In previous blogs we talked about what kissing spines is and how it can be diagnosed. But what do you do once it is diagnosed?
Unfortunately most rehabilitation programs (for any issue) are specific to the horse itself, it’s injury, age, fitness, discipline etc so we cannot give you a “this is what you need to do and you’ll be fine” plan….. but there are a few things that can help any horse with back pain, and not just pain caused by kissing spines but also weakness and pain in general in that thoracic/lumbar region.
Firstly, before you begin a rehabilitation program you want to make sure that there is as little pain present as possible so that the horse can use it’s back effectively in order to strengthen it. As it is the presence of pain that makes the horse reluctant to work through their back. This is most commonly achieved through direct injection of cortisone into the affected vertebrae, or other therapies such as mesotherapy, therapeutic ultrasound, physical therapy, micro current, PEMF, shockwave, red light and laser etc. You may also choose to put your horse on supplements such as pentosan, 4cyte, or general joint supplements and herbs. Surgery is a path that some people go down but we will not discuss that here.
If your horse has been diagnosed with kissing spines I would suggest that the first thing you do is engage a therapist who will work with your vet to come up with a good treatment regime and rehabilitation program specific to your horse. And you need to be willing to follow this regime. You are not only healing the back but trying to erase muscle memory which takes far longer, so just remember that “Rome wasn’t built in a day”. You also need to remember that at the heart of most back issues are postural changes, and in order for you to create a positive postural change in your horse things need to become a habit for them, so repetition and consistency are key. You may well know yourself that slouching is often easier then standing up straight!
Speaking of which…… as the rider of the horse, take responsibility for your own fitness and balance and don’t be a contributing factor to the pain. (Good exercises here: http://musclesense.com.au/shop/) I have had difficult conversations with clients where they have had to realise that their weight will never fully allow the back to heal and have had to retire the horse or find it a lighter rider. Also make sure that your saddles are fitted and that you have supportive, pressure easing saddle pads underneath them.
Once you have yourself sorted and a therapy program in place and you are ready to get back on, what should you do? Part of the rehabilitation exercises will obviously depend on how fit the horse was, how much time it had off and what facilities you have available to you….. One of my favourite rehab exercises is wading (not swimming), so either a water treadmill or a water walker, but even I don’t have access to one of those!
The goal of rehabilitation is to safely and slowly get the horse moving in a manner that rebuilds back and abdominal muscles and needs to begin out of the saddle with long reining or lungeing in a manner that encourages the horse to lift it’s back and not hollow such as an Equiband, Equiami or Pessoa system. If you can only work your horse on the lunge in a way that it hollows it’s back then don’t do it at all, opt for hand walking instead for 2wks as hollowing will defeat your rehab. You also want to make sure that your lunge circle is more of a square as too much inside bend can cause unevenness in the back muscles as researched by Cottrial. Ground exercises are especially important and “carrot stretches” will be your horses new best friends! If you are unsure how to do carrot stretches we have a video here that has them and many other great stretches for your horse: https://youtu.be/tugE_W9me9k. One of my personal favourites is backing up in hand. And I don’t just mean 2-3 steps. I mean enough steps in order to see the horse actually relax and lift it’s back. It may take 7 steps, it may take 20, but I guarantee you the more you do it the less steps it will take!
Long and low is what lifts the back, is what we hear over and over as riders, but a horse with back pain will not be comfortable starting in a long and low frame until the back is warm. These horses usually need to begin their ridden sessions in self carriage until they are warmed up enough to actually stretch and work correctly and a long warm up session with a lot of transitions will be crucial to your success. It is the core strength of the horse that is important here, and the use of the abdominal muscles. There are a variety of exercises that you can do on the ground or under saddle that will encourage the horse to lift the back and are suitable for riders of all types. These include raised walk and canter poles (not trot), grid work, hill work and lateral work. If you’re unsure of what exercises to do, keep an eye out for our upcoming online Back Exercises course! because prevention is better then cure, and all horses can benefit from stronger more supple backs.
The one thing that you have to remember is that the back was never designed to carry weight from above. It is composed of bones, muscles and ligaments with it’s original purpose to carry and support the limbs and organs below, so if your horse shows discomfort at you getting back in the saddle, or doing certain types of exercises then it is most likely not strong enough and not ready.
Other little things that you can do to manage back pain in your horse is feed them on the ground so that they stretch their back to eat, keep the feet well balanced and supported, make sure their backs stay warm in winter, put a liniment on the back after every ride, and depending on budget splurge on a therapeutic rug or red light pad. My personal preference is a back on track rug in winter, a thinline saddle pad, pink goop liniment daily and twice weekly red light and laser therapy.