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.