Is Your Horse's Spine Healthy?

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."
The horse’s spine without the rider’s weight. The proximity of the spinous processes are naturally very close in this healthy spine.
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.
The horse’s natural reaction to the rider’s weight is to dip or slump their back.
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.
Natural gap of spinous processes
Narrowed gap with slight spinal dip
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

The horse's deep muscles are crucial for good movement.
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.
Weak core muscles allow the spine to dip. A strong core keeps spine optimal.
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.
An example of 4 separate kissing processes as noted by red stars. Green circles show normal desired gap.
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.
The spine carried low between the shoulder blades.
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.
Movement Assessment
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.
Secondary Effects
As with a tire when cornering, lateral force distorts growth of the hoof.
   There are
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

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