A Thoroughbred’s Subtle Presentations of Kissing Spine (and how I got him back)

Photo © Chandler Willet


Friday afternoon, while taking the longer route to our larger outdoor arena, I started to think. Our horses talk to us. Sometimes they even scream at us. They do it in the only way that they can—by nipping, kicking out, balking, spooking. They do like to be groomed, or they don’t. They’re girthy, they’re sweet, they’re not so sweet. It runs the gamut.  

My OTTB, Fullback, had been yelling at me for quite a while.  He wants to be good—really good. He’s fun and he’s honest. I’ve had him for four and a half years, but he never liked a good grooming. He was girthy. He was also sound, and has given me so much confidence. He’s horse showed, fox hunted, and was an awesome trail horse. The funny stuff, that was just him I thought. He’s a Thoroughbred. He’d probably learned some of those behaviors on the track, or so I thought.

Last fall, he started doing this weird thing. His hind end would stick a little when he walked off from the mounting block. Not too long after, he wasn’t rounding over jumps. He was guarding a little. We did some body work, acupuncture and chiropractic. He was seen by an osteopath, and loaded on Legend. After all of this, he got so much better. 

Then he started to squeal before he had to walk down hills, but only on quiet rides and not when we were out hunting. Out hunting, he was fine on the hills… but heavy in front. He listened to me, but was harder to hold. I changed to a bit with a little bit of leverage. That helped a lot.  

The bodywork continued. We tried an Adequan loading dose. We treated him for ulcers—yes, the whole 28 days of Gastrogard—though we didn’t scope. We injected his hocks. I had him treated for all of the symptoms, and he’d get a little better… then slide back a little. The squealing at the downhills continued.  He got heavy in front in the ring. He’d gotten spooky. He was still sound. He was still awesome out hunting.

I am like a lot of horse people. We know more than the average pet owner. We do a lot of things ourselves. Most of us don’t hesitate to do an intermuscular (IM) shot or a subcutaneous (sub q) shot.  Many of us don’t hesitate to do an intravenous (IV). We read and talk to our trainers, vets, and farriers.  We talk to our friends. We talk to friends of our friends. We talk to other people’s vets and farriers. My husband and I don’t hesitate to spend money on our horses, but sometimes I don’t take the right route.  

To get to the bottom of Fullback’s behavior, in May I decided to call the Equine Sports Medicine Veterinarians in the area to come evaluate him. He was still sound, but I could sort of describe him as performance lame. Something was not right. 

I really felt like his problems were in his hind end. His back didn’t palpate sore to me. After much poking and prodding, watching and flexing, she asked if she could x-ray his back to eliminate kissing spine before looking further at his hind end. BINGO! There it was! Kissing spine. Lots of spots.

The discussion went something like this… The vet said, “There’s a new surgery…” 

I quickly replied, “How fast can I get it done, and where do I go to do it?”

Ten days later, we were off to New Bolton. Without the clinical details, it’s a ligament snip, where they cut through the ligament in the spine (or something like that) to allow the bones that are touching to be able to further separate. It’s done under sedation and while the horse is standing. The Pessoa is used during rehabilitation. Fullback doesn’t lunge, so I trained him to handwalk in a Pessoa rig so that he could stretch down while healing.  

Photo © Steph Nally

The recovery is short, relatively speaking, and requires only 2 weeks of stall rest. But they were the longest 2 weeks of my life. It was awful. Every time I took him out, it was like flying a kite—except for the times that it wasn’t and he was quiet as a mouse. You couldn’t tell which it was going to be until you opened the door of his stall and he leapt out… or he didn’t. I kept having to call the surgeon and say that he’d gotten away from me again, did I need to worry about damage to his surgical sites?

Fullback has six “spots” that were done. That’s a lot, apparently. The good news is that his prognosis is “Excellent”. 

Tomorrow, we are at the ten week mark. We are officially allowed to start back to regular work. And for the first time in the entire time I’ve had Fullback, he loves a good curry. I can finally brush the horse I’ve never been able to brush. He’s much sweeter, and no longer girthy.  

He’s still talking to me. He’s not all the way right, yet, and I’ll know more as he progresses in his work, but he’s trying to tell me something. I know he says that his back feels much better, and I’ll continue to try to understand the language that he’s speaking to interpret what he’s saying now.

Photo © Steph Nally

Tune in to your horse. They will do the best that they can to tell you that something bugs them. They will even try to tell you what it is that bugs them. We, as horse lovers and their caretakers, need to do the best that we can do to hear them.