Kissing Spine Files
So, what was going on with Moose, before we knew it was kissing spine?
Here’s a bit about Moose’s training…
Moose started under tack as a 3-year-old. We hacked and rode in the ring with little contact. He was a willing partner, but I was in no rush. When I started him, I wanted to take it easy. He began on a long line and was lightly backed. Things were slow, and we both liked it that way. We went hacking, jumped little cavalettis, and basically played around until he was 5. There was that one time I taught him to race my daughter on her bike, but she was 6, so I think we only had to trot to win ;).
When he turned 5, I started asking him for more and he happily obliged. We were jumping bigger, compressing, and extending, getting some great lateral flexion and he generously stepped up to the ask. Ring work became more structured, and hacking was our weekly scheduled mental health party.
Taking it slow with this horse made training easy. But, when he started rooting down on the bit at the canter at age 5, I was a little worried. I mean, we would ride along, and he would press his head down to knee level for a couple of strides and then bring it back up on his own. This usually happened around a corner. He wasn’t attempting to buck or bronc; it seemed he was uncomfortable. The saddle fitter sorted Moose out with a newly fitted saddle, and I no longer used half pads. We also had some massage therapy done and a chiropractic appointment or two. I was worried that his back was sore and wanted to make sure he felt great. We assumed the rooting was just a sign that he needed to build more muscle in his haunches and carry himself a little more in balance. This made total sense at the time and I didn’t worry about it at all.
After some chiropractic massage & a new saddle, Moose was moving along nicely again and we could increase our training comfortably. He was getting bored with the indoor arena, and often got a little fussy about doing smaller circles, but the arena was small, and I felt he would be fine once we were out in the big ring that spring and I was right. He excelled.
I was busy that summer, running horse shows and raising kids, so my friend Greg offered to take him to the shows. I rode him in between events. He was green, but willing and got some great experience taking in the excitement at our local A-Shows.
During one of the weeks spent at home, he broke his splint bone while doing something ridiculous out in the paddock. I wish I had been there to see what he was doing, because I’m sure it would have been hilarious. Side note: Moose is the type of horse who runs around paddocks with jump poles in his mouth; takes on intimidating parked lawn mowers with his front hooves; knows how to open stall doors; make friends with cats; and throw his feed bucket at people when they innocently walk past his stall. He’s a menace. Oh, and that one time he dragged me to a big snow drift so he could jump in it (I can’t make this stuff up).
Anyhow, a broken splint bone was a total drag. He was on stall rest for what seemed like an eternity, but I think it was 3-4 months. We took great care of him, and when the final x-rays came back, it had healed so well, the vet couldn’t tell where the break ever was.
Bringing him back into work is when everything changed. He came off stall rest in November, but by December he started showing some signs of discomfort.
If you remember my explanation of building communication skills with our horses from the introduction, this is where I started to listen closely, because he was not acting himself. He started swishing his tail when I groomed him in certain places, visibly tensed up across the top of his rump, and would pin his ears when I got the saddle on him (the girth didn’t bother him). I could touch his back, but if anyone else tried, he would try to kick them. When I brought the saddle fitter in for another fitting, I had to put the saddle on him and measure adjustments, as Moose was out to kill the poor guy. As hilarious as my horse is, he can also be dramatic and intimidating when he wants to be. This confused me as he would let me touch him, so, was he really in pain?
So, another new saddle, more chiropractic, more massages, acupuncture, and injections. No change. At least, no lasting change. I always saw a minor improvement, but the problem was still there.
On the riding front, he was no longer rooting down on the bit, but he had trouble bending to the right since he had been on stall rest (never a problem before the rest).
I got a lunging system to help him build back muscle. He was completely sound and moved happily on the lunge line. It wasn’t until he was under tack and being ridden that the problem reared its head. Some things that were happening were: he would buck around corners; be good for the first 20 minutes of the ride and then explode into anger; attempt to attack other horses in the ring or rear like Long John Silver. Once, right before we deemed him ‘dangerous’, he did a hard stop after a jump, reared so fast and high that my safety stirrups released. Yeah. It was a lot of fun.
I had many people giving me advice on what they thought the problems were. Do yourself a favor and listen to professionals. I think there is a quote out there somewhere about taking advice from the cheap seats. And the advice got from those seats was that he had a behaviour problem or I was the problem. I should have been firmer with him, ‘rode it out of him’, that I must be afraid of him, and more ludicrous ideas about why my horse was lashing out. But I stood firm, knowing that something was indeed wrong with my horse. We just hadn’t found it yet.
Over this period of time, he grew some major pectoral muscles under his barrel. Large enough that a body builder would be envious. So, more lunging, long lining and general back strengthening to try and help build back muscle.
Obviously there are different degrees of pain in horses, and really, the only thing you can do to be sure of what back problems are lurking is to get x-rays. So, that’s what I did.
Enter, Kissing Spine.
Kissing Spine is a somewhat new diagnosis that has come about in the past decade or so in my country. In fact, some horses have lived their whole life with the diagnosis without signs they are suffering.
So I call this a ‘new’ problem, but probably not a new problem. With technology and the drive to enhance our equine partner’s athleticism, we have more knowledge, technologies and treatments for a condition the previous generation of equestrians did not know existed.
Kissing spine could have caused a lot of behavioural and temperamental problems that went unsolved in horses in the past. I don’t have any concrete proof, but my experience with the behavioural changes in my horse has me believing that kissing spine has been a longstanding issue for horses and disguised itself as something else. Horses who end up being called crazy or have a screw loose. Stuff like that.
So, what the heck is it? Kissing spine is the unwanted kiss of two vertebrae on a horse’s spine. It usually occurs under the saddle area and can include 1 or more ‘kissing’ vertebrae. Depending on how long your horse has been suffering and your horse’s body reaction to the misaligned vertebrae, they can develop ‘hooks’ where one vertebra will grow a section of calcium buildup which looks like it’s ‘hooking’ over the adjacent, touching vertebrae. (PS, in case you’re not sure, vertebrae aren’t supposed to touch). This can stay the same, or worsen over time.
Some of you may think ‘DUH’. Of course it was kissing spine! I wish I had all this information compiled together too, but it was very different living it. I knew in my gut something was physically wrong, but he kept getting a clean bill of health from the vet. He didn’t have any physical signs of where the pain was. He trotted sound, passed flexion tests and had a clean bill of health otherwise. Often the releases he would get from massage and chiropractic were over the rump, or below the whither. Nothing showed up under the saddle area as a problem. These results kept leading to the poor attitude diagnosis, which wore down my intuition and caused me to ride him through the issues. My horse got angrier and angrier, ultimately becoming a dangerous ride.
Stay tuned for the next segment in the series, Surgery & Rehabilitation. I'll dive in to tell you what happened when Moose ultimately went for surgery and what rehabbing a horse from the interspinous ligament desmotomy (ISLD) surgery is like.
Some extras that may interest you….
Moose had a major growth spurt over the course of a few months when he was 3. He went from 15.2 to 16.2 in height and his blanket size went from a 72 to an 81 during the same period. That was strange!
Moose’s back left leg would get stuck sometimes when he was 2, but there was no sign of a stifle issue. Ultrasound and x-ray confirmed this. He seemed to, ‘grow out of it’.
Moose’s behavioural change described in this series happened over about 1 year.
Links to learn more...
Cliff Honnas, DVM, DACVS, lead veterinarian and owner of Texas Equine Hospital in Bryan, Texas, has been performing the bone shave surgery for more than 10 years and predicts 20-30% of horses have kissing spine.
Other things to note
Although veterinarians have been performing Kissing Spine surgery for a long time in places like England and the USA, I live in Canada. Diagnosing kissing spine and treatment were limited in my area up until a few years ago. Moose exhibited these problems in 2015/16. Now, in 2022, we probably wouldn't have suffered so long before finding a resolution.
This series is not intended for equestrians looking for veterinary advice. I do not claim to be a veterinarian or replace the need for veterinary expertise.