Complete Horse Health Guide

Understanding Kissing Spine in Horses: Causes, Diagnosis, Treatment, and Prevention

kissing spine in horses
Table of Contents

What is Kissing Spine in Horses

Kissing spine in horses, also known as “dorsal spinous process impingement” or “dorsal spinous process disease,” is a common condition that affects the vertebral column of horses. It occurs when the spinous processes, which are the bony projections along the horse’s spine, come into contact or rub against each other. This can result in pain, discomfort, and reduced range of motion in the affected horse.

The condition typically arises in the thoracic (mid-back) and lumbar (lower back) regions of the horse’s spine. It can be caused by various factors, such as conformational abnormalities, trauma, poor saddle fit, inappropriate training methods, and excessive pressure on the back during riding. Over time, these factors can lead to the development of bony changes, including the formation of bone spurs, inflammation, and the thickening of connective tissues in the affected area.

The most common clinical signs of kissing spine in horses include a reluctance to engage the hind limbs, difficulty rounding the back, resistance to forward movement, a short and choppy gait, reluctance to jump, and behavioral changes such as bucking or rearing. Some horses may also exhibit signs of back pain, such as sensitivity to touch, muscle atrophy, and changes in their posture or ability to perform certain movements. However, it is important to note that not all horses with kissing spine will display obvious clinical signs, and routine imaging techniques are often required to confirm the diagnosis.

To diagnose kissing spine, a thorough physical examination and a variety of diagnostic tests may be conducted. These can include palpation of the back, flexion tests, X-rays, ultrasound, and advanced imaging techniques such as computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The treatment options for kissing spine generally depend on the severity of the condition and can vary from conservative management to surgical intervention. Conservative management may include rest, anti-inflammatory medications, physical therapy, chiropractic adjustments, and changes in tack or riding techniques to alleviate pressure on the affected area. In cases where conservative measures fail to provide relief, surgical intervention may be considered. Surgical options include the removal of the affected spinous processes, known as a “spinous process desmotomy,” or the use of minimally invasive techniques to create spaces between the vertebrae, allowing for improved movement and reduced impingement.

The prognosis for horses with kissing spine largely depends on the individual case, including the severity of the condition, the horse’s overall health, and the effectiveness of the selected treatment approach. With proper management and treatment, many horses can experience significant improvement in their comfort and performance. However, it is important to note that kissing spine is a chronic condition, and ongoing monitoring and management may be necessary to ensure the horse’s long-term well-being. Regular veterinary examinations, appropriate training methods, and an emphasis on maintaining a healthy back through proper care and management practices can help reduce the risk and impact of kissing spine in horses.

Signs of Kissing Spine in Horses

Recognizing the signs of kissing spine in horses is crucial for an early diagnosis and effective treatment. While some horses may display obvious clinical signs, others may show more subtle or general signs of discomfort. It is essential for horse owners and caretakers to be attentive to any behavioral or performance changes that might indicate an issue with the horse’s back.

When observing your horse, look out for signs such as resistance to engage the hind limbs, stiff or rigid movement, difficulty rounding the back, reduced flexibility, changes in gait or stride, and a reluctance to jump. Horses with kissing spine may also exhibit behavioral changes like bucking, rearing, or displaying signs of discomfort when being saddled or mounted. Furthermore, signs of back pain such as sensitivity to touch, muscle atrophy, or a change in postural carriage should not be disregarded.

To help you recognize the signs, here is a detailed list of common signs associated with kissing spine in horses:

  • Reluctance to engage hind limbs
  • Stiff or rigid movement
  • Difficulty rounding the back
  • Reduced flexibility
  • Changes in gait or stride
  • Reluctance to jump or perform certain movements
  • Behavioral changes such as bucking or rearing
  • Sensitivity or pain upon palpation of the back
  • Muscle atrophy or loss of topline
  • Altered posture, such as a hunched appearance
  • Resistance during saddling or mounting

If you notice any of these signs in your horse, it is crucial to consult with an equine veterinarian or an experienced equine professional for a thorough evaluation. They can perform a physical examination, conduct diagnostic tests, and develop an appropriate treatment plan based on their findings. Remember that early detection and intervention significantly contribute to the horse’s prognosis and overall well-being. Prompt management and appropriate treatment options, such as modifications in training or saddle fit, can help alleviate pain, improve the horse’s comfort, and allow them to perform their best.

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Causes of Kissing Spine in Horses

The causes of kissing spine in horses can vary and are often a combination of factors. It is important to understand that kissing spine is not solely caused by one specific factor but rather a result of multiple contributing factors that lead to the impingement of the dorsal spinous processes. These factors can include conformational abnormalities, trauma, poor saddle fit, inappropriate training methods, and excessive pressure on the back during riding.

Conformational abnormalities can predispose a horse to develop kissing spine. This can include a long back, short and upright croup, low withers, or an overall poorly proportioned spinal structure. These conformational issues can result in increased pressure and friction between the spinous processes, leading to the development of bony changes or inflammation over time.

Trauma to the back can also contribute to the development of kissing spine. Falls, slips, or accidents that impact the back can cause damage to the vertebral column, leading to changes in the alignment of the dorsal spinous processes and subsequent impingement.

Poor saddle fit is another common cause of kissing spine. An ill-fitting saddle can create excessive pressure on the back, causing discomfort and irritation in the dorsal spinous processes. This can occur if the saddle is too narrow, too wide, or has an improper tree shape.

Inappropriate training methods or riding techniques can also contribute to the development of kissing spine. Excessive collection, improper use of aids, or riding in a tense and rigid manner can place undue stress and pressure on the horse’s back. This can lead to the formation of bony changes and discomfort over time.

Here is a detailed list of common causes associated with kissing spine in horses:

  • Conformational abnormalities, such as long back or disproportionate spinal structure
  • Trauma, falls, or accidents impacting the back
  • Poor saddle fit, including a saddle that is too narrow, too wide, or doesn’t match the horse’s anatomy
  • Inappropriate training methods or riding techniques, such as excessive collection or tense riding
  • Excessive pressure on the back during riding
  • Inflammation or infection that affects the back and surrounding structures

It is important to note that not all horses with conformational abnormalities, trauma, or poor saddle fit will develop kissing spine. However, these factors can increase the risk and predisposition for the condition to occur. Identifying and addressing these underlying causes, along with appropriate treatment and management, can help alleviate the symptoms of kissing spine and improve the overall well-being of the horse. Consulting with an equine veterinarian or an experienced equine professional can assist in the assessment of potential causes and develop a tailored plan for prevention or management.

Diagnosis of Kissing Spine in Horses

Diagnosing kissing spine in horses requires a comprehensive evaluation combining physical examination and diagnostic imaging. It is important to obtain an accurate diagnosis to guide appropriate treatment and management plans. The diagnostic process often involves both clinical assessment and imaging techniques to assess the condition of the horse’s spine.

During a physical examination, the veterinarian will perform palpation of the horse’s back, looking for any areas of sensitivity, muscle atrophy, or abnormalities. They will also assess the horse’s gait and movement, observing for any signs of discomfort, stiffness, or reluctance to engage the hind limbs. In addition, flexion tests may be performed to assess the horse’s response to flexing the back.

Diagnostic imaging techniques are commonly utilized to confirm the presence of kissing spine and assess its severity. Here is a detailed list of ways to diagnose kissing spine in horses:

  • X-rays: Conventional radiographs are useful for evaluating the alignment of the dorsal spinous processes and detecting bony changes, such as the presence of bone spurs or sclerosis.
  • Ultrasound: Ultrasonography can be utilized to assess the soft tissues surrounding the spine, including the presence of inflammation or thickening of the ligaments in the affected area.
  • Computed Tomography (CT): This imaging technique provides detailed cross-sectional images of the spine, offering a high-resolution view of the bony structures, the alignment of the spinous processes, and the presence of any abnormalities.
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): MRI is a valuable diagnostic tool that can provide detailed images of the soft tissues, including the spinal cord, ligaments, and intervertebral discs. It can help evaluate the presence of inflammation, edema, or other soft tissue changes.
  • Scintigraphy: Nuclear scintigraphy, also known as a bone scan, is a technique that can detect areas of increased bone activity, such as inflammation, bone remodeling, or stress fractures in the affected region.

The choice of diagnostic tests will depend on the individual case and the availability of imaging equipment. It is crucial to consult with an equine veterinarian or a veterinary specialist to determine the most appropriate diagnostic approach for each horse.

Obtaining an accurate diagnosis of kissing spine allows for more targeted treatment options and management strategies. Once diagnosed, the veterinarian can develop a tailored plan that may involve medications for pain and inflammation management, physical therapy, changes in riding techniques or tack, and in some cases, surgical intervention. Regular follow-up examinations and imaging may be necessary to monitor the progression of the condition and evaluate the success of the treatment protocol implemented.

Treatment for Kissing Spine in Horses

Treatment for kissing spine in horses aims to alleviate pain, improve comfort, and restore normal function to the affected area. The specific treatment approach can vary depending on the severity of the condition, the clinical signs observed, and the individual horse’s needs. The treatment plan often involves a combination of conservative management techniques and, in some cases, surgical intervention.

Conservative management is often the first line of treatment for horses with kissing spine. Here is a detailed list of common treatment options:

  • Rest: Providing a period of rest or reduced workload can help alleviate stress on the back and allow for healing.
  • Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs): Medications such as phenylbutazone or flunixin meglumine may be prescribed to reduce pain and inflammation.
  • Physical Therapy: Techniques such as stretching exercises, massage, laser therapy, and therapeutic ultrasound can help relax the muscles, improve flexibility, and promote healing.
  • Chiropractic Adjustments: Manual manipulation of the spine by a trained equine chiropractor can help restore alignment, reduce muscle tension, and improve overall spinal health.
  • Saddle Fit: Ensuring proper saddle fit and using appropriate padding or corrective pads can alleviate pressure points and reduce discomfort.
  • Training Modifications: Adjusting training methods, such as avoiding excessive collection or incorporating exercises that promote back strength and flexibility, can help reduce strain on the spine.

In cases where conservative management does not sufficiently improve the horse’s condition or when the bony changes are severe, surgical intervention may be considered. Here is a detailed list of surgical treatment options:

  • Spinous Process Desmotomy: This surgical procedure involves removing sections of the affected spinous processes to create space between them, reducing impingement and relieving pain.
  • Minimally Invasive Surgery: Techniques such as endoscopic or laparoscopic-assisted surgery can be utilized to create spaces between the vertebrae, improving movement and reducing impingement.

The choice of surgical intervention depends on various factors, including the horse’s overall health, the severity of the condition, and the veterinarian’s expertise.

It is important to note that while surgical intervention may provide significant relief, it is not always a guarantee for a complete resolution of the condition. Post-operative care, such as appropriate rehabilitation and gradual reintroduction to work, is essential to optimize recovery and prevent reoccurrence.

Regular follow-up examinations and monitoring are crucial to assess the response to treatment and make necessary adjustments to the management plan. Working closely with an equine veterinarian, an equine chiropractor, and other qualified professionals can help ensure the best outcome for the horse’s well-being and performance potential.

Prevention of Kissing Spine in Horses

Preventing kissing spine in horses involves implementing good management practices, proper training techniques, and ensuring optimal back health. While not all cases can be prevented, there are several measures that horse owners and caretakers can take to reduce the risk of developing kissing spine. Prevention efforts are especially important for young horses or horses with conformational predispositions.

Here is a detailed list of prevention measures for kissing spine in horses:

  • Conformation Assessment: Evaluate the conformation of horses before purchasing, paying particular attention to back length, wither height, and overall spinal structure. Avoid horses with conformational abnormalities that could increase the risk of developing kissing spine.
  • Proper Saddle Fit: Ensure that saddles are properly fitted to the horse, taking into account the width, shape, and balance of the saddle. Regularly assess and adjust the fit as the horse’s body changes with age or training.
  • Balanced Training: Employ appropriate and progressive training methods that promote correct posture, engagement, and suppleness. Avoid excessive collection or overuse of artificial aids that may place excessive strain on the horse’s back.
  • Regular Exercises: Incorporate regular exercises that promote back strength and flexibility. Exercises such as lunging, long-lining, and hill work can help improve core muscle strength and support the back.
  • Regular Veterinary Check-Ups: Schedule routine veterinary examinations to monitor the horse’s overall health and back condition. Early detection of any abnormalities or signs of discomfort can aid in prompt intervention and appropriate management.
  • Professional Assistance: Seek guidance from qualified professionals, such as equine veterinarians, trainers, or saddle fitters, to ensure proper care, training, and management practices that promote back health.
  • Consistent Warm-up and Cool-down: Implement a thorough warm-up and cool-down routine before and after each riding session to prepare the horse’s muscles, ligaments, and joints for exercise and minimize the risk of injury or strain.

It is essential to remember that prevention measures are not foolproof, and some factors, such as conformation or traumatic events, may be beyond our control. However, implementing these preventive measures can minimize the risk of developing kissing spine and promote the long-term health and well-being of the horse.

By maintaining a proactive approach to horse care, owners and caretakers can help reduce the incidence and severity of kissing spine, ensuring that their horses can lead comfortable and fulfilling lives. Regular education, awareness, and communication with professionals in the equine industry are valuable tools for staying up-to-date on best practices for preventing and managing kissing spine in horses.

Final thoughts on Kissing Spine in Horses

In conclusion, understanding kissing spine in horses is crucial for horse owners and caretakers to provide proper care, early detection, and effective treatment. This condition, characterized by the impingement of the dorsal spinous processes along the horse’s spine, can cause pain, discomfort, and performance issues. Recognizing the signs, getting an accurate diagnosis, and implementing appropriate treatment options are key to ensuring the horse’s well-being and quality of life.

We have explored various aspects of kissing spine, including its causes, clinical signs to look out for, diagnostic techniques, and treatment options. By being aware of the factors that contribute to kissing spine, such as conformational abnormalities, trauma, poor saddle fit, or inappropriate training methods, horse owners can take preventive measures to minimize the risk.

Regular veterinary check-ups, proper saddle fit, balanced training techniques, and exercises to strengthen the back muscles are some of the strategies that can help reduce the likelihood of kissing spine. However, it is important to remember that not all cases can be prevented, as certain factors may be beyond our control. This is why staying vigilant and educated about the condition is essential.

If you suspect your horse may be experiencing symptoms of kissing spine, it is recommended to consult with an equine veterinarian or an experienced equine professional. They can perform a thorough examination, utilize diagnostic imaging techniques, and develop a tailored treatment plan based on their findings.

For more detailed information on horse health and a comprehensive guide to complete equine care, be sure to check out other articles in the Complete Horse Health Guide. From common health issues to preventive care tips, this resource covers various aspects of horse well-being, helping horse owners provide the best care for their equine companions.

Remember, a proactive approach to horse care, regular communication with professionals, and a deep understanding of your horse’s needs are key to ensuring their overall health and happiness. By staying informed and attentive to your horse’s well-being, you can create a nurturing environment that minimizes the risk of conditions such as kissing spine and promotes their optimal physical performance.

Take the time to explore the other articles in the Complete Horse Health Guide to expand your knowledge and enhance your ability to care for your horse. Your efforts will contribute to building a strong and thriving partnership with your equine companion – one that is focused on their well-being, comfort, and success.

So, whether you’re a seasoned horse owner or a newcomer to the equestrian world, never stop learning and seeking out ways to improve the health and happiness of your horse. Together, we can create a bright future for our equine friends.


Kasdan Hall

Kasdan is a third-generation horse lover, trainer, and all around expert. With a rich family legacy in the equestrian world, Kasdan's passion for horses was ingrained from an early age. His father and grandfather were renowned in the cutting horse industry, winning the prestigious NCHA futurity multiple times. With a profound commitment to the well-being and excellence of horses, Kasdan continues to carry on his family's tradition, sharing his knowledge and skills to foster strong bonds between riders and their equine companions.
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