If you’ve spent any time around riding horses, you have probably come across a horse who could be described as “girthy” or “cinchy”.
A horse who is not comfortable with the saddling/girthing process may display their concern in number of ways, from the subtle -tension through the body, holding their breath, pawing the ground to the more obvious – pinned ears, scrunched up eyes, bared teeth, swatting tail or legs, and in extreme circumstances the threat or act of biting or cow kicking. In the most extreme cases you may see explosive behaviour or a catatonic state, where the horse actually drops to the ground.
However a horse displays their concern, in a mild or extreme manner, this behaviour is COMMUNICATION about how the horse is feeling about the situation.
A horse can become “cinchy” for many reasons:
- The horse has been girthed up too tight or too fast at some point in his life–typically early in training
- Discomfort due to poor saddle fit and the horse does not want it there, understandably! In this case you may notice that when you approach with an ill-fitting saddle, your horse may already be showing his concern by tensing the body, raising the head, moving to the side or maybe even pinning the ears. Some horses will change their response as you bring out a different saddle.
- They are holding tension through their back and girth area and the added pressure of the girth and saddle is uncomfortable.
- Gastric or hind-gut ulcers, mild sand colic, ovarian cysts, structural imbalances (“out” in the ribs etc”) or other issue that needs to be addresses by a Veterinarian.
Traditionally, people would respond to this display of “cinchiness” by getting after the horse through a form of punishment. This may be anything from yelling “quit!”, smacking the neck or as violent as kicking or kneeing the horse in the belly, ignoring or not realizing his discomfort.
It is widely believed that you must girth up a horse extra tight to keep the saddle from slipping, and there are even leverage devices to get the girth tighter than you can get with your own power. We consider these inhumane.
Tellington Method Approach: We’ve found it to be much more useful to fasten the girth comfortably snug but not tight. Lead a few steps and take it up again before mounting. Then check again after mounting.
Consider just how tight you need your girth to be. Taking up a girth too much can limit the movement of the ribs and the ability of the horse to breathe. If your horse is of normal weight, and not rolling in fat without withers, you may be able to ride with the girth a notch or two looser than you have been. Find out what’s really comfortable and safe for you and your horse.
If necessary, consider adding a breast plate or crupper to help keep the saddle from slipping back or forward on a low-withered horse.
Once you have ruled out an ill-fitting saddle or physical issue, Your goal is to erase the girthy horse’s anticipation of discomfort during the saddling process by allowing him to breathe and release his tight back and barrel muscles. This, in turn, will improve his performance, willingness and length of stride under saddle.
- Head-Lowering • Abalone TTouches with Python Lifts • Leg Circles • Belly Lifts • Lick of the Cow’s Tongue (Learn more about these techniques)
Start with slow, deliberate Abalone TTouches and Python Lifts using a flat hand over the entire girth and barrel area to release tense muscles. Your goal is to encourage the horse to lower his head, breathe and release tight muscles when he feels contact there. Continue onto the flank area, because the sensitivity often extends quite far back, and the entire area needs your attention. In extreme cases of snapping or biting, encourage your horse to breathe and lower his head by letting him eat either hay or grain so that the neck remains parallel to the ground.
Adding Leg Circles can be an indirect way to release tension through the withers, heart girth and shoulder. Most horses readily accept leg circles. As with all techniques, stay within the horse’s comfortable range of movement.
Watch for the smallest signs of concern. As soon as your horse changes the shape of his eye, holds his breathe or gets “too still” pause what you are doing and either go lighter, slower, or take a moment to go back where he was completely unconcerned and work back towards the area of concern. Letting your horse know that you are “listening” and then expanding their area of comfort slowly can go a long way in develop trust and encouraging relaxation.
If your horse is not completely comfortable with being touched around his or her heart girth and underside, the Belly Lifts are the best exercise to start with. Being able to touch this area does not necessarily mean that your horse is unconcerned with it. Begin with slowly running the back of your hand around the belly, watching for small changes in the eye, ear, and respiration. Be mindful not to stand within kicking range in case your horse reflexively swats with their hind legs.
If your horse is very “ticklish” in the girth area, he may benefit from Belly Lifts with an Ace Bandage, towel or unattached girth. You want him to learn to feel secure with contact around the sensitive area.
Horses who are not comfortable with the feeling or containment around their heart girth will benefit from doing this technique with an Ace bandage. The stretch and give of the bandage allows the horse to relax and trust that the light pressure will not cause discomfort. This step would be an example of “Chunking Down” the exercise into small, manageable parts.
Belly Lifts are an excellent way to help reduce tension through the barrel and elbow as well as the topline. They improve your horse’s breathing, give an older or pregnant horse a release through their back and are a great tool for helping a girthy horse become more comfortable and accepting of the process or as a mindful way to introduce the girth to a green horse.
For a horse who is particularly uncomfortable being touched or groomed around the barrel start with a stretchy leg bandage or ACE elastic bandage.
Take the bandage and place it around the horse at the heart girth with one hand holding an end at the withers and your other hand holding the remaining material just below where an English saddle flap would end. Breathe and allow the bandage to make contact with the underside of your horse. Slowly lift your lower hand to the count of 3, you will feel like you are barely making any contact, hold, and then release twice as slowly as you lifted. The idea is to start so gently that your horse does not make any indication of apprehension or discomfort. Repeat this exercise, moving the bandage as far back as you and the horse are comfortable with. Be sure to keep your body out of reach of the hind legs. If your horse starts to fidget or seem agitated, do less. Keep your knees soft and remember to breathe.
The key to Belly Lifts is to be slow and mindful. You want to allow the tension to melt out of the body so it is important to release very slowly so you support the body rather than dropping it. Once your horse is comfortable with the bandage you can progress to having the bandage doubled up, then progress to a large folded towel or a surcingle and girth. If you have another person this exercise can be done with a person on either side. When saddling you can easily add a few Belly Lifts as you do up the girth by holding the billets down as you slowly lift and release the girth. Doing this will help your horse relax and encourage normal breathing.
When your horse is feeling safer about contact there, you will be able to do very light Lick of Cow’s Tongue without eliciting objections from your horse such as pinning ears and snapping. This may take several sessions.
After your horse accepts you using the towel or unattached girth to do the lifts, put the saddle on without girthing it up.
Try working from the right side of the horse–it’s nonhabitual and will bypass the area with which he associates the most sensitivity. While your horse eats at chest level, stabilize the saddle with one hand and slowly lift the girth and do light belly lifts with the girth attached to the left side of the saddle only.
From now on, start making contact with the girth by doing small Belly Lifts. These can take mere seconds but can completely change how a horse feels about the process.
Do the girth up loosely when you first tack up. Put on the bridle, take the girth up another hole, even lead your horse out for a bit, return and take it up another notch.
With a cinchy horse, lead him a few steps and then take it up another notch. After you mount, preferably from a mounting block, check it again after a few minutes. The settling of the rider into the saddle, the compression of the pad (and, in some instances, the saddle itself, as in the case of treeless saddles) will loosen the girth somewhat.
Check the placement and comfort of your girth, and perhaps try some different materials, such as a girth with elastic ends, sheepskin cover or mohair girth. Check the girth itself: make sure it isn’t crowding or jamming the elbow. For Western riders, if your cinch is riding too far forward, as it may be with a double-rigging, consider switching your saddle to a three-quarter rigging. If you don’t know how to do this, you may need the help of your local tack shop or saddle maker. Some Western saddles allow you to do this. If your horse has been galling behind the elbows, in addition to moving the cinch back.
Once a horse has the habit of tensing up, you may have to continue being careful when saddling; you can’t be casual about it. For horses who have dealt with chronic ulcers, or other pain related ailments, the habitual expectation of pain can be deeply engrained.
By slowing down the process and coming from a place of understanding rather than fear or annoyance, you will go a long way in helping you and your horse create a more harmonious relationship, from tacking up and beyond.