
Horse owners can help their veterinarians in the future by keeping at least a basic record of their horse’s history of injury, health, and typical behavior throughout the years.
This helps to catch any ailment more quickly, because the veterinarian has a baseline from which to determine any symptom that errs from that history.
Kissing Spines seems like a daunting disorder, but there are many treatment options available. These options depend on your horse’s activity level, your competition level, and your budget.
In the mildest of cases, some horse owners are simply able to swap out the current saddle for a new one and see instant results in their horse’s overall comfort level.
The common long-term treatment and rehabilitation is physical therapy and specialized training programs that support strength in the back.
These courses of treatment help improve a horse’s range of motion over time so that the vertebrae become less and less impacted.
For more severe cases of Kissing Spines, treatments include shock wave therapy, corticosteroid injections to decrease inflammation, and even surgery.
In some surgical cases, vets opt to cut the ligaments between the vertebrae to create more room.
In other cases, the best route is to just remove portions of the spinal processes that are interfering with each other.
Living With Kissing Spines
Depending on the advancement of the disorder and the available treatment options, some horses can completely return to their full activity level, while other horses may have new limits when it comes to riding and training.
Two ways to ensure the best outcome with your horse’s health journey is to:
- Keep detailed records of your horse’s behavior and health
- Invest some time and research into finding an excellent vet in your region
While a Kissing Spines diagnosis in your horse can seem overwhelming at first, it is by no means the end of the road.
With proper attention and treatment, Kissing Spines symptoms can be managed and, in some cases, completely rehabilitated.
Frequently Asked Questions
Overriding dorsal spinous processes (ODSP) or impinging dorsal spinous processes (IDSP) are both correct medical terminology for Kissing Spine disease. This term may describe close proximity of spinous processes, and it can also be used in reference to degenerative spinal changes.
The most commonly affected levels of the equine spine is Thoracic vertebrae 15 (T15); however, the entire area between T13 and T18 is susceptible to this malady. This is the area directly behind the withers where most of a rider’s weight is borne.
It is similar, but in humans the condition usually affects the lower back or lumbar spine. In horses, it is very rare for the condition to affect the area of the spine behind the saddle, but it can happen. The main similarity between these two conditions is that they can cause pervasive pain. If you have ever had a backache, or if you have a back injury, you can surely empathize with your horse’s discomfort caused by ODSP.
ODSP doesn’t always have symptoms, but behavioral problems may very well be symptoms of Kissing Spine disease. A horse who doesn’t like to be brushed, resists being bridled, tacked up and/or mounted, rears or bucks, may not be ornery. He may have a very achy back.
One of the best and easiest methods of conservative care for horses with Kissing Spine disease is to provide pasture rest and (after a period of peace and quiet) light driving. Being able to rest and move around at will allows the horse to stretch, roll and otherwise realign the spine naturally. Light driving keeps the back muscles strong and flexible without the stress of weight bearing. Avoid strenuous drives, especially up and down hills. A gentle ride through the park every few days is healthy, relaxing and enjoyable for you and your horse.
- Kentucky Equine Research: “Kissing Spines in Horses” https://ker.com/equinews/kissing-spines-horses/
- Smartpak: “Kissing Spines” https://www.smartpakequine.com/content/kissing-spine-horse
- The Horse: “Kissing Spines in Horses: More Than Back Pain” https://thehorse.com/148184/kissing-spines-horses-back-pain/
- Horse & Hound: “Explaining Kissing Spines: All You Need to Know” https://www.horseandhound.co.uk/features/explaining-kissing-spines-58084