Kissing Spines

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Dr Annie Bevin MA Vet MB MRCVS discusses the increasingly common problem of kissing spines and its relationship to saddle fitting and the horse’s way of going.

Recently I have been pondering the large amount of claims that we are seeing for kissing spines, or more correctly overriding dorsal spinous processes. Nearly everyone will know someone whose unfortunate horse has been diagnosed with this condition; some responding to medication, a lot requiring surgical intervention, and some unfortunately never returning to the original level of performance.  

When I qualified over thirty years ago this condition was never even contemplated because we did not have the powerful x-ray machines that we have today, nobody was able to visualise the horse’s spine, so any horses exhibiting symptoms such as refusing to jump, bucking, stiffness and reluctance to be saddled up just had a course of bute, or if they were lucky a visit from the “back man” ( and if they were extremely lucky indeed this would be a qualified osteopath, chiropractor or physiotherapist!)

Having said that we just did not see that many horses exhibiting these symptoms. Horses cannot suddenly have evolved to have close dorsal spinal processes, so there must be other factors in play here. I personally think that although our management strategies have changed, these may in fact be for the better, it was more usual than not for horses to be stabled for 23 hours a day, with just one hour out of the stable. Nowadays we do make more effort to provide turnout or at least some time on a horse walker in order for them to have some down time. Saddles have, on the other hand changed out of all recognition.

Modern saddles have been designed for optimum performance for horse and rider, putting the rider in the correct position for whatever discipline they choose.  There is absolutely no doubt that when fitted correctly performance is enhanced.  There are so many factors involved in the fitting of these saddles though, that if something goes amiss there is a huge knock on effect. I remember learning about saddle fitting for my Pony Club “B “ test in 1977: Two factors- you had to get 3 fingers under the pommel and see daylight under it when the rider was on top! The saddles in those “days of yore” were the old fashioned hunting type- they numbed your bottom but fitted virtually any horse- so what was going on? In my opinion it was because of the way that the weight was distributed. Those saddles were bigger, with larger panels so the weight of the rider was spread over a larger area. For the horse to be comfortable the muscles on top of the spine have to be able to move freely without any rubbing or excess of pressure. The maximum pressure, not to cause tissue damage has been found to be lb’s per square inch, so the larger the panel, the more the weight of the rider is distributed. Western saddles, Australian Stock saddles and Military saddles are good examples of weight distribution, in the case of the latter spreading the 15 stone of a Household Cavalry Trooper in Full Military Regalia over the back of relatively small Irish Horse. 

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