Category Archives: Medical

Donkeys and other equids are known to dig wells in dryland areas in search of water

Monday, January 31st, 2022 | Filed under Medical

THIS is so important!  Another reason for every ranch to have donkeys.  Especially in arid lands.  Donkeys FIND WATER.

ORIGINAL article here.

Donkeys and other equids are known to dig wells in dryland areas in search of water, like this kulan in central Asia. In the American southwest, new research suggests that wells dug by feral donkeys and horses can benefit the whole ecosystem by increasing water availability during dry times. 

Water drives the rhythms of desert life, but animals aren’t always helpless against the whims of weather.

In the American Southwest, wild donkeys and horses often dig into the dusty sediment to reach cool, crystal clear groundwater to quench their thirst. New research shows this equid ingenuity has far reaching benefits for the ecosystem.

Equid wells can act as desert oases, providing a major source of water during dry times that benefits a whole host of desert animals and keystone trees, researchers report in the April 30 Science.

Introduced to North America in the last 500 years or so, wild donkeys and horses are often cast as villains in the West. These species can trample native vegetation, erode creek beds and outcompete native animals. But when Erick Lundgren, a field ecologist at Aarhus University in Denmark, first observed wild donkeys digging wells in 2014, he wondered whether these holes might benefit ecosystems, similar to the way elephant-built water holes can sustain a community in the African savanna.

a doe and fawn leaning down to drink water out of a hole in the ground
Wells dug by wild donkeys and horses are used by numerous other species. A camera trap caught this doe and fawn mule deer drinking from a donkey well in the Sonoran Desert.E. LUNDGREN

“Because of the way we value [feral] horses and donkeys, the orthodoxy tends to focus on how they harm ecosystems,” he says. “We wanted to see whether these holes provided a resource when water is scarce.”

First, Lundgren and his colleagues had to see whether these holes actually increase accessible water. Over the course of three summers from 2015 to 2018, they mapped out the surface area of water in wells and groundwater-fed streams at four sites in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert.

Water availability was highly variable among sites, but equid wells generally increased accessible water, especially as temperatures rose. At one site, wells were the only source of drinking water once the stream completely dried up. Elsewhere, wells provided up to 74 percent of available surface water. Wells also decreased the distance between water sources by an average of 843 meters, making this essential resource more accessible and easing tensions that can escalate among drinkers at isolated water holes, Lundgren says.

Once wells were dug, other animals came. In droves.

Researchers set up cameras at five sites in the Sonoran and Mojave deserts, staking out wells, riverbanks and dry spots. They documented 57 vertebrate species, from migratory songbirds to mountain lions, slurping at the wells, which is about equal to the number of species seen at streams and 64 percent higher than dry spots.

“We even caught a black bear drinking from a well,” says Lundgren, who also takes swigs from the wells from time to time. “The water is quite cool, and cleaner than other sources.”

a photo of a small tree growing in a hole
Donkey wells can act as nurseries for tree seedlings by providing easier access to water away from the competition of established plants on the riverbank. Here, a several-year-old cottonwood grows from an abandoned donkey well.© MICHAEL LUNDGREN

Wells can also be nurseries for cottonwood seedlings that require moist, open areas to grow. These fast-growing seedlings struggle to break through the vegetation-stuffed riverbanks, and instead rely on floods for their first sips of water. But at one site, researchers found seedlings thriving in equid holes. Many survived the summer, growing as tall as 2 meters. In areas where dams reduce flooding, equid wells could be fulfilling an important ecosystem service for these iconic tree species, the researchers say.

The study “clearly shows that equids can alter these ecosystems in ways that can benefit other species,” says Clive Jones, an ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y., who wasn’t involved in the study. Such hydrological engineering isn’t unheard of — beavers, for example, have an outsized ability to engineer ecosystems (SN: 11/28/18). Whether equid wells play a similarly crucial role remains to be seen, Jones says. “More data is needed to say exactly how important wells are in terms of the functioning of these ecosystems.”

Though the benefits of wells are clear in this study, it’s too early to conclude that feral donkeys and horses are good for ecosystems, notes Jeffrey Beck, a restoration ecologist at the University of Wyoming in Laramie.

“There’s a whole body of research documenting the detrimental effects these animals can have on drylands around the world,” Beck says. In Wyoming’s Red Desert, for instance, he’s studied how wild horses often drive antelope-like pronghorn from watering holes. Additionally, “the benefits [the equids] demonstrate in this study might be limited to this area,” he says, since surface water in other areas may not be as accessible by digging.

Still, the researchers hope this study can chip away at the notion that introduced species are wholly bad for ecosystems. In some areas, feral equids “are being killed by the hundreds of thousands in the name of purifying nature,” says study author Arian Wallach, an ecologist at the University of Technology, Sydney. To her, this study shows “donkeys [and horses] are part of nature too,” and that eradication efforts might ripple throughout an ecosystem in unforeseen and unfortunate ways.

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A friend of mine’s horse had KISSING SPINE surgery… she offered her story for you. (A great outcome!)

I’ve been hearing a lot about kissing spine syndrome.   I’m not sure why I’m hearing about it now more than previously… I think perhaps kissing spine has always been plaguing humans and horses –  but maybe not well known in equines until recently.

My friend’s horse had it.  And, after much consternation then education, she decided to have the surgery.

Here is her story (Thank you, Nikki!):

I’m a big believer in sharing knowledge wherever/whenever you can. Especially when it comes to horses. For those of you who don’t know, River was diagnosed with the very common condition of overriding dorsal spinous processes, or “kissing spines”. I think we hear this term so often now, but it’s hard to put an actual picture to something going on that we can’t see. I wanted to share the images of his back before and after the partial resection of two dorsal spinous processes. I’ve got many friends on here who were previous peers of mine at UNH, or even professors- so feel free to share with others for educational purposes!
River made a full recovery and is doing GREAT. He went from being practically unrideable to being happy in his work. The BIGGEST thank you to the vets down at UGA for taking such great care of him. And to all of those along the way that supported me and my decision to do this -you know who you are
I know when I was battling with the decision to follow through with the surgery- any bit of information/positive stories helped.
**Full disclosure here- I am NOT a vet- so I am no expert on this topic. And what worked for my horse in this situation doesn’t mean it would necessarily work for others. I just thought I would share his success story**

Before. The second to last thoracic dorsal spinous process is overriding the one behind it. And those prior with a lighter tint around the edges show trauma where they would soon be touching.

A better view of the “kissing spines”.


Post surgery. Two were taken even though there was only one spot that was actually touching. Dr. Peroni thought it wise to remove another process as the likely hood of it becoming kissing spines was very high.


I found this article from UC Davis which shows the outcome of trials using horses with kissing spine.  Standing Surgery does seem to be the best option.   However, I’m sure each case is different – just like humans with kissing spine.

Click image to go to article

Kissing Spines
by Amy Young
July 29, 2019

What are kissing spines?

Overriding (or impinging) dorsal spinous processes (ORDSP), or “kissing spines”, occur when vertebrae in the spine are too close together, rather than being spaced apart as in a healthy spine. This results in touching or overlapping of two or more of the bony projections at the top of each vertebrae (spinous processes). In some horses, this can cause consistent, low-grade pain, but many horses do not exhibit any clinical signs.

The locations and number of vertebrae involved can vary. Kissing spines most commonly occur between thoracic vertebrae (T) 13 and 18, with T15 the most often affected. This is the site where the angle of the dorsal spinal process changes orientation. It is also the site directly under the saddle and the rider’s seat. Kissing spines have also been observed in the lumbar vertebrae, but this is less common.

The presence of kissing spines is not necessarily cause for concern, but it can be a predisposing factor for back pain. Thoroughbreds and performance horses are the most commonly diagnosed cases. Kissing spines are likely acquired. They can be the result of a variety of factors, including poor saddle fit and improper training that allows the horse to carry itself with its head up, back hollow, and not engaging the muscles in its core. Genetic factors are possible, but none have been identified to date.

What are the clinical signs of kissing spines?
Many horses with mild kissing spines do not exhibit any clinical signs. For those that do, the signs can be highly variable and may include vague or overt lameness and overall poor performance. Affected horses can exhibit changes in behavior such as hypersensitivity to brushing, girthiness, bucking, rearing, head tossing, kicking out, hollowing the back, resisting the bit, trouble with transitions, cross-cantering, and refusing or rushing fences. Their backs are often sore to the touch.

How are kissing spines diagnosed?
A diagnosis can be challenging as it can be difficult to differentiate some of the clinical signs of kissing spines from behavioral or training issues, or medical conditions that are not related, or secondary, to the back. Radiographs (X-rays) are commonly used to diagnose kissing spines. However, it is important to perform a thorough clinical examination and not just rely on X-ray analysis. Thermography, which uses an infrared camera to detect heat patterns, has been shown to be informative in some cases. Bone scans (nuclear scintigraphy) and ultrasound may also be used to provide diagnostic information. Referral to a specialist may be warranted for an accurate diagnosis.

How are kissing spines treated?
Treatment for kissing spines begins with making the horse more comfortable. This may be achieved through pain reduction, muscle relaxation, and exercises to stretch and strengthen back and abdominal muscles, stabilize posture, and improve mobility. Medical treatments may include shockwave therapy of the affected vertebrae and surrounding muscles, injections of anti-inflammatories in the region of the kissing spines (mesotherapy), and corticosteroid injections in the spaces between the vertebrae.

Physical therapy may include daily exercises that encourage the horse to move freely in a relaxed frame and may progress to poles and cavaletti once the horse is willing to stretch. A Pessoa Lunging System may be used to encourage the horse to engage its core muscles. Exercise on an aqua treadmill may also be recommended. An assessment of saddle fit should also be performed and any necessary adjustments made to alleviate pressure points on the back. Chiropractic and acupuncture therapies, as well as therapeutic ultrasound, may also be utilized.

Surgical treatment is also an option in severe cases. One approach is to remove about half (3 inches) of the bone at the top of each of the dorsal spinous processes. This type of surgery is highly invasive and involves long recovery times. Alternatively, endoscopy may be used to remove selected dorsal spinous processes and rejoin the ligaments between the processes. Another option is to perform an interspinous ligament desmotomy (ISLD) in which the interspinous ligament(s) is cut to relieve tension on the ligament. This can be performed in a standing, sedated horse. Although surgical intervention can produce positive results, these approaches can also destabilize the back and can lead to future lameness.

What is the prognosis for kissing spines?
The presence of kissing spines is not necessarily a cause for concern, but it may be considered as a predisposing factor for back pain. The majority of affected horses that exhibit clinical signs are able to return to work with medical or surgical treatment and physical therapy. Sustained results often necessitate a multifaceted approach, which requires time and commitment. The prognosis is poorer for young horses (5 years of age or younger), horses with five or more vertebrae involved, and for cases in which kissing spines are secondary to other spinal issues.

How can kissing spines be prevented?
The exact cause of kissing spines is unknown but is thought to be related to conformation and development. It is important to treat potential underlying issues, such as other causes of lameness or improper saddle fit, first, as these may prevent horses from using their backs properly.

For more information:
UC Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine, Equine Integrative Sports Medicine Service:

UC Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine, Equine Surgery and Lameness Service:

*This article may not be reproduced without the written consent of the UC Davis Center for Equine Health. Please email requests to

Click image to see pdf



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