Saddle Fit Do-Over

Julie and Annie Assessing Saddle Fit
Julie and Annie Assessing Saddle Fit

Assessing your tack—in terms of its condition, fit to the horse, and appropriateness for the horse’s discipline and level of training—should be ongoing, but doing a thorough assessment should happen at least once a year. For me, New Year’s Day is the time I like to plunge into my horse’s saddle fit, consider what goals I have for the upcoming riding season, and plan for any changes I may need to make.

My Quarter Horse mare, Annie, is going to be 15 years old in 2022. It’s a big leap away from prime time, landing her squarely in middle age (and there’s no need to discuss the middle-aged spread we all experience). Let’s just say that with every year of a horse’s life, its body undergoes significant changes. 

This year, my evaluation of Annie’s saddle fit revealed that it’s time for me to make some major changes.

Annie is small, very short-coupled, and round as a 55-gallon barrel. At 14.0 hands, she’s the perfect size for me, and being short-backed and quick-footed makes her super-fun to ride. Even though Annie is round, she’s still a very little horse—a pony, really. She’s also quite short from withers to loins, presenting additional challenges with a Western saddle. Low withers, short-backed, small stature, round barrel—these are the challenges I face in finding the best saddle fit for her.

Because her withers are not prominent and her physique is rotund, her saddle is always prone to slipping—no matter how tight the girth. This has been her nemesis since she was a youngster, and she’s grown quite weary of being cinched up tight

In the past few months, I’ve seen increasing resistance from her when I am saddling. I can tell she dreads it. She bows her back, steps backwards, and makes sour faces, which make her opinions quite clear. These changes in her behavior made me suspicious, so I scheduled my vet for a thorough examination of her back. Dr. Casey Potter is a performance horse and lameness specialist, who treats world champion horses for lameness and structural unsoundness—including the spine. 

I was tremendously relieved when Dr. Potter found no signs of soreness or abnormalities in Annie’s back, giving me confidence that her spine is strong and healthy. Still, I knew that my saddle fit needed improvement, because a tight girth was clearly creating her discomfort. She was telling me she had reached her limit, and resentment was building.

My first step was to re-evaluate her saddle fit, starting from scratch. First, I set the saddle on her back without a pad or cinch and pressing down from the top, I slipped my fingers under the bars of the tree, running them down her back from front to rear, feeling the amount of contact the bars of the tree had with her back. As I suspected, the bars were not making even contact down the length of her back and it was bridging, causing pressure in the front and rear, but not in the middle.

My next step was to try various small bridging pads that are designed to adjust for the contours of the horse’s back that cause the bars of the saddle tree to bridge. I’ve been using a shim pad on Annie for years, to mitigate asymmetry and bridging, but it was beginning to look like that wasn’t sufficient anymore. The short shoulder pad seemed like the right shape for her back, but it was too big for her compact frame.

"Bridge the Gap" with Bridge Pads by Circle YWhether a horse is short-backed, long-backed, hip high, sway backed, thin of flesh or prominent of withers, it can affect saddle fit. Depending on the length and shape of the horse’s back, the bridge pad, shoulder bridge pad, or long shoulder bridge pad may help improve saddle fit.

Throughout this process, it became increasingly apparent to me that the fit problem was less about the shape of her back and more about the length of my full-skirted Western saddle. That’s not an easy pill to swallow when I have a tack room full of fabulous saddles, but improving Annie’s saddle fit means buying a different saddle. My full-skirted Monarch with a 16” seat is simply too long for her short pony-type build, and the bridging is related more to the saddle length than any dip in her back. 

The Wind River saddle, of all the saddles I designed, is for just this sort of situation. It’s got the eye-appeal of a classic Western saddle, the same close-contact, comfort features, and functionality of the Monarch, but with a rounded skirt that significantly shortens the overall length of the saddle to 27 inches. Conveniently, I am of small stature, too, so I’ll order a 15 ½” seat (which is big enough for me) to help shorten it even more. 

I guess both Annie and I will be getting a late Christmas present this year! Like many things in the supply chain these days, saddles are in high demand and low supply, so I know I need to order now, to enjoy my new saddle this summer. This saddle comes in three colors, but personally I prefer the natural oil over walnut and black, because it eventually turns to a beautiful mahogany patina, which accentuates Annie’s deep red color. 

What Saddle Is Perfect for a Short-Backed Horse Like Annie?My Teton Trail Saddle has a 27” overall length (the same as the Wind River saddle), and at a great price, it's a good option to consider for a short-backed horse like Annie. I have 1 in stock right now with a 15” seat—and you don't have to wait 7 months—it's ready to ship today!

New Year’s is also the time of year I like to plan for the upcoming riding and training season—while there’s plenty of time to get organized, leg-up my horse, and invigorate my training plans. This year, my husband and I have an ambitious schedule of clinics and versatile ranch horse competitions we want to attend. 

Although my role will be more as a groom and coach rather than as a competitor, I still need my little mare to be fit, happy and comfortable in her tack. Far better to bite the bullet now so I have time to order the saddle, get it fitted, and for her to get comfortable in the new saddle before the busy riding season begins.

In the meantime, the snow and cold has driven us indoors to ride, and since I am without a well-fitted saddle, I’ve decided to focus on riding bareback until my new saddle comes. Surprisingly, riding in the bareback pad also gives me the opportunity to train the habitual cinchiness out of Annie. Even though the bareback pad girth is soft and never pulled tight, she’s still resistant when I go through the tightening motions—more evidence that it’s an ingrained habit and not a true reaction to pain. 

As I slowly snug the soft girth of the bareback pad, if she tenses and bows her back up, I gently send her forward in a circle around me, one way then the other, waiting for her to relax. After just a few days, already one behavior is replacing the other and when she begins to tense, she then relaxes and steps forward. By taking the time to work through her resentment now, by the time my new saddle comes, I’m hopeful this habit will be long gone.

Of course, riding bareback will also help my riding skills. Honing my balance, building core strength, and increasing my endurance are just a few of the benefits of riding bareback, and these are all essential to staying strong as a rider, particularly as I age.  It helps me stay in better riding shape from using my abdominal and leg muscles more, and most importantly, it hones my balance on the horse. Remember, balance naturally deteriorates as we age, so riding bareback is a good way to combat aging!

On some days, I shed the bridle and ride Annie bareback and without the bridle, with just a neck rope. This brings a refined subtleness to my riding and cueing that seems like pure connectivity. It’s harder work for the horse without the bridle, since she must pay rapt attention to my cues so as not to miss something. But it brings us both together and makes our shared language more fluent.

Now that I’ve bitten the bullet and made the decision to buy a new saddle for Annie, I’m excited about it and I can’t wait to try it out. I’m working on my patience too, since it will be a couple months before my new saddle arrives. In the meantime, riding bareback makes my indoor arena seem much bigger than it really is, and I’m confident that I am improving my stamina and balance.

Despite all the odds, this year is off to a great start for me. Now is the time to make your plans for next summer and to evaluate where you are now with your horse, and where you hope to be this time next year. I wish you all the best for a bright, healthy, and happy new year!

Cinching Up Just Enough – Julie Goodnight Q & A

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Q: How tight should I tighten my horse’s cinch—and what is the right process. I don’t want to hurt my horse and I want to make sure he never becomes cinchy. –Pam Friend, via e-mail

 

A: How tight the cinch needs to be depends on the shape of the horse, the type of riding you plan to do, and the skill and size of the rider. The cinch and girth are interchangeable terms—depending on your saddle type. If you ride English, you probably say girth and if you ride in a Western saddle, you say cinch. The girth is also a term to identify the horse’s body part.

 

The cinch needs to be tight enough to allow you to mount and dismount without causing the saddle to shift. You want to keep the saddle balanced, but you don’t want to tighten a cinch more than needed—that can cause discomfort to the horse and can cause the horse to resist the saddling process.

 

A less experienced, or out-of-balance rider may need a tighter cinch. If they shift when a horse spooks or turns quickly, they may torque the saddle and cause it to rotate. A small and unbalanced rider may not be able to move the saddle that much, but an adult who is off balance can easily move a saddle that is not adequately secured with the cinch. If you are cutting or rounding barrels, you want to make sure your saddle doesn’t shift as the horse performs tight turns.

 

The horse’s conformation plays a role, as well. If you have a round horse with low withers, you may have to tighten the cinch quite a bit. Higher withers can help keep a saddle in place. The type of pad and the material the cinch is made of can also affect how tightly you’ll cinch up. If the material is smooth or shiny, it won’t help the saddle stay in place.

 

Let’s talk about the process. It’s best to untie a horse before tightening the cinch. Your horse doesn’t have to be totally loose, but if he becomes uncomfortable during the process, you don’t want him to be tied hard and fast to a hitching rail or cross ties. He could pull back and panic, which may lead to tying problems later on. Lay the lead over a rail so that he knows not to move, but perceives he is tied and will stand still.

 

I like to rub the horse’s girth area before I bring the cinch into place. With my head facing the horse’s head (to keep it out of the kick zone), I bend to reach for the cinch and attach the cinch with the buckle. At this point, I only attach the cinch enough so that the saddle will stay in place. Then I’ll move the cinch up one hole, wait a moment and cinch up one more hole. Then I walk the horse a minimum of five steps to allow the saddle to settle on to his back. Then I’ll tighten the cinch enough so that I can get on. If the saddle slips as I get on, the saddle is too loose. As my horse warms up, the tack will settle onto his back again. Check your cinch again 10 minutes into your ride or before you canter.

 

To check the cinch, reach between the horse’s front legs and check at the horse’s centerline. You should be able to put one index finger in to your finger’s first joint. If you can reach in at the back of the cinch more than that, it’s probably too loose. If you can’t fit a finger in at all, it may be too tight. Checking the cinch behind the horse’s shoulder may not give you an accurate reading. Most horses are concave there, just below your saddle. The cinch will always feel loose there. Tip: don’t expect your horse to always use the same hole on your cinch or latigo; it will change somewhat as he changes in age, fitness and hair coat. Go by what you notice and how it feels, not by a counting the holes.

 

Q: How do you train a horse to go from direct reining (two hands) to neck reining with one hand? Kim Ridgeway, via e-mail

 

A: When I start training a young horse, I lay the groundwork for neck reining later. I believe that all horses should be able to neck rein—English and Western. You never know when you need to ride with one hand. The training for one-handed riding starts by practicing with two hands.

 

To start, you’ll keep both hands on the reins and make sure your hands are in front of the pommel. Keep your hands to the sides of the horse’s neck—so that your hands are far apart with about a foot of space in between. For proper position, imagine a straight line from your elbow to the corner of the horse’s mouth. Start cueing for a turn with the leading rein. Many riders learn on trained horses and first learn the direct rein—when you pull back in the direction you want to go by pulling the rein toward your hip. The direct rein is a “rein of opposition” and interferes with forward motion. You cannot use a direct rein when you are riding a young horse—or you will stop him from moving freely forward. When you’re riding a young horse you want him to learn to move ahead. You don’t want to train him to get “sticky feet” and stop too often, so forward motion is critical.

 

Instead, you’ll use the leading rein. Instead of pulling back, you open your hand out to the side in the direction you want to go (imagine a hitch-hiker’s thumb). It helps the horse know to turn without stopping his forward motion. That’s the movement you’ll do with your inside hand. As a secondary rein aid, you’ll close your outside hand against the horse’s neck. Move your outside hand toward the horse’s neck, but never across the midline of the horse.

 

Step 1: When I’m starting a young colt, this is exactly how I cue him to turn from the very first ride. With the leading rein, I can direct the horse by opening the rein in the direction I want to go and I’m reinforcing what will be the neck rein with my outside hand. I lay the groundwork for the neck rein from the start and he begins to associate the feel of the rein on his neck with a turn.

 

Step 2: I continue to practice turns by starting with the leading rein and adding the neck rein as the secondary cue. However, when he begins to turn, I release the leading rein (moving my hand back toward the midline of the horse) while keeping the neck rein in place. My goal is to hold the horse in the turn with the neck rein. At any time (still holding the reins with two hands), I can reach down and bump (do not pull or hold pressure) with the leading rein to help him know to continue turning. That’s the second stage of training. After practicing this stage for a week or more, I’ll see if I can initiate the turn with the neck rein.

 

Step 3: Next I will start the turn with the neck rein. If that doesn’t cause the horse to turn, I’ll immediately bump with the leading rein to remind the horse of what I’m asking. I’ll continue asking my horse to turn with the neck rein first and then reinforcing with a bump of the leading rein until he turns consistently off of the neck-rein cue.

 

Step 4: Once you’re initiating and holding the turns as long as you want with the neck rein—and the horse is moving lightly off of the neck rein—you’re close to riding with one hand. At this point, I continue to ride with two hands, but I move my hands closer and closer together. Soon, I’m holding my knuckles together so my hands are together as one. The horse feels what he will feel when I move to one hand, but I can quickly reinforce if needed. I then move to a trainer’s hold on the reins—where there’s a bridge of the reins. Then I’ll switch to the pistol grip on the reins—riding with only one hand.

 

Depending on your horse’s age and experience, your level of skill and the amount of time you have to ride, this process can be taught in as little as three weeks or as long as several months. A colt that has just started learning any cues will take a long time to learn the different rein aids. He needs to stay at the beginning levels for quite some time to make sure he has all the fundamentals. If you are riding a trained horse that knows the leading rein well and just needs a reminder of the neck rein, you may be able to work through a step per week. If at any time you need to step back and remind the horse of the new cue, switch back to two hands.

 

A note about timing: A reinforcement or reward (release) must come within three seconds for the horse to learn, but the sooner in the three seconds, the faster the horse learns.

 

For instance, if you lay the neck rein on the horse and wait too long for him to turn before reinforcing with the leading rein, he won’t learn the neck rein as fast as if you reinforce that cue immediately. If the release or reinforcement comes within a second, the horse will learn quickly.

–Julie Goodnight

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On The Rail: Q And A

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Question:
I work as a therapeutic riding instructor at a facility that has about 20+ horses. We have all types of horse behavior issues that creep up before we know it. I’ve seen a gelding go from being sweet and easy to handle to now sour and ready to bite his leaders. Another gelding we have has a terrible habit of trying to bite his leader while he is trotting with a rider on his back. Another pony tries occasionally to cow kick the side walkers that walk alongside the riders. Several try to bite leaders while going through a mounting block for loading our riders. Then several are cinchy and try to bite during saddling. You can just imagine how disconcerting this all is to trying to teach therapeutic riding lessons, but we have eager volunteers and are trying to maintain a professional happy horse facility. Can you help? – Rebekah Holt

Answer:
Dear rebekah, thanks for your question. You have described in a nutshell the problems that most therapeutic riding (tr) centers have with their horses, the causes of these undesirable behaviors and the aftermath that occurs once the horses learn that there are certain times and places where they will not be corrected.

In 2010, I did a groundwork training session for tr horses at the national convention for PATH (then NARHA) in Denver. It was an interesting and productive session and I wish I’d had all day to work with the six different tr horses. they were all representative of the problems you describe and honestly, every tr center I’ve ever worked with has these types of problems. It is somewhat inherent in the equation.

why do these horses get so cranky? It’s not so much the clients on their backs they are bothered by, most tr horses love the clients and take good care of them.

Primarily, these problems stem from the hovering crowd of people around them all the time, eager volunteers that do not have good horsemanship skills, crowding the horse’s face, clamoring for the horse, pulling constantly on the rope held too tightly at his nose (as if the horse has no idea how to go around the arena), micro- managing every movement the horse or rider makes. Giving the horse his space and leaving him alone to do his job is what the horse wants.

Why do the horses begin to disdain the handlers? because it is a revolving door of people, most of whom know less about the therapeutic riding operation than the horses do, bossing the horse around when they have no relationship with the horse, interjecting authority when they have no standing. Pretending to be a leader, but in the horse’s mind, it’s all a sham. horses know true leadership when they see it. It cannot be faked.

When people (in any setting) try to assert authority when they have none, the horses begin to disdain that person. “who do you think you are, coming in here once a week and pretending to be my leader? then at other times showing a total lack of leadership?” horses cannot be fooled and they disdain fake leaders, usually getting increasingly aggressive. “You think you’re the leader? I’ll show you…”

Furthermore, horses are relationship oriented animals— they live in a herd where membership and standing are conditional. horses prefer to meet, greet, and get to know their handlers—know what to expect from them and trust in their leadership. respect and authority aren’t given carte blanche by horses. You have to earn it.

It’s hard enough on a regular school horse to always be changing riders—many horses cannot tolerate the constant change. but at least regular school horses have the consistency from the professionals that handle the horses. the therapy horses get handled by people that arrive out of the blue and know little about handling horses.

The biggest tragedy occurs when horses learn that there is a certain context in which they will not be corrected and so can get away with anything they want. unfortunately, this cannot be unlearned and once again, horses are not easily faked with “planted” riders. this may work once but rarely twice; horses are very discriminating. this can happen to show horses and performing horses too. the most effective key is prevention. If horses are handled appropriately, this should not occur. Sometimes horses that learn these things have to move on to a new career.

I do not know how to fix these endemic problems in tr except to change the very nature of the operation, using more permanent paid staff and fewer volunteers. horse handlers would have the same level of experience and competency that the instructors do; excellent leading skills, knowledgeable and competent at groundwork and training. the side walkers would have to learn good horsemanship skills too and start being sensitive to the horse’s claustrophobic nature; earn the horse’s respect instead of expecting it.

So perhaps doubling your budget for paid staff would solve your problems! Many large tr centers have learned the value of having professional horse trainers on staff, but many more do not have the budget for it.

In lieu of that, the best we can do is educate people about the nature of horses and their behavior and teach the volunteers natural horsemanship skills. Good luck and keep up the good work! Educating people and creating greater awareness of the horse will help.

By Julie Goodnight – CHA Spokesperson

Troubleshooting Behavior Issues

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You will not receive a DVD with this purchase but you will be able to watch repeatedly with your online account. To opt for the DVD delivered by mail, click here to shop >>   http://shopping.juliegoodnight.com/DVDs_c5.htm?page=all

Whether your horse refuses to be caught and haltered, tosses his head while you ride, kicks and bites when you place the saddle, constantly stops at the gate, or in general has a bad attitude, these worst-case scenario episodes of Horse Master will help you see how to handle most any troublesome behavior. Watch the episodes you loved on TV–all based on one training theme! You’ll have step by step directions from Julie and over 90 minutes of instruction!

BONUS: Behind-the-scenes footage from three different episodes!

  • Don’t Cinch Me In (cinchy) Cinchy behavior
  • Can’t Make Me (refuses to cross tarp) Refusing obstacles
  • Rules of the Game (hard to catch) Hard to catch
  • Mustang Mascot (gate sour, balky) Gate sour
  • Bad Medicine (de-worm) Refusing medication

 

Cinch Up Your Horse Saddle Right

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When you saddle your horse, secure your horse's saddle's points of attachment in the proper order to keep the saddle in place.When you saddle your horse, secure your horse saddle’s points of attachment in the proper order to keep the saddle in place. If your horse takes a step when the saddle isn’t properly secured, he may feel a shift or roll, and spook.

If your horse becomes entangled in the saddle, he may develop a fear of saddling and even risk breaking a leg.

To keep the saddle in place as you tack up, first attach the front cinch, then the back cinch, and lastly, the breastcollar and/or crupper. (Tip: Connect the front and back cinches with a string or lariat so the back cinch doesn’t slide back and irritate your horse’s inner thighs.) To remove the saddle, reverse the order: Undo the breastcollar/crupper, then the back cinch, and finally, the front cinch.

How To Settle Your Cinchy Horse

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Is your trail horse cinchy? That is, does he act up when you saddle him, even before you reach for the cinch or girth? (Generally the term “cinch” is used for a Western saddle and the term “girth” is used for an English one; these terms can be used interchangeably when discussing this behavioral issue.)

Signs of a cinchy horse include tensing, head raising/bobbing, ear-pinning, pulling back, threatening to bite, and kicking at the cinch or girth. Such behavior is not only annoying, but also can post safety risks to both you and your horse. Sometimes, a horse is fine in one area, such as at a trailer, but acts up in or around his stall.

Here, I’ll first explain where cinchiness comes from. Then I’ll tell you how to deal with it.

A ‘Fear Memory’
In my opinion, cinchiness is a problem created by humans, and horses are just expressing their emotional discomfort. Having started hundreds of colts in my career, I know that a certain number of them will have a strong negative reaction to the girth the very first time it’s tightened.

Whether this reaction is caused by pain or panic, it’s a real emotion on the part of the horse. On the first saddling, if the horse is girthed up abruptly and tightly, the pain or panic he feels is very traumatic and is permanently logged in the horse’s brain as a “fear memory.”

Research has shown that once a fear memory has been logged in a horse’s brain, it’ll always be there. Since you can’t erase the fear memory, the only option is to override the reaction it causes by using training or replacement behavior.

Horses become cinchy because humans are insensitive to the amount of pressure they put on him, either the first time he’s saddled or in subsequent saddlings. Whether or not the horse actually feels pain or discomfort we don’t really know, but certainly cinchy horses develop resentment about the action of girthing.

Replacement training is a method to replace one behavior or emotion with another. In this instance, you can replace your horse’s resentment with positive associations by rewarding the appropriate behavior (relaxed acceptance of girth pressure). Just make sure that you reward only the correct behavior.

The “Blow Up” Myth
Contrary to popular belief, horses don’t “blow up” so that the girth isn’t tight. First of all, the girth goes across a ring of bone, which a horse can’t really expand. Secondly, horses don’t have the ability to take an action now that leads to a different outcome in the future.

Rather, a gradual loosening of the girth may be caused by compression of the saddle, pad and your horse’s haircoat, and muscle contraction as your horse works.

Horses that have been gut-wrenched (suffered a sudden tightening of the girth) will learn to flinch at any girth tightening; this is often mistaken for “blowing up.” If every time I walked up to you, I punched you in the stomach, you’d soon learn to flinch at my approach.

Step-by-Step Technique
To teach your horse to accept the cinch, it’s helpful to use the same desensitization techniques as you would for a first saddling. To follow each step, click on the numbers below.

Step 1. Put safety first. Never tie your horse while you girth him up, or he could develop a dangerous pull-back problem.Position yourself in such a way that you won’t get hurt should he decide to bite or kick. Keep your left elbow out or even a stick or a crop so that if the horse swings his head around to bite, he hits his face against a hard solid object as a deterrent.

Step 2. Start slow. Saddle your horse, but leave the girth loose. Massage the girth area, and watchfor any negative reaction. If he’s not bothered by the girth massage, then pull the girth up around body. Pull it tight, then release it. Repeat this step over and over, increasing the pressure each time.

Gradually, start pulling down on the saddle at the same time you pull up on the girth, always with a release in between.

If your horse shows a negative response to pressure at the girth area (tensing, raising head, pinning ears), slow down, and stay at that stage until he’s ready to move forward.

Step 3. Advance and retreat. As you progress through these steps, use my “advance and retreat” method. That is, advance only as far as you can until your horse tenses, then hold that ground until he relaxes and accepts the pressure.

The instant your horse relaxes, retreat (momentarily release the pressure or walk away from him) as a reward. (For more on my “advance and retreat” method, click here.)

Give your horse as much time as he needs to become desensitized to the girth before you fully saddle him.

Step 4. Fasten the girth. If your horse has come this far with no adverse reaction, actually fasten the girth. At this point, the girth should be just tight enough to hold the saddle in place (it’s extremely critical at this stage that the saddle doesn’t slip under his belly), but not so tight that it’ll cause him discomfort. At first, just snug the girth up just enough to safely hold the saddle in place.

Step 5. Walk him forward. Now, desensitize your horse to the feel of the tightened saddle and girth while he’s moving. While leading him, move him one step at a time. After each step, stop and praise him, and allow him to relax and accept the new stimulus. Gradually work toward your horse moving in a relaxed, steady manner.

Step 6. Slow down. Cinch minimally at first, and then gradually tighten the cinch as you get ready to ride. Lead your horse around between tightenings so he can get accustomed to the tightness. As you finish tacking and getting ready to ride, tighten the girth gradually, going up a notch every few minutes, allowing him to relax and accept the new level of pressure for a few minutes.

Before you step up into the saddle, make sure the girth is adequately tight so that the saddle doesn’t slip when mounting. Warm up your horse, and tighten the girth again.

Step 7. Avoid a too-tight girth. Of course, you don’t want your girth to be so loose that it doesn’t hold your saddle safely in place. However, a too-tight girth can compromise safety by leading to behavior problems, such as bucking and balking. It can also lead to more cinchiness issues.

Tighten the girth enough to keep the saddle centered during mounting and dismounting; this degree of tightness will vary with the individual horse.

For instance, a horse with prominent and well-defined withers won’t need a girth as tight as a horse with low withers and a very round shape.

Tightness Check
To check for tightness, don’t slip your fingers in the girth just below the saddle, as is commonly done. Most horses are concave in this area, so the girth may always feel loose here.

Instead, place your fingers under the back of the cinch at your horse’s sternum, right between his legs. This is an area where the girth crosses bone, and you’ll get a much more accurate feel for how tight the girth truly is.

Keeping Saddle On

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Dear Julie,
My friends and I have a problem with our saddles rolling over to the side when we get on. My horse in particular has a flat broad back with wide withers. Any suggestions? I know we are cinching our western saddles up tight enough.
Roly Poly

Dear Roly,
A round, mutton-withered horse is difficult to keep a saddle on, but there are a few things that may help.

First, make sure your saddle fits. That seem like a no-brainer, but if your tree is too wide or too narrow, it’ll be more likely to slip. Often a flexible tree will hold better on a round horse than a rigid tree saddle because it shapes to the horse’s back. This is one reason I like the Circle Y Flex2 saddles.

Secondly, the saddle pad you use can really help or really hurt. Make sure you are not using too thick a pad—usually round horses don’t need a lot of padding. For the really round horses I like to use a split-withered pad—sometimes called a cut-back pad (incidentally, this also works for very high-withered horses). It helps to hold the pad in place around the withers. I also often use an open-cell foam pad that has a suction-like effect and holds on the back really well.

Make sure when you saddle that you pull the pad well up into the gullet of the saddle—causing a V-shape to the pad, which is less likely to slip. If you don’t pull it up and create an air space over your horse’s spine, the pad sits right on the withers and has a round shape which slips much easier (not to mention puts uncomfortable pressure on his spine).

Unfortunately for the round horse, you have to keep the cinch much tighter than you would on a horse with good withers. Make sure you tighten the cinch slowly—don’t gut-wrench him right off that bat—that will create a cinchy horse, or one that is resentful of the cinch. Tighten the cinch gradually over 10 minutes or so and walk him a little between tightenings. Check your cinch again about 15 minutes into your ride or before you do any loping.

Finally, you might consider using a breast collar and/or a crupper, which attaches to the back of the saddle and goes under the horse’s tail. Neither one will stop your saddle from sliding but they will help stabilize it. Good luck and be sure to keep you weight in the middle of your horse!
–Julie Goodnight

Saddled Down

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Dear Julie,

My new gelding has started lying down when I put his saddle on. When I first had him on his two-week trial, he was in poor physical condition—his ribs showed. He had been grazing on three sparse acres. He hadn’t been ridden or exercised in months. The vet said he also had some knee weakness, as shown as she performed a bending test. He’s a bit knock-kneed. Still, he was friendly (and still is) and I had no trouble saddling him during his initial time with me. His previous owner said that the only trouble was that he had pulled back when tied.

But after about five months of riding, good nutrition, etc., he has developed a bad habit. He will pull back at the rail, and collapse down on his front legs when I go to put the saddle on him. When he first did it, I thought he was going to die! I released him from the hitching rail but he wouldn’t get up. I took off his saddle and waited for him to get up. I called the vet for advice. She had me exercise him a little to see how he looked. He seemed fine. I saddled him again and went on with my ride. He was fine on the ride.
But the behavior hasn’t ended. One time he went down when he was hooked to the trailer and I couldn’t get the quick release knot out for a while because it was too tight. I also had a hard time getting the saddle off and getting him up. He was flailing around and appeared wild-eyed—it really scared me.
To deal with the problem behavior, I have stopped tying him to the hitching rail or trailer. I cinch him slowly and walk and or turn him to prevent him from going down. The last time I saddled him, he did go down–even with a loose cinched saddle on. I didn’t move fast enough to get him moving. I re-saddled him and went on a ride. Once he is on a ride, he is energetic and fun and likes to move. What do you think is causing his problem and what would you suggest we do to solve the problem?
Downhearted

Dear Downhearted,
The two problems your horse is exhibiting–pulling back when tied and throwing himself down when saddled–are related. It’s likely that one is leading to the other. Horses that are cinchy (reactive to girth tightening) and horses that pull back when tied may have learned the behaviors because of poor horse handling or improper training. Sometimes the best riding horses have these common afflictions. The patterns aren’t bad behavior or spitefulness from the horse, but simply a natural response to pain or fear.

When an otherwise trained and compliant horse suddenly displays undesirable behavior such as this, it’s important to rule out any physical or health problems or the possibility that an ill-fitting saddle. Have your vet thoroughly examine the horse and/or have a saddle fitting expert look at the saddle fit to make sure it is adequate. It is entirely possible that this is a pain response, or it may be that he is just naturally cinchy (highly reactive to the tightening of the cinch).

Some horses will be naturally cinchy the very first time they are saddled and some develop this problem over time. In both instances, the saddling technique can either exacerbate or alleviate the problem, depending on how it is done. The very first saddling is critical; if a naturally cinchy horse is saddled hard and fast the first time, with no desensitization, he may panic, pull back and even throw himself on the ground. This will cause a “fear memory” in the horse. Every time he is saddled from then on, he remembers his bad first experience.

A seasoned, well-trained horse that has never been cinchy before can be turned into a cinchy horse over time–or even with one improper saddling. If the cinch (or girth) is over tightened and causes the horse pain, he will develop a fear, sensitivity or even resentment to saddling or tightening the girth (as usually demonstrated by pinning ears and trying to bite when saddling).

In my barn, we are very careful to fasten the cinch slowly; making it barely snug at first then gradually tightening the cinch before we mount. A final cinch tightening is done after the horse has warmed up for about 10 minutes. If a horse has already learned to be cinchy, we will take a few minutes to massage the girth area before fastening the cinch. We’ll also pull tension on the cinch and release it a few times before actually fastening it–again taking our time to make the cinch tight and walking the horse between each tightening session.

You should never cinch a tied horse that is cinchy. This can easily lead to a horse pulling back and locking up against the rope until he falls down or collapses. These two behaviors are related—the pulling back leads to the collapsing. A horse that pulls back will often lock up and fall to the ground, whether he’s saddled or not. It’s a simple panic response: the horse feels pain or fear at the prospect of being saddled and his natural urge is to run away from his fear/pain. When he hits the end of the rope and discovers he is tied, a panic response sets in and he shuts down.

Obviously you have figured out that it’s not a good idea to tie a cinchy horse. Also, you should never bridle a tied horse because it will cause a horse to pull back or exacerbate an existing problem with pulling and with bridling. Any time you are doing something to a horse that may make him uncomfortable, untie him first.

Actually, what you have figured out to do with this horse is exactly the right thing. Cinch him untied and very slowly, massaging the girth area before fastening and walking him between each tightening. If he only pulls back when you cinch him and not at other times, then you can probably keep tying him, only releasing the knot when you saddle. However, if he has started pulling back at other times, you probably need to not tie him at all, but just loop the rope around itself so that there is enough friction to keep him in place but it will pull free should the horse panic and pull back. There is also a device called the Blocker Tie Ring that helps for horses that pull, by giving a slow release.

It sounds like your horse is otherwise a good solid citizen and fun to ride. You can learn to mitigate his problems by handling him carefully. In time, he may lose his fear of the cinch. Good luck and be safe!

Until next time,

Julie Goodnight
www.juliegoodnight.com

Advance And Retreat

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While shooting a Horse Master episode on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts I was introduced to a woman, Vickie Thurber, who had an accident with her young pinto eventing horse and wanted help introducing “Poco” to new possibly scary stimuli. She wanted to make sure he—and she—knew what to do if he spooked again. In their initial accident, Poco spooked and Vickie injured her arm. I decided to take Poco to the beach to introduce him to the surf. Though he lives on an island, the surf was new to him. Although not everyone can ride their horse on the beach, the technique I use to help Poco face his fears can be used to approach any scary object or scene. Read on to learn more about “advance and retreat”. Plus, watch a clip online now: http://horsemaster.juliegoodnight.com/episodes.html

Advance and retreat: These days, with military actions and wars consistently in the headlines, thoughts of aggression make it easy to think of “advance and retreat” as an aggressive move. But in case of horse training, advance and retreat is an important concept to understand and when utilized properly, this technique can effectively train your horse to quietly and peacefully accept all sorts of scary and uncomfortable stimuli.

When training a horse to accept a scary or adverse stimulus, whether it be clippers, fly spray, the water hose, the bridle, or taking a horse to the beach for the first time, it’s important to understand the theory of advance and retreat. First, you must understand that whatever a horse is afraid of, be it a sound, a feel or a touch, that factor is considered a stimulus. A stimulus is an environmental factor that motivates the horse to action. If the horse is afraid of the stimulus, the action will likely be to snort and run away.

The advance and retreat method of horse training is a way to desensitize the horse to a scary stimulus and teach him to respond to the stimulus with willing acceptance. Let’s say, for the sake of explanation that the scary stimulus is fly spray, although this method will work with any type of stimulus. The first step, in any training process, is to determine what the desired outcome is. In the instance of fly spray, the desired outcome is that the horse stands still and relaxed while you spray him.

With the case of fly spray, as with just about any scary stimulus, there are many different sensations that may frighten the horse. It maybe the sound of the spray bottle, the smell of the chemical or the feel of the droplets on his body (or all of the stimuli combined) that causes fear in the horse. Regardless of what actually causes the fear, it’s an honest emotion of the horse and he should not be reprimanded.

The theory of the advance is that you approach slowly with the stimulus, starting far enough away that the horse is not uncomfortable and advancing slowly until you reach the place that causes discomfort or a slight tensing in the horse. It may be that just spraying in close proximity to the horse causes him to tense and become frightened (helpful hint: use a bottle with water in it so you don’t waste your fly spray). Only advance as far as you can until the horse becomes tense, advance no farther but maintain your ground.

Continue applying the stimulus, at the distance that caused the horse discomfort and let him move as fast as he wants in a circle around you. Do not try to hold him still, don’t impede his forward motion; keep his nose tipped toward you so that he has to move in a circle around you. It’s important that he is allowed to move his feet because that is his natural reaction to a scary stimulus.

The theory of retreat comes into play once the horse voluntarily makes the right response, which is to hold still and/or relax. As soon as the horse stops his feet or relaxes, even if it’s very briefly, immediately remove the stimulus (stop spraying). Turn your back on the horse and take a few steps away and allow him time to relax and take a deep breath. Removing the stimulus when the horse makes the right response rewards him for stopping his feet. Timing is everything, as with most aspects of horse training.

Apply the stimulus again (advance), as close as causes discomfort and remove it the instant the horse stops moving his feet or relaxes (retreat). In very short order, the horse will make the association that if he holds still and relaxes, the scary thing will go away. Once he makes this association, it will diffuse his fear altogether.

It’s critical in this training technique that you not advance beyond whatever causes discomfort to the horse. Once he stands still and accepts the stimulus (because you have retreated a number of times), then you can advance farther. I have seen too many horses traumatized by people advancing too far initially and overwhelming the horse, sending him into terror and panic. Then often, the person removes the stimulus when the horse is reacting poorly, thus rewarding his behavior.

Advance and retreat, when applied with good timing and a calm and humane approach, will help the horse learn to stand still and accept scary stimuli. Furthermore, once a horse has been desensitized in this way to a number of stimuli, he learns to carry over this response to new stimuli as well and to think his way through a scary scene.
–Julie Goodnight

Issues From The Saddle: Horse Won’t Stand For Mounting

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: I ran across your website while searching for an answer for a behavior problem with my daughter’s 7 year old quarter horse mare. We have owned this mare about 2 1/2 years. The mare is very sweet and was well behaved when we first got her and would do anything my daughter asked to do. During this past spring the mare has started stepping away from Michele (my daughter) when she tries to mount her. At a horse show on Sunday the mare would not even let her tighten the girth when Michele tried to saddle her. Michele ended up loosing her patience with her mare and I think made the situation even worse. The look in the mare’s eyes was one of fear when Michele got upset with her. We did take her to the horse chiropractor in July and he said the mare’s neck was sore. In August she was tied in a stall at our county fair and I don’t know if the situation at the fair has somehow made her afraid of horse shows. Do you have any other suggestions? The mare has turned into a completely different horse and I want to get her back to her old sweet self again.

Thank you for any information you can provide.
Vickie

Answer: Vickie,

The first thing to do when a horse’s behavior changes is to rule out any physical problems. Based on what you describe, I would look for saddle fitting problems. Even if you have not changed saddles, it is possible that the horse may have changed her shape enough to develop a fitting problem; the problem may be exacerbated at mounting since a lot of torque is placed on the horse’s back at that time. There is also increasing research being done on mares that indicates that at various points during their heat cycles the mare may be experiencing back pain when under saddle. I would have the mare checked thoroughly by an equine vet and have them check your saddle fit as well.

If you are still having difficulty tightening the cinch, most likely the horse has become “cinchy,” which simply means reactive to the cinch or girth. Generally humans tightening the girth too hard too fast induce this problem. There are several Q&As on my website about how to prevent a horse from becoming cinchy and how to resolve it once the problem has occurred.

Ruling out any physical problems with the back or saddle fit, we must look to a training issue regarding the horse moving away for mounting. It is very common for a horse’s training to deteriorate when being handled and ridden by novices and especially a horse as young as yours. Given that she was less than five when you got her, even though she was very well trained, she was not very seasoned, or experienced. A horse this young is pretty easy to untrain. Horses are very good at following rules and behaving in an obedient manner, when the rules are clearly and consistently enforced, as they are with a trainer or very experienced rider. When the horse is not handled consistently, it leads to small erosions in the training, which tend to get bigger and bigger over time.

If the horse is not standing for mounting, you need to first work on teaching the horse to stand when you ask her to. Then carry this over to mounting, take it very slowly and correct her when she moves. Again, there are several Q&As on my website that explain in detail the process for teaching a horse to stand for mounting.

Make sure that the horse is standing square when you go to mount and that there is not excessive torque being put on her back and withers. If you unbalance the horse during mounting, it is hard for to stand still. If you hang on the horse’s sides, it can put excruciating pressure from either side of the saddletree. If the rider doesn’t square the saddle before asking the horse to move off, the pressure can lead to serious damage to the horse’s back.

Finally, it is quite possible that if your horse had a bad experience at a show that she would have a bad association with shows. I am not sure why being tied in a stall would cause this, but horses are very place-oriented when it comes to the associations they make. In other words, if a horse has an unpleasant, frightening or painful experience, it will tend to associate the place where it happened with the bad memory. This is why it is extremely important to make sure a horse has a very pleasant experience at its first few shows. Even if it means not actually showing the horse, but hauling it to the show to simply let it become accustomed to the environment with as little pressure as possible being put on the horse. There is also a Q&A on my website called “Seasoning a Horse for Shows” that will explain this process. There will always be small setbacks to a horse’s training and times when we have to back up and iron out the rough spots. In addition to consulting with a veterinarian, you may need to get some help from a trainer or instructor that can take an objective look at what is going on with your mare and help you develop a plan to counteract it.

Good luck!
JG

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.

Issues From The Saddle: Desensitizing Your Horse To The Girth Or Cinch

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Julie,

I hope you can help me with my horse. He is a 15 y/o gelding, I ride him hunt seat. He gets very irritated when I girth him up. Even before the girth has touched his belly (when I am attaching it to the saddle), he pins his ears and starts bobbing his head. When I actually tighten the girth, his antics increase; he even opens his mouth and swings his head around to bite me (he never does actually bite). He’ll also try to kick at the girth (again, he never actually kicks). He will also become angry when I brush the girth area or even put my hand there. When he’s at horse shows or in the arena I can tighten his girth and he doesn’t seem to notice, it is only in his stall that he becomes crabby. Also, after I ride him and when I take the saddle off, he’s perfectly fine.

We’ve had him for about five years and his cinchiness only seemed to start about a year ago, but it was mild then and now he has become increasingly worse when I try to girth him up. I know I should have done something as soon as I noticed the problem but this was our first horse and since I’ve seen other horses do the same thing, I didn’t think anything of it; now that it’s become worse I know I need to do something about it. I’ve read an article about how to stop this behavior, but it didn’t seem to explain the process completely and I don’t want to do anything unless I am positive about how to do it, for fear of making the problem worse. I don’t like to see my horse is such discomfort and I hope I can solve this problem soon.

Alison

Answer: Alison,

Thanks for the great question and as you said, this is an issue with which many horse owners are dealing. I am so glad that you view this is an issue of discomfort for your horse and not just write it off to bad behavior. Cinchiness is definitely a problem and can be a safety factor as many of these horses will resort to biting, kicking or pulling back in reaction. However, as far as I am concerned, cinchiness is a problem created by humans and horses are just expressing their emotional discomfort. Generally the term “cinch” is used for a Western saddle and the term “girth” is used for English; for the purpose of this article it does not matter whether you are saddling English or Western and you can consider the term girth and cinch to be interchangeable. Having started hundreds of colts in my career, I know that a certain number of them will have a strong negative reaction to the girth the very first time it is tightened. Whether it is pain or panic that causes the reaction, it is most definitely a real emotion on the part of the horse. On the first saddling, if the horse is girthed up abruptly and tightly, the pain or panic the horse feels is very traumatic and is permanently logged in the horse’s brain as a “fear memory.” Research has shown that once a fear memory has been logged in a horse’s brain, it will always be there. You cannot erase the fear memory; the only option is to over-ride the reaction caused by the fear memory with training or replacement behavior.

When we saddle a colt for the very first time, we spend a lot of time desensitizing the colt to the feel of the girth before it is ever tightened. Before that, we have already spent a lot of time desensitizing the horse to having the saddle placed on his back and the feel of the saddle on his back when he is moving. When it is time to start desensitizing the horse to the feel of the girth, first we simply massage the girth area and watch for any negative reaction.

If the horse is not at all bothered by the girth massage, then we progress by pulling the girth up around the horse and gently pulling it tight (just with our hands) and releasing, with many repetitions, with increasing pressure. Gradually we start pulling down on the saddle at the same time we pull up on the girth, always with a release in between. If the horse has come this far with no adverse reaction, we will proceed to actually fasten the girth. At this point we want the girth just tight enough to hold the saddle in place (it is extremely critical at this stage that the saddle does not slip under the horses belly), but not so tight that it will cause the horse discomfort. The next step is to get the horse desensitized to the feel of the tightened saddle and girth while he is moving. We’ll do this by moving the horse one step at a time, stopping and praising the horse with each step and allowing him to relax and accept the new stimulus and gradually work toward the horse moving relaxed and steady. This is the process we go through to desensitize a young horse to the feel of the girth if he does not show serious signs of sensitivity.

If at any time, the horse shows a negative response to pressure at the girth area (tensing, raising head, pinning ears), we slow down and stay at that stage until he is ready to move forward. If he shows discomfort at the first stage of desensitization when massaging the girth area, we will continue gently massaging and watching the horse for an adverse reaction. During this time, whenever the horse relaxes and indicates that he accepts this pressure, we stop massaging and step away from him just for a moment, to reward the correct response. We will use the technique of “advance and retreat” (see article on my website) advancing only as far as you can until the horse tenses, then holding that ground until the horse relaxes and accepts the pressure and then retreating (momentarily releasing the pressure or walking away from the horse) as a reward. However long it takes for the horse to accept the pressure to his girth area is how long we will spend to assure that he is adequately desensitized before fully saddling the horse.

Horses become cinchy because humans are insensitive to the amount of pressure they put on the horse, either the first time he is saddled or in subsequent saddlings. Whether or not the horse actually feels pain or discomfort we don’t really know, but certainly cinchy horses develop resentment about the action of girthing. It is quite possible that your horse had his girth tightened too much at some point, causing bruising in a very sensitive area, and that may be when his problem began. Around our place, when we saddle horses, young or old, we only snug up the cinch minimally at first and then gradually tighten the cinch as we get ready to ride. For the young horses especially, we do a final tightening of the cinch after about ten minutes into the ride when the horse has warmed up a little and is comfortable with the cinch tighter. In dealing with a horse that has already developed resentment toward the cinch and is reactive, there are a few important things to consider. First, make sure the horse is not tied when you girth him up; this can really exacerbate the problem and lead to the horse developing a pull-back problem. Secondly, make sure you are positioned in a way that will prevent you from getting hurt should the horse decide to bite or kick. It is a good idea to keep your left elbow out or even a stick or a crop so that if the horse swings his head around to bite, he hits his face against a hard solid object as a deterrent.

For the horse that is dealing with a lot of resentment over the cinch, sometimes the desensitization methods I described above for colts will help a lot. Take the time to massage the girth area gently before tightening the girth. Watch the horse for feedback and use the advance and retreat method, and make sure you reward the horse for relaxing and accepting the pressure. When you proceed to fastening the cinch, take a few minutes to pull up on and then release the cinch repeatedly, starting first with gentle pressure and gradually increasing the pressure until you are also pulling down on the saddle at the same time, again remembering to reward the horse anytime he shows a relaxed and positive attitude.

After this desensitization exercise, you can proceed to fasten the girth, but do not gut-wrench the horse right away. At first, just snug the girth up just enough to safely hold the saddle in place. Sometimes it is helpful to lead the horse around between tightenings so he can get accustomed to the tightness. As you finish tacking and getting ready to ride, tighten the girth gradually, going up a notch every few minutes, allowing the horse to relax and accept the new level of pressure for a few minutes before it is tightened again. Before you step up into the saddle, make sure the girth is adequately tight so that the saddle does not slip when mounting. Often it is helpful to tighten the girth again after the horse is warmed up, if needed.

As the horse warms up, the saddle and pad compress, the air in the horse’s hair coat is pushed out, the horse’s muscles contract as he works and all of these things contribute to a gradual loosening of the girth. Contrary to popular belief, horses do not “blow up” so that the girth is not tight. First of all, the girth goes across a ring of bone and the horse cannot really expand that ring. Secondly, horses do not have the ability to linear reason and put a series of thoughts together and take an action now that leads to a different outcome in the future. Horses that have been gut-wrenched will learn to flinch at the tightening of the girth and this is often mistaken for “blowing up.” If every time I walked up to you, I punched you in the stomach, you would soon learn to flinch at my approach.

We talk often about the safety issue of making sure your girth is tight before you mount and this is an important concern. Many wrecks are caused from the girth being too loose. However, it is also a safety concern if the girth is too tight. When the girth is too tight, it can cause pain and discomfort to the horse and may lead to behavior problems such as cinchiness or even bucking and balking. So although cinchiness is often caused when the horse is first started under saddle, it can also develop in a trained horse when they are mishandled. A horse with prominent and well-defined withers will not need a girth as tight as a horse with low withers and a very round shape. So the girth only needs to be tightened enough to keep the saddle centered during mounting and dismounting and how tight that is, will vary with the individual horse.

Furthermore, people often check for tightness by slipping their fingers in the girth just below the saddle and that is not the right place to check. Most horses are concave in shape in this area and the girth may always feel loose here. To get a really accurate check of how tight the girth is, stick your fingers under the back of the cinch at the horse’s sternum, right between his legs. This is an area where the girth crosses bone and you will get a much more accurate feel for how tight the girth truly is.

Replacement training is a method to replace one behavior or emotion with another. In this instance, since the horse is resentful even to your touch at the girth area, it might work to try and replace his emotion (and therefore his behavior) with another. Much like feeding a horse in the trailer to make him associate the trailer with a “happy place,” while you work at desensitizing the girth area, you might offer a treat to the horse when he demonstrates the appropriate behavior (relaxed acceptance of the pressure). Just make sure that you only reward the correct behavior and not inadvertently reward the wrong behavior. As you have noticed, the horse is only acting cinchy in a certain place and circumstance. This is very common since horses tend to associate a place with certain behaviors or emotions. Take advantage of this by changing your routine when you girth him or taking him to another place for the final tightening.

One final thought on cinchy behavior: although cinchiness is usually caused by humans, bad or aggressive behavior of horses should not be tolerated, regardless of the cause of the behavior. All horses should be trained that it is never appropriate to move into your space. It may be helpful to school this horse on the ground with frequent reminders to yield to, or move out of, your space. At my barn, horses in training learn a very basic rule that they must keep their chin in front of their chest at all times while we are working with them. Anytime the horse breaks the rule we make a correction and ask the horse to put his chin back in front of his chest. This correction might be just pointing your finger at the horse’s nose, a little poke in the nose or a tug on the lead. When a horse is acting cinchy he is generally just expressing his emotions of fear and anxiety; these are honest emotions and we cannot punish a horse for expressing his emotions. However, we can expect a horse to abide by certain rules of behavior that he has been taught and correct him when he breaks a rule. In other words, if a cinchy horse pins his ears back and bobs his head when you cinch him, he is not really breaking any rules, just expressing himself and we need to take note of the emotion he is expressing and try to understand the cause. If the horse reaches back to bite or kick, this is a clear infraction of the rules and a correction needs to be made and it may be an indication that more groundwork is needed or some remedial training is in order.

In summary, I think the most important things to consider in dealing with a cinchy horse is 1) your personal safety, 2) take the time to desensitize the horse and girth him slowly, and 3) do some remedial training in ground manners to reinforce the basic rules of behavior. Good luck to you and I hope this will help in some way to make both you and your horse happier.

Julie Goodnight

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Issues From The Ground: Desensitizing To Touch In Sensitive Areas

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Question Category: Issues from the Ground

Question: Hello Julie,

I recently purchased a 13 yr QH mare about six months ago. I had been riding her for about eight months with an additional two-month lease. I decided to purchase her. She is my first horse. She was formally a western barrel horse but we have converted to English riding for several reasons. While I’m learning a lot, taking lessons, and reading piles of material, everyday I experience a new behavior that she has not shown me since I’ve known her. Today she kicked me when I tried to clean off some of the mud in-between her legs close to her teats. I realize that’s probably a sensitive area, especially when there’s mud caked to her skin. What should have been my response to her kicking me? I’m not sure if my reprimands are correct and effective. How can I clean that area without this happening again? Thanks for your help.

Barbara

Answer: Hi Barbara,

Thanks for your great questions and this is an important safety issue. Yes, between the legs and the teat area is VERY sensitive and a horse must be gently desensitized in this area (same thing for the sheath area of a gelding or stallion). If a horse has never been desensitized in these areas, their natural reaction would be to kick.

I do not think you can blame or punish the horse for this, since it was an understandable reaction on her part. My guess is that she probably gave warning before she actually kicked (unless you totally surprised her), so you need to learn to pay attention to your horse’s communication efforts. Watch the ears, level of the head, tail swishing, feet moving, etc. If you reached up and touched her there without warning, it is quite possible she (or any horse not used to this) would lash out without warning.

This is a great example of why people are more prone to injury around an unfamiliar horse, since you do not really know her idiosyncrasies or how she was trained and handled. As time goes by, you will learn more and more about her and know what to expect in terms of behavior. It has been an observation of mine that people with limited experience with horses (who have only worked with a small number of horses) make assumptions that all horses will act the same way as the ones they are used to handling.

If a horse is not accustomed to being touched in certain areas, it is perfectly natural for them to react with alarm. You cannot assume that all horses are used to being touched on all parts of their bodies. I have even seen well-broke horses that have never had their legs or faced brushed, who react with alarm when an unknowing person starts vigorously brushing these areas that have never been desensitized.
To get your horse accustomed to being touched in this very sensitive area, you’ll have to start slowly and work up to it. First let me mention some safety concerns. To work on her belly or teat area, you will be standing in a danger zone where she can easily kick you (as you have already discovered). Make sure you face forward and reach under with your closest hand so that your head is not moving toward the kick zone. If you face back and reach under with either hand, your head comes down closer to the kick zone. Secondly, this is a great example of why it is a good idea to wear a helmet when ground handling horses.

To teach your horse to accept your touch in the teat area, start slowly by rubbing gently and slowly with your hands in an area where she is comfortable, like higher up on her belly or even up on her back. Slowly advance closer to the area where she becomes uncomfortable and watch her closely for signs that she is getting tense (head coming up, ears tensing back, moving away). If she cocks a foot or switches her tail, you have gone too far and she is becoming defensive. When you find how far you can advance, where her discomfort is beginning but not so far that she becomes defensive, just hold your hand there until she relaxes and then retreat (back away and walk away from her). Go back again and again in this manner until she has become desensitized and you have broadened the area that she is comfortable with you touching. Slowly advance the area where you are touching and give her time to accept each new touch.

This advance and retreat technique is HIGHLY effective with horses. Advance only as far as you see the beginnings of discomfort, then hold that position until the horse relaxes somewhat (drops head, relaxes ears, chews or sighs) and then retreat away from the horse, to reward her acceptance of your touch. Don’t feel like you need to get in a hurry to clean her teats. Yes, this is an area that can collect dirt and grime, but some waxy build up there is normal and acts as an insulation to protect the sensitive skin. Be very gentle and don’t over-do the cleaning of the teats. Once your horse has been desensitized to touch in this area, she will accept it without protest.

Be careful working around the hind end of the horse and remember, do not assume any horse is desensitized to touch or handling all over their body. Good luck!

Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer

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Issues From The Ground: Advance And Retreat Techniques For Desensitizing

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Question Category: Issues from the Ground

Question: Desensitizing a Horse to Scary Stimuli

Answer: These days, with military actions and war consistently in the headlines, thoughts of aggression and war are far too close at hand and it is easy to think of advance and retreat as an aggressive move. But in case of horse training, advance and retreat is an important concept to understand and when utilized properly, this technique can effectively train your horse to quietly and peacefully accept all sorts of scary and uncomfortable stimuli.

When training a horse to accept a scary or adverse stimulus, whether it be clippers, fly spray, the water hose, the bridle or whatever, it is important to understand the theory of advance and retreat. First, you must understand that whatever the horse is afraid of, be it a sound, a feel or a touch, that factor is considered a stimulus. A stimulus is an environmental factor that motivates the horse to action. If the horse is afraid of the stimulus, the action will likely be to snort and run away.

The advance and retreat method of horse training is a way to desensitize the horse to a scary stimulus and teach him to respond to the stimulus with willing acceptance. Let’s say, for the sake of explanation that the scary stimulus is fly spray, although this method will work with any type of stimulus. The first step, in any training process, is to determine what the desired outcome is. In the instance of fly spray, the desired outcome is that the horse stands still and relaxed while you spray him.

With the case of fly spray, as with just about any scary stimulus, there are many different sensations that may frighten the horse. It maybe the sound of the spray bottle, the smell of the chemical or the feel of the droplets on his body (or all of the stimuli combined) that causes fear in the horse. Regardless of what actually causes the fear, it is an honest emotion of the horse and he should not be reprimanded.

The theory of the advance is that you approach slowly with the stimulus, starting far enough away that the horse is not uncomfortable and advancing slowly until you reach the place that causes discomfort or a slight tensing in the horse. It may be that just spraying in close proximity to the horse causes him to tense and become frightened (helpful hint: use a bottle with water in it so you do not waste your fly spray). Only advance as far as you can until the horse becomes tense, ADVANCE NO FARTHER THAN THAT but maintain your ground.

Continue applying the stimulus, at the distance that caused the horse discomfort and let him move as fast as he wants in a circle around you. Do not try to hold him still, do not impede his forward motion; keep his nose tipped toward you so that he has to move in a circle around you. It is important that he is allowed to move his feet because that is his natural reaction to a scary stimulus.

The theory of retreat comes into play once the horse voluntarily makes the right response, which is to hold still and/or relax. As soon as the horse stops his feet or relaxes, even if it is very briefly, immediately remove the stimulus (stop spraying). Turn your back on the horse and take a few steps away and allow him time to relax and take a deep breath. Removing the stimulus when the horse makes the right response rewards him for stopping his feet. Timing is everything, as with most aspects of horse training.

Apply the stimulus again (advance), as close as causes discomfort and remove it the instant the horse stops moving his feet or relaxes (retreat). In very short order, the horse will make the association that if he holds still and relaxes, the scary thing will go away. Once he makes this association, it will diffuse his fear altogether.

It is critical in this training technique that you not advance beyond whatever causes discomfort to the horse. Once he stands still and accepts the stimulus (because you have retreated a number of times), then you can advance farther. I have seen too many horses traumatized by people advancing too far initially and overwhelming the horse, sending him into terror and panic. Then often, the person removes the stimulus when the horse is reacting poorly, thus rewarding his behavior.

Advance and retreat, when applied with good timing and a calm and humane approach, will help the horse learn to stand still and accept scary stimuli. Furthermore, once a horse has been desensitized in this way to a number of stimuli, he learns to carry over this response to new stimuli as well and to think his way through a scary scene.

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.

Talk About Tack: Saddle Slips

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Question Category: Talk about Tack

Question: Dear Julie,

My friends and I have a problem with our saddles rolling over to the side when we get on. My horse in particular has a flat broad back with wide withers. Any suggestions? I know we are cinching our western saddles up tight enough.

Roly Poly

Answer: Dear Roly,

A round, mutton-withered horse is difficult to keep a saddle on, but there are a few things that may help.

First, make sure your saddle fits. That seem like a no-brainer, but if your tree is too wide or too narrow, it’ll be more likely to slip. Often a flexible tree will hold better on a round horse than a rigid tree saddle because it shapes to the horse’s back. This is one reason I like the Circle Y Flex2 saddles.

Secondly, the saddle pad you use can really help or really hurt. Make sure you are not using too thick a pad—usually round horses don’t need a lot of padding. For the really round horses I like to use a split-withered pad—sometimes called a cut-back pad (incidentally, this also works for very high-withered horses). It helps to hold the pad in place around the withers.

Make sure when you saddle that you pull the pad well up into the gullet of the saddle—causing a V-shape to the pad, which is less likely to slip. If you don’t pull it up and create an air space over your horse’s spine, the pad sits right on the withers and has a round shape which slips much easier (not to mention puts uncomfortable pressure on his spine).

Unfortunately for the round horse, you have to keep the cinch much tighter than you would on a horse with good withers. Make sure you tighten the cinch slowly—don’t gut-wrench him right off that bat—that will create a cinchy horse, or one that is resentful of the cinch. Tighten the cinch gradually over 10 minutes or so and walk him a little between tightenings. Check your cinch again about 15 minutes into your ride or before you do any loping.

Finally, you might consider using a breast collar and/or a crupper, which attaches to the back of the saddle and goes under the horse’s tail. Neither one will stop your saddle from sliding but they will help stabilize it. Good luck and be sure to keep you weight in the middle of your horse!

JG

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.

Desensitizing

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Good Day!

Recently  on Horse Master is an episode filmed in LA about a driving pony who was deathly afraid of anything plastic—bags, tarps and the like. Her owner, a very competent horsewoman who I have known from clinics, had been working for some time to desensitize the mare, but to no avail. Like many people, she had been using a technique known as “flooding” or “bombardment,” wherein you over-expose the horse to the aversive stimulus until she basically gets tired of spooking. Well, that would work for her eventually in each session, but she’d start over again from scratch the next day. Essentially, she was teaching the mare a pattern of behavior which is to spook first then eventually relax. Not really what we want, is it?

I much prefer to use a desensitizing technique known as “advance and retreat.” There are articles on my website about this but basically it means that you advance with the aversive stimulus only so far as causes the horse discomfort, then hold your ground until the horse relaxes, then take the stimulus away (retreat) and repeat. This technique teaches the horse to relax when there is something scary and when she relaxes, the scary thing goes away. Eventually the horse loses all fear because she feels a sense of control.

Even though this little mare had the spooky response well-engrained into her, she responded very well when we switched techniques. She’s a smart little horse and was only acting spooky because she thought that was the expected response. Once she realized the expected response was to relax and be still, that is what she did.

This makes me think about something I say all the time in clinics—if things are not getting better, what you are doing isn’t working and you need to break the cycle somehow. If you are using a training technique again and again and it is not effecting a positive change in your horse—it ain’t working. Time to try something different. Now I am not saying you need to switch techniques every day, but there comes a point when you are not getting through to your horse and you need to make a change. Otherwise, you end up training the wrong thing to your horse.

Have you ever had a situation like this with your horse? Maybe you are trying to correct a bad behavior, like, let’s say, biting. And you correct your horse again and again for his bad behavior but he keeps nipping at you. Clearly what you are doing is not working and in this case, it is because you are not applying enough pressure to the horse to motivate him to change. If the pressure or penalty is not harsh enough, he’s happy to keep doing what he’s been doing. Depending on how motivated your horse is to act that way to begin with and depending on how sensitive he is to pressure, these things will dictate how much pressure you have to use. But don’t keep doing the same thing with no response.

All the best,

Julie