Part 1: The heartbreak of the unknown
Riding and training your own home bred horse is a feeling like nothing else. Knowing that your blood, sweat and tears (and money let’s, not forget money) has gone into making the animal you’re sitting gives you a sense of achievement that many riders never get to experience. Animal Therapeutics Director Jo Schneider has been one of those riders with her baby, Rollie. But what happens when there is something not quite right with your horse but no one can figure out what it is? Over this multi part investigation Jo brings us into her stable to follow the at times heartbreaking journey she’s on with her home grown warmblood and his Kissing Spine.
October 2010 A star is born
After years of being too scared to breed my own horses I finally took the plunge and started my breeding program. I kicked things off by putting my ex riding horse (Northern Romulus) in foal to Rhythm & Blues (Olympic Ferro) via frozen semen. The result was a dark brown beauty who had an immediate ‘look at me’ presence and such a fun and cute character coupled with lovely correct movement. I fell in love with my Rollie aka Warrington Park Renegade immediately and was ready for an exciting life with my young dressage horse.
2011-2016 Growing up
Rollie spent the next few years growing up in my property in the Adelaide Hills. He had good basic handling for a young horse and was taught all the usual horse things like tying up, lunging and floating, but during this period life was a little hectic. I had 9 horses, got married, grew a business, got divorced, moved off the farm, had property and horse managers helping, sold many horses, travelled and then moved back to the farm. There was a lot going on to say the least!
2016-2017 Time to get started
I decided to downsize horses so attention was placed on the performance horses I wanted to move on rather than the one I wanted to keep for myself (aka Rollie), but by the end of 2016 I was down to 3 horses and was ready for Rollie to go off to the breaker. He was 6yo by this time but had good basics and his mother, who was my dressage horse from 5yo, had developed very late so I wasn’t too bothered by the later start to his saddle training. He was a very easy young horse (as easy as young horses can be!) to break in and the breaker was constantly impressed with his quick mind and trainability which was helped by his consistently amazing temperament.
2017 When the problems began
Upon Rollie’s return from the breaker and with the help of my friend and amazing young horse trainer Jess Demczuk we started his path as a dressage horse and he did not disappoint! With his willing and super trainable nature and natural ability to sit, he was the pocket rocket I’d always dreamed of!
Looking back, while nothing was considered an ‘issue’ at the time, initial signs showing as resistance to bend on the right rein, falling in through the near side shoulder, swelling in his off hind and later in the year some issues with contact, difficulty with canter transition, rein changes and starting to become ‘spooky’ including at tie up area, now point to his injury always being there. At the time this was assumed to be ‘young horse’ imbalance and behavioural issues. I thought perhaps my inconsistent training due to work commitments and rider fitness may be hindering his training and so I sent him back to the breaker in September to attempt to resolve this.
2018 Working it all out
I spelled him in Jan after a year of ‘work’ as a young horse and to let any niggles settle while I progressed and moved on some of my other many horses. I decided to get more professional help and was assisted with two professional riders including basing him at their yards multiple times through the year to help keep his work more consistent and not cause any future issues myself.
One of the trainers, well known and respected Grand Prix rider Ruth Schneeberger, got him going really nicely and I thought for sure this had solved the problems! However, in hindsight a comment that she made regarding not being able to ‘fix’ a very slight head lift in every upward transition now tells me he was even struggling a bit then, but being the generous worker he is, he kept going anyway and gave us all a glimpse of the talented dressage horse underneath.
During this year some seemingly unrelated issues did arise. He had shown some leg swelling and a hoof crack, so I investigated foot and leg issues with hoof and leg x-rays and veterinary review. However no clicnical signs showed in the x-rays. The swelling in his hock drew our attention there and didn’t lend itself to suggest a back pain problem so this wasn’t considered at this point.
Interestingly through the year he had leg swelling in various legs without any particular reason and nothing lasted long. The vet, physio and chiro saw him in this time, as well as saddle fitter, dentist etc, (you could say he had the works!) and yet, same as the x-rays, nothing presented to suggest back pain issues. Although, again with the benefit of hindsight I can see that ‘middle back tension/tightening’ was referenced, just not considered significant. In fact nothing of any significance other than the mild back pain showed and I was able to manage the crack and grow it out, and the hock settled down and wasn’t an issue again.
The other thing that threw us was that in this year he had a really fast and dramatic growth spurt and went (as a 7yo) from a ‘cute’ little (15.1hh ish) horse, to an elegant 16hh one. So some of this was thought to maybe be associated with that.
Through this period the behaviour I noted was that he was:
- Difficult to trim
- Right rein resistance to bend
- Humping and kicking out in canter
- Looking out on the circle,
- Sticky but warmed up out of it
- Tension throughout his body
- Inconsistent contact.
It’s important to note that these were combined with really good and consistent work, so it’s only in looking back over years of notes that I can see the patterns, and he was still in the early stage of his training. With some breaks due to these unknown injuries he was almost always ‘coming back into work’ which provides some allowances for stiffness and at times poor performance.
Without any specific injuries or clear clinical signs to work on I did start using the Equiband at this point and did quite a bit of lunge work. His saddle was again refitted, teeth done and regular therapies including chiro and his Activo Med PEMF & Massage rug which he always responded well with.
2019 Testing and trying
Another spell over the busy xmas period and again he was ‘coming back into work’ in Jan so we took it slowly with lots of lunging. This time lameness started showing on the near side which was new. We had a bad issue with flies this season and Rollie hates flies. I would see him in the paddock kicking and spinning and carrying on with the flies so we felt that he had an issue that wouldn’t heal because he kept being a bit of a lunatic in the paddock and putting it all out again. A lot of effort was put into trying to keep him quiet but you can’t stop a young energetic horse from hooning around as you know. Because we were of the belief that he kept flaring up a single issue and just not letting it heal, at this point we didn’t see it as a more sinister thing.
I started adding a lot more supplements to his diet at this point. I was still growing out that hoof crack so continued with Biotin and other hoof supplements but I also had him on my old favourite Hiform Proflamaide Plus. This combined with physio and chiro treatments showed a lot of improvement and I really felt we were getting on top of things. It was only by the end of the year that I noticed that I was not getting chiro/physio monthly as a ‘maintenance thing’ but actually because he was showing signs of discomfort after a few weeks of work following a treatment. And I started to think that he needed a more thorough rehab program to really get on top of this.
Among a lot of really positive rides (I really love every second riding this horse when he’s going well!!) some of the notes I have reflected the following behaviours which when you look at in isolation, are clearly escalating:
- Tight right rein (that old right rein again!)
- Head toss
- Behind the leg
- Lame but nothing visible
- Lack of straightness
- Weight loss
- Breaking into canter
- Disunited in canter.
I got in touch with our physio, Carly Hanaford who was already familiar with him and we discussed a really focussed rehab program to deal with this issue. At this point Kissing Spine still wasn’t considered, as he was presenting with a tight muscle and scar tissue on the near side in the loin area just behind the saddle region. It appeared to be a clear tear that hadn’t healed (we thought due to his antics) and it was believed that it was probably something he did in the paddock and we just didn’t seem to be able to get on top of. But that was about to change!
We started an intensive program of physio and lunging with the use of the Equiband to encourage and build core strength, and Activo Med Power pad (PEMF + Red & Infrared light therapy) to provide back pain relief and heal the local area. Combined with regular ‘recovery’ sessions with his Activo Med Combi Pro. I continued his Hiform Proflamaide Plus and also added Hiform Topline to help his muscles develop through this period. I also did regular stretches including carrot stretches and various muscle activation techniques.
2020 trying to uncover the back pain issue
We continued this program into 2020 and also added in some taping to his program. He was really building strength and improving his muscle tone, especially across his back muscles, and his movement was coming back with that lovely swinging trot and uphill canter that I love. Both his longitudinal and lateral stretching had improved out of sight (it’s important to note that the old right rein stiffness could never quite be cracked…telling information).
Following a strict 8 week lunging program (which you can read about here) I started slowly riding him. After about 6 weeks I started adding pole work and cavalettis to his ridden program to develop strength further. We were able to have lessons again and participated in a clinic where he was walking, trotting and cantering over poles and cavaletti really happily and starting to show the strength to carry himself like a dressage horse should.
Despite that huge and significant improvement, in late February he told me it wasn’t enough. He showed lameness on both his near fore and off hind (with off hind swelling again), he got very spooky, and added in aggressive head ‘flicking’ coupled with bucking initially when cantering but later when I asked for anything really, his walk/trot transitions were the most resistant they had been and he really didn’t want to go forward into them. After everything we had been through and the promise he’d shown me I was quite heartbroken. I wasn’t sure who to turn to or what to do next.
You can read part 2 here. Find out what Jo did next and how she managed to help Rollie’s back pain and poor performance and reach the diagnosis of Kissing Spines as the issue.
Further Information on Kissing Spine
Kissing Spine or Kissing Spines is a condition in horses officially known as “overriding dorsal spinous processes” or “spinous process impingement”. This is when there is touching or “kissing” of the long, thin bones that project upward from the vertebrae of the spinal column in the horse’s back directly underneath where the rider sits. Kissing Spines can cause horses
The underlying cause Kissing Spines is still relatively unknown. In some cases, problems develop after a fall or other injury, but more often it is the conformation of the horse (short back) or the vertebrae themselves (narrow interspinal spaces) that is involved. Kissing Spines can occur in any horse but seem more prevalent in Thoroughbreds and dressage horses, often young horses. However, it also frequently seen in warmbloods and quarter horses, as well as horses that jump.
Horses with Kissing Spines are often anxious, irritable (particularly under saddle) and unwilling to move forward as a result of their back problems. Diagnosis of Kissing Spines in horses is often difficult as it can be thought to be behavioural or other one of many back problems in horses. There are a number of treatments available ranging from gentle rehabilitation through to shockwave and even surgical treatment.