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.
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.
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.
Question Category: Issues from the Saddle
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.
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.
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