This blog post is part one of a two part series discussing equine spinal health, Spinal Crowding Syndrome and Kissing Spine. We are very fortunate to have guest blogger, Simon Cocozza, a registered Instructor and Examiner for La Fédération Française d’Equitation (FFE) who has extensive experience dealing these issues, share his insights and solutions.
Harmony, Magic and A Strong Core
The pursuit of mental and physical harmony with our horses has to be the ultimate riding goal. That is where the magic happens!
Our traditional training methods aim to build a horse’s muscles, reactions and fitness to power them when jumping over things, galloping fast, sorting cows, reining, performing impressive dressage movements, or riding trails. However, there are key muscles deep within our horses that can remain weak in even very fit horses making it impossible for them to work with core fluidity, leading to self-restraint when asked to move forward, poor performance, and in some cases, a lot of pain.
A clue to the origin of a "disconnected ride" are the symptoms we encounter when we are in the saddle or working our horse from ground, especially when long lining. Over the years it has become obvious that whatever the build, breed, discipline or even history, the same groups of resistances are experienced by most horses and their riders; only intensity varies. Painful spinal and back issues (not related to poor saddle fit which is beyond the scope of this blog but still a very real problem that must be solved) are often disguised as schooling or behavioral issues until they become severe enough to easily identify.
Core muscle weakness initially shows itself with a heavy, one-sided contact (among other all too familiar resistances,) and can indicate the onset of "Spinal Crowding Syndrome" (SCS), which is extremely common and often overlooked. Unfortunately, if not addressed, it can ultimately lead to a condition called “Kissing Spine,” in which part of the horse’s vertebrae called the spinous processes (pictured below) are touching each other.
One potential solution is “Core Correction,” a ridden system of Yoga for horses. By precisely targeting and strengthening inherent muscle weakness under the guidance of the rider, the pair can together develop self-carriage enabling the horse to use all of its muscles and create "the magic."
What is Spinal Crowding Syndrome? How Does it Lead to Kissing Spine?
Evolution has perfected the horse’s skeleton over millions of years to make him/her a great mover, but it did not make the horse’s back naturally strong enough to carry a human, however big and strong the horse may appear.
When a young horse first carries a rider, the new weight placed over the middle of the spinal column causes it to slump or dip slightly. This is, of course, invisible to the naked eye due to the presence of a saddle.
This closes the already narrow gaps between the vertical spinous processes of the thoracic vertebrae. As the horse’s work progresses into trot and canter, they can begin to feel discomfort as the nerves running between the spinous processes risk becoming rubbed, and if not corrected, pinched.
To limit discomfort as training becomes more demanding, the horse will instinctively tense the back muscles and ‘lock’ the area to limit the rubbing action. As horses are creatures of habit, once this defense begins, it is likely to continue. The horse loses the natural flexible qualities of their spine that are key to the elastic connection of large body sections.
At this point, the horse has now developed Spinal Crowding Syndrome, a precise term describing the complications of a hollow back.
As the horse is asked to perform more trot and canter work, he/she responds as best they can by using their limbs instead of their whole body, deliberately avoiding bending through the spine by triangulating the gait and swinging the hind quarters to the inside. It is for this reason so many well-bred horses are uncomfortable, never seem to fulfill their actual potential irrespective to their level of fitness, and why most horses move well in the field yet lose their natural cadence under saddle.
The Weak Link: Deep Core Muscles
There are complex systems of muscles that control movement of the spine, called Multifidus, Psoas and Abdominal muscle groups. These are the horse's core muscles. They need to be very strong to support a rider while maintaining correct spinal alignment on the go. In fact, the entire ring of muscles must be functioning well to support the rider.
Simply asking the horse to move forward into the hand will not build the core muscles, particularly if the spine is already a little dipped and locked, as adding impulsion will hollow the back further and the horse's body begins working against itself with negative back tension. In fact, more impulsion worsens the problem.
What is Kissing Spine?
When our horses become more mature and we ask for work in a more advanced outline or frame, the muscles over the spine can become very tense as they further attempt to defend the spine from the potentially uncomfortable twisting and bending of an active gait. Also, the increased impulsion and muscular tension creates a critical counter force leading to further compression of the spinous processes.
Some horses stabilize and learn to work like this by becoming sufficiently supple in the limb joints, although their gaits will be incurably crooked, one-sided and limited. In some cases, horses experiencing this syndrome develop very tense back muscles leading to severe behavioral and riding resistances. At that stage, it has possibly become a "kissing spine."
Kissing spine is characterized by the vertebrae becoming kinked by the Longissimus Dorsi muscle (long back muscle) spasming, and the spinous processes touching each other and crushing the nerve. The red stars in the picture below show the areas of kissing spine.
A secondary effect of the spine losing elasticity is that kinetic force is thrown forward towards the shoulders as it can no longer be absorbed through the horse’s center. This pushes the lowest part of the cervical (neck) section of the spine, the base of the neck, downwards between the shoulder blades. This robs the horse of forehand ‘suspension’, plunging it downhill, onto the forehand and heavily into the rider’s hand making straightness and balance physically impossible.
It is likely that advanced kissing spine cases may also have spinal interference in the sixth and seventh cervical (neck) vertebrae and the first thoracic vertebrae contributing to the bracing resistance found in the rein contact of affected horses.
How to Tell if a Horse Has Spinal Crowding Syndrome or Kissing Spine
In motion, our bodies are just a biological mechanism, a machine for moving around. As with any machine, the angles that force travel must be carefully aligned. A car with a flat tire will pull heavily to one side, for example. Any mechanical misalignment will wear parts quickly due to the excess strain put upon them. When the horse’s spine or ‘chassis’ is misaligned, all the subtle dynamics of limb flight and joint trajectories are thrown out of line causing all sorts of imbalances, restrictions and excesses.
As difficult as it is for the horse to do as asked under these circumstances, things are almost as awkward the rider who is severely jiggled about or even downright ejected, unable to ride in a soft, light way, therefore reinforcing the horse’s tension. Aids then become impossible for the horse to understand creating a vicious circle of defensive tension that is tricky to break.
Horses are generous and silent triers. They don’t audibly yelp in pain like people or other pets, so sometimes the initial signs of spinal crowding are hard to notice. The signs are often seen as individual problems with no common cause, but they do have telltale predictability.
There are two methods that should be employed to diagnose SCS or KS. They are back x-rays or other diagnostic imaging and movement assessment….and they work hand in hand.
As spinal crowding symptoms come in groups, we can start by giving each horse a ‘Core score’ when riding. Here is a table of symptoms for each score as a guide.
When any machine has dynamic misalignments, individual parts will be asked to support a different kind of strain than that for which they were designed. Unfortunately, the secondary effects of spinal crowding will show excessive strain in the area most used by the horse to compensate for avoiding his back correctly. This often appears in the limbs and feet as a seemingly unrelated problem.
Hoof flares are a good example. The ‘sway’ of hoof growth on one side of the foot shows a repetitive lateral slide of that limb, like a car tire under cornering.
The presence of forces from a direction which the limb was not designed can form all manner of reaction over time. Bony growths, joint swellings, self-interference and excessive wear show that a body part has endured excessive repetitive strain. The goal of correcting the horse’s core strength is to diminish and heal these ailments, without resorting to kissing spine surgery.
Can You Kiss Kissing Spine or SCS Good-Bye Without Surgery?
In part two of this blog which will be published on October 6th, Simon will discuss the specific exercises riders can do to improve their horse’s core strength while riding. There are also various stretches and core strengtheners you can do from the ground that I will discuss in a separate blog post later.
The goal of ridden and on the ground stretches and core strengthening is to create the magic and avoid or correct SCS and KS without surgery. While correcting SCS or KS is not possible 100% of the time, these exercises are absolutely worth doing! It is no different than going to a human PT to fix issues in a more natural, holistic, and less invasive way thereby avoiding surgery.
What did you learn about Spinal Crowding Syndrome and Kissing Spine? What questions do you have? How did your horse score on his or her movement analysis? Join the conversation on the Stretch Your Horse Facebook page.
Simon Cocozza is a European qualified Dressage trainer and rider currently based in Normandy, France, and a registered Instructor and Examiner for La Fédération Française d’Equitation (FFE).
After passing the BHSAI in London, England, he then studied for the Advanced National Certificate in Equine Business Management and Equitation (ANCEBM) at Warwickshire College of Equine Studies. After graduating, he was understudy to Grand Prix dressage rider Bertil Voss (NL) with whom he learned to ride and train high-level performance horses. Since then, has had the pleasure of helping clients and horses to many French and European Championship successes.
His current work in dressage focuses on competition performance and unlocking the mysteries of optimal technique and proper biomechanics. His current lecture and tour is called "Releasing Your Horse's Inner Dancer" followed by "Ridden Exercises to Improve Your Horse's Core Strength. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Here are 10 horse health questions. Grab paper and a pen or your laptop or tablet to record your answers. (The answers are provided below question 10.)
Question 1: Can deworming your horse on a regular basis help prevent colic?
Question 2: According to recent studies, what percentage of saddles do not fit the horse they are used on?
e) 75% or more
Question 3: What is the resting heart rate for the average adult horse?
Question 4: Where is the horse’s clavicle or “collar bone” located?
Question 5: Can you name 3 of the top 10 most toxic and poisonous plants for horses?
Question 6: How many gallons of water per day should the average healthy adult horse drink?
Question 7: Can stretching your horse help decrease the aging process of the musculoskeletal system?
Question 8: Is there a difference between laminitis and founder?
Question 9: If your horse has asymmetrical shoulders (meaning shoulders that are not the same size and shape), should you use saddle pad shims in:
a) Both sides of your saddle pad
b) Only the side with the larger, more developed shoulder
c) Only the side with the small, less developed shoulder
Question 10: How tight should your horse’s noseband be if you use one?
a) One finger should fit between the noseband leather and horse's nose.
b) Two fingers should fit between the noseband leather and the horse's nose.
c) It depends on how hot the horse is.
d) It depends on how stubborn the horse is.
Here are the answers to the quiz questions.
Q1 Answer: Yes. Many cases of colic are actually associated with parasites.
Q2 Answer: The correct answer is E. 75% or more of saddles do not fit the horse they are used on.
Q3 Answer: The average adult horse resting heart rate is 30-40 beats per minute.
Q4 Answer: This is a trick question! Horses do not have a clavicle or collar bone.
Q5 Answer: The top 10 most toxic and poisonous plants for horse are:
Q6 Answer: The average, healthy adult horse that weights 1000 lbs should consume approximately 5-10 gallons of water per day if the horse lives in a temperate climate and is not working. This works out to about a half gallon to a gallon of water per hundred pounds of body weight. If the horse’s workload increases or the horse lives in a hot OR cold climate, the need for water increases. Horses with certain medical conditions may also need more water. Here is a link to great article on horses and water consumption.
Q7 Answer: Yes. According to a study conducted by Dr. Ava Frink, DVM, muscles and connective tissue respond to overuse by shrinking and tightening. Its response to underuse is much the same. Stiffness can result in injury, lead to inactivity, and eventually speed up the aging process of the musculoskeletal system.
Q8 Answer: In the equine world, laminitis and founder are often used interchangeably, but there is a difference. Laminitis is a condition that can lead to founder if the case is chronic.
Laminitis occurs when the soft laminae tissue in the hoof become inflamed and swell. There can also be lack of adequate blood flow. Swelling of the laminar bond between layers of the hoof lead to the initial phases of acute laminitis. As the swelling increases, so do the problems for the horse.
Chronic inflammation of the laminar bond can result in a bone in the foot, called the coffin bone or pedal bone, separating from the hoof wall. The laminae hold the coffin bone in place and attach it to the hoof wall. Inflammation and/or death of the laminae means they can no longer do their job of holding the coffin bone in place. As the condition progresses (or if left untreated), the coffin bone can begin to rotate and slip downward toward the sole of the foot and even through the sole of the foot. When a horse’s coffin bone rotates downward or sinks, the horse has entered a stage of chronic laminitis or founder.
Q9 Answer: C is the correct answer. The purpose of shims is to bring the saddle to a level and stable position. Therefore, the shoulder that is less developed, more hallow or “smaller” is where the shim(s) should be utilized.
Q10 Answer: The correct answer is B. The “two finger” test is the general rule. This means riders should be able to stick two fingers in between the leather and the horse’s nose. A tight noseband can cause both physical and psychological damage to the horse. Studies are ongoing to determine the extent of the damage.
How did you do on the quiz? What did you learn? What subjects would you like to share more information on or ask questions about?
Ilene Nessenson, JD, Certified Equine Bodyworker, is the creator of the Stretch Your Horse App. She has been an equine bodyworker, saddle fitter, and saddle reflocker for over 11 years.
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