How To Stay Comfortable In The Saddle Logo

How to Stay Comfortable in the Saddle—No Aches or Pains

Julie, I have a question about how to be more comfortable during my long rides. What causes my knees to hurt after about an hour riding at a walk? What can I do to stay comfortable in the saddle?

Being comfortable in the saddle is crucial for long rides. Joint pain is a complaint I hear about often. I’ll share some tips about proper alignment then help you consider the tack and riding gear that can help or hinder your comfort as you ride.
Line it Up

I hear riders ask about their feet falling asleep or of constant knee pain when they ride. When you sit on a horse, your legs are being spread apart and the unnatural alignment causes pain over time.
When you’re sitting on your horse, your alignment changes from the posture you use to stand upright. Your legs are wrapping around the horse’s barrel instead of hanging straight down. To get the picture, imagine sitting on the long side of an oil barrel with your legs wrapped around. Because of your position, your joints come together at angles instead of in their usual straight alignment. Your knee and ankle joints now have uneven pressure and that causes pain.

The solution is pronation (rotational movement of a joint). With this move, you’ll bring your ankles back toward your midline. When you’re sitting with your legs spread around the horse without pronating, your ankles roll to the outside and also impact your knees. To correct that alignment with pronation, flex your foot so that your weight rolls toward your big toe. This simple move realigns the bones that comprise the knee and ankle joints. It reduces the pressure and the pain after a long ride.

You can try this while you’re sitting in a chair, too. Roll your foot toward your pinky toe and press your weight down to your feet. You can feel the strain on your ankles and knees. That’s what it feels like without pronation. Then roll your foot toward your big toe. Notice that it’s easier to hold this pronated position.

If you were taught to ride with your toes straight ahead and your heels pushed far down, it’s time to reconsider your alignment. Keeping your toes straight ahead isn’t helpful for ergonomic riding. In this position, you can’t pronate your ankles and you don’t have your lower leg available for cueing your horse. No matter what your riding instructor said when you were young, it’s fine to have your toes pointed out a little. To feel better in the saddle, you need to allow yourself to turn your feet out slightly. I’m not talking about pointing your toes directly east and west—just relax enough to allow your legs to hang more naturally.

Tack Evaluation

You’re only in balance when your skeletal system is in alignment. When you’re sitting on your horse, you should have a straight line running down from your shoulder, through your hip and down to the back of your heel. Your saddle can help or hinder this position.
While you may think all saddles should help you be in a balanced position, it’s just not true. If your stirrups hang far forward, you can be pulled out of alignment. Stirrups that hang forward put you in a “chair” position that may seem comfortable at first, but can cause you to push down or reach for your stirrups and stiffen your legs. If your stirrups hang straight down from the saddle’s seat when you evaluate it on a saddle rack, your saddle will help you be in a balanced position throughout your long ride. If your stirrups hang far forward, consider shopping around.

If you find your seat bones hurt after a long ride, your saddle may have too wide of a twist—the part of the saddle just in front of the seat that rises toward the pommel. If the twist is wide, it will push your legs farther apart and causes pressure onto your seat bones. Your entire body weight then pushes down onto your seat bones in that spread position. That doesn’t feel good after a long ride. Look for a saddle with a narrow twist to avoid sore seat bones.
Dress the Part

While your clothing might not directly impact your joints, it does impact your overall comfort on the trail. If you ride in jeans, make sure that the inside seams aren’t bulky. If you shop for jeans made for riding, you’ll notice that the bulkiest seams are on your outer leg—not inside. If there’s too much fabric inside, you can get sores at your knees from rubbing against that extra fabric.

If you’re riding for long days and it’s not too hot out, try wearing silk long johns under your jeans. The light layer can help with chaffing and can help you avoid saddle sores. If you’re going to be riding for several days, you need to make sure your joints and your skin stay in the best shape possible.

To keep my skin in good shape, I make sure to carry big Band-Aids and Cortisone cream. Cortisone will help with chaffing and will help you ride without changing your posture to avoid further rubbing your saddle sore. You won’t ride correctly if you have a saddle sore on the inside of your knee so taking care of your skin can help your overall posture and alignment, too.

Tongue Trouble Logo

Recently, while trail riding, a friend’s horse stuck his tongue out to the side as soon as she asked him to canter. Another friend said, “Oh look, her horse is licking and chewing. That means he’s thinking.” However, the horse didn’t look relaxed, and it wasn’t an “aha” moment. What do you think of this behavior? Should a horse’s tongue ever be out while under saddle?

It sounds as though there’s a bit of confusion here. Licking and chewing is definitely a different behavior than a horse sticking his tongue out while you’re riding.

Licking and chewing can be seen when a horse is relaxing; in training, this behavior often occurs when the horse understands and is compliant.
There’s a lot of discussion about the behavior and what it means, but it’s a good sign. I watch for the behavior and study it quite a bit. I love knowing how the brain and body work together — especially under stress.
When a horse is licking and chewing, his lips and jaw are working softly. He’s swallowing with his tongue, but he doesn’t stick his tongue out. He may occasionally lick his lips a little bit, but it’s very different than sticking his tongue far outside his mouth.

A Moist Mouth
Here’s a little more background on how licking and chewing works.
Just like humans, horses salivate constantly. Just like humans, horses don’t drool; they swallow their spit.
Horses produce enough saliva to fill a bucket every day. That salivation is important to their physiology — they need the saliva to keep their mouths moist to dampen feed and move it through the digestive tract.

When your horse becomes tense and anxious, his salivation stops. Just as when you’re nervous and get cottonmouth (think of when you had to give a speech in school), your horse stops salivating when he’s anxious. When he relaxes once again, the saliva process starts again, and that’s the moment that he licks and chews.

When you’re training your horse to do something new, he stops salivating when he’s thinking, What are you asking? What do you want me to do? When he figures it out, he starts salivating again, and licks and chews to help lubricate his mouth.

This behavior has been condensed and commonly shared as, “When a horse is licking and chewing, that means he’s thinking.” That’s almost true, but it isn’t the whole story.
The licking and chewing actually means that the horse has moved back to relaxation from a state of anxiety.

Endorphin Release
A horse that sticks his tongue outside his mouth presents a complicated behavior that can be difficult to resolve.

First, find out if the horse sticks out his tongue all the time or only while being saddled and bridled. That information will help you know whether he has developed an endorphin-seeking behavior exhibited all the time or if he’s uncomfortable only in his tack.

Endorphins (endogenous morphine) are opioid peptins — neurotransmitters produced by the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus that produce a feeling of well-being and can act as a painkiller.

A horse gets an endorphin release when he sticks out his tongue and bites it. If you see a horse sticking out his tongue and chewing on it when he’s just standing in his stall, he has learned a behavior and has almost become addicted to the feeling.

Saddle fit or back pain may also cause the horse to seek a way to find an endorphin release. This comes to mind especially because you say this only happens at the canter. Moving into that gait might create mouth pain (see below) or pain elsewhere in his body.
Advise the horse’s owner to have a veterinarian rule out any physical pain.

Bit Problems
If the horse is sticking out his tongue only when bridled, it’s most likely because the bit is bothering his mouth.
There are many ways a horse attempts to avoid a bit that’s causing too much tongue pressure. He could be stargazing (holding his head high), coming behind the bit, opening his mouth, or sticking out his tongue out. All these behaviors are engaged to relieve tongue pressure.

If I know the horse is sticking out his tongue only when bridled, I immediately think about switching to a bit that offers tongue relief.

Here’s the caveat, though: Many of the bits riders think are the most comfortable actually increase tongue pressure. For instance, a fat bit, while dispersing pressure over a wide surface, actually places more pressure on the tongue, because there’s not enough room for that much bit in the mouth.

If you use a three-piece mouthpiece thinking that’s more comfortable, note that some are actually designed to place more pressure on the tongue.
Even with a snaffle (a direct pressure bit without shanks), the mouthpiece can collapse around a horse’s tongue and apply pressure that the horse learns to avoid.

There’s no one magic answer or one bit that’s best. I’d start experimenting with bits designed to relieve tongue pressure.
I make sure the bits I use don’t collapse in the middle, but rather are made to curve around the horse’s mouth.

A bit that is single-jointed and only folds in the middle will clamp down and place pressure on the tongue. A bit that collapses in the middle and has shanks creates the most pressure of all.

The Rider
The horse might not like the bit or the pressure on the bit. And when the rider collects the reins to canter, she may be applying too much contact on the horse’s mouth.

When a horse picks up the canter, he moves his head down into the bit on the first stride and every stride thereafter; if the rider doesn’t release contact and ride with elastic arms, the horse hits himself in the mouth each stride.

This horse may’ve learned to avoid that pressure when he’s asked for a canter by sticking out his tongue.
Many riders don’t realize how much pressure they’re holding on the horse’s mouth — especially when they move to the canter.

Time Will Tell
The solution here may lie in a combination of finding a comfortable bit and/or saddle and teaching the rider to relax her hands. However, it may still take time to change the horse’s behavior.

Once a horse has adopted a coping behavior, it takes time to train him to stop that behavior, or replace that behavior with a more desirable one.
Some horses gradually diminish the behavior over time when they realize that the pain they felt before is no longer an issue. Others become “addicted” to the feeling of the endorphin release and continue the behavior even after they’re in a new bit.
Some horses will stop sticking out their tongue in a few days. Others may take a few weeks to totally eliminate the behavior. For many, there will be an immediate and dramatic resolution when the right bit is found.

If the horse is sticking out his tongue only when bridled, it’s most likely because the bit is bothering his mouth, explains Julie Goodnight.

Self Inflicted Pain Logo

Dear Julie,
My 11-year-old horse recently started biting at his sides—digging deep and mutilating his skin and hair coat. Before I bought him last year, he was gelded and was away from other horses during his healing time. That’s when this strange behavior started. When I purchased him, the former owner barely mentioned the behavior. He just told me if you rode him each day, he’d be too tired to bite his sides. At my place, we keep him turned out with a larger herd. He exhibits the behavior when he’s around his buddies—not only when he may feel lonely. The horse is so sweet to people. He’s kind and respectful. He’s just terrible to himself. What can I do to help him? Why is he doing this?
Bit To Pieces

Dear Bit To Pieces,
Horses that self-mutilate (bite at their own flesh causing open wounds) are generally either in severe pain or experiencing severe stress. Have your veterinarian evaluate your horse to rule out any pain that may be causing the habit. You may also consider having an equine chiropractor (a veterinarian specially trained in spinal alignment) check your horse’s back and range of movement. If you resolve the pain or take away stress, the behavior should go away. That sounds easy, right? However, I wonder if your horse may be hurting himself because of pain or stress he experienced in the past. He may have felt stressed and frustrated when he was isolated at another barn. That stress-time behavior may have become habitual—meaning your horse may not feel pain or stress now, but he has the undesirable behavior nonetheless. If that’s the cause, your horse may need some time to realize he no longer needs the stress-relieving behavior. An interesting note, some research indicates that self-mutilation is related to Tourrettes Syndrome in humans. That link may explain why some horses continue to harm themselves long after a prompt is present.

I have seen a handful of self-mutilators in my training career. I’ll never forget the little mare that had been in training with a brutal hunter-jumper trainer who rode her in draw reins with her nose cranked to her chest. She began to bite her chest while being ridden. Both sides of her shoulders dripped with blood at the end of every course of jumps. Eventually her owner figured out that she was in pain and under stress because of the trainer’s methods. The owner removed the horse from the trainer’s barn and the problem behavior went away. Unfortunately, that trainer is still in business—or so I’ve heard. The other horses I’ve known were stallions with exacerbating medical conditions that caused them great pain. When the horses were brought back to a healthy condition, the self-mutilation went away.

To stop the flesh-eating behavior, you can put a neck cradle on your horse to prevent him from reaching to his sides or legs with his mouth. A cradle is made with dowels strapped together and buckled around his neck when he is alone in his stall. Look for a cradle in any vet catalogue’s bandaging section. It’s not a good idea to have a neck cradle on your horse when he’s turned out with other horses—he won’t be able to turn away from dominant horses or defend himself. Other horses may also become tangled in the cradle. Keep in mind, this cradle can stop the behavior, but not the horse’s desire to self mutilate. It’s important to find a way to help your horse inhibit his desire while his body begins to heal.

Dr. Katherine Houpt from Cornel University has researched self mutilation extensively. In her book, Domestic Animal Behavior for Veterinarians and Animal Scientists she says “self-mutilation is a very common behavior problem. Although it occurs in both sexes, it is much more common in stallions. The behavior consists of biting at or actually biting the flanks or, more rarely, the chest. The horse usually squeals and kicks out at the same time. The signs mimic those of acute colic, but can be differentiated because self-mutilation does not progress to rolling or depression and is chronic. The cause of the behavior is unknown, but because it usually responds to a change in the social environment it is probably caused by sociosexual deprivation. Most breeding stallions do lead similarly deprived lives in that they are kept in stalls in isolation from other horses, particularly from mares, but do not self-mutilate. Castration usually, but not always stops self-mutilation.” I got my copy of Houpt’s book from Knight Equestrian Books by calling 207-882-5494.

It sounds like you’re on the right track when evaluating your horse’s psychological needs. You said you have him turned out with other horses. That social arrangement—much different than his sole time in a stall–may help the behavior disappear after he becomes more comfortable with the herd. If health problems have been ruled out, your best recovery bet is to experiment with different herd arrangements until your horse feels comfortable and realizes chewing on his sides isn’t necessary any more. I wish you the best of luck!

Until next time,

Julie Goodnight

Needle Shy Logo

We have seen you a number of times at the Rocky Mountain Horse Expo and love the way you work with horses. We desperately need your advice. We have a 2 year old filly who weighs in at about 1000 lbs. We have done all kinds of groundwork exercises and desensitization exercises with her. She is golden…until its time for immunizations. She will not tolerate a needle. She is getting hurt in the process, as are the people around her. We even tried snubbing her (tying her to a post and squeezing a gate against her). I thought she was going to break her neck or tear the barn down. We are running out of options. If we don’t come up with a solution very soon we will have no other option but to put her down. Please help!
Many horses become needle shy, especially if they had to be given a series of shots when they were young, due to an injury or sickness. Once a horse has made a negative association, there is nothing you can do to erase it, but you can replace it with a different association. The problem with a needle shy horse is that you cannot really practice, since you would not want to give a horse a shot unnecessarily. We try to avoid giving shots to any horse if we can. For instance, if your horse needs an antibiotic, spend a little extra money and give it by mouth. We rarely give penicillin injections anymore, in an effort to avoid the emotional injury, soreness and potential for abscess or allergic reactions. While there are certain medications that can only be given by injection, I do not see why you would have to put a horse down if it is needle shy. I would simply not vaccinate the horse or give it injections if it could not be done safely and take your chances with the results. To desensitize the horse or to replace this unwanted behavior with another, you can try this routine. First, use an alternative site for IM injections like the chest. Second, set up a series of cues or stimuli that are far different from what normally happens with an injection and use pattern conditioning. See articles on my website for an explanation of pattern conditioning. We did an episode/DVD about how to give your horse oral medications that will show you a similar process, too. It’s called “Bad Medicine” and was taped in Martha’s Vineyard. Seeing the process will help you understand just what to do.
For instance, you might start by doing a circular massage of the area where the injection is to be given, followed by giving the horse a treat. Use the exact same approach, routine and technique every time and repeat this step over and over until the horse knows the routine and is eagerly awaiting the treat. You may even want to give some visual cues or verbal cues at the same time. Your goal is that when you go through these antics the horse will be thinking about the treat that is coming and not about the shot. Then add another step, which may be pinching up the skin, followed by a cookie (only give the reward when the horse gives the response you want-to stand still and accept what you are doing). Repeat again and again. The next step might be to add wiping the spot with alcohol, followed by the cookie; repeat. Then perhaps you’ll approach with the syringe and needle, but not give the shot, followed by a cookie. Eventually the horse will develop a pattern of behavior that keeps him relaxed and willing during your preparation for the shot and he will be very happy about the whole thing because he has associated it with food. At some point, you’ll be ready to try the injection (but only give an injection that is necessary and try to minimize them). Go through all of your antics so the horse is thinking about the cookie and not the needle. The actual stick that the horse feels is very minimal, at least with a smaller needle, like the size used for vaccinations. When a horse is needle shy it is an emotional reaction and not really a reaction to pain. If you use a small gauge needle and a quick stick, the horse won’t feel much at all. Ask you vet to show you good injection technique that will minimize the stick the horse feels on another horse. Avoid excessive confinement or force whenever you are doing something potentially frightening to a horse because that will only increase the horse’s fear. Also, realize that your horse may have made an association with the fear of needles and your vet. Your vet has an appearance, smell and demeanor that your horse recognizes. So you may not be able to let your vet give injections. Take your time to make new associations with this horse and above all else, make sure that you are safe. If you can’t give an injection, look for alternatives or take your chances that the horse will contract whatever disease you are vaccinating for. Good luck and be patient and safe.
Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer, Horse Master with Julie Goodnight TV Host

Reason’s For Rearing Logo

Ask Julie Goodnight

I was on the Internet searching for info on rearing and found your web site. I have a question I hope you can help with. I have a 6 Yr. old Thoroughbred. He came off the track at 4yrs old and has had on ground training and started jumping. I noticed some lameness issues with him after a long move. He has been sent to the Washington State University and diagnosed with slight arthritis in the right hock. He was injected and released. The University also did a bone scan of the hip and stifles just for my piece of mind. Since his return he has performed beautifully.
Here comes the question…. I was away on vacation and my trainer was saddling him in the cross ties (never a problem) and he pulled back a few times. She then went to working him in hand. This is when he threw a tantrum and not just reared, but was jumping up and throwing himself on the ground. Apparently he did this about 8 times before he realized it was causing him discomfort. I completely trust my trainer. She starts many horses, and specializes in recovery cases. She said she had never encountered a horse throwing himself down like that before. She continued working with him and he eventually came around. I know he has had some “going forward” trials before…but that seemed to be alleviated after his treatment at the Vet Hospital.

Knowing his health is fine, teeth fine, feet fine, can you give any advice as to why he would go to such lengths of avoidance? And to what we can do to eliminate this rearing. Obviously we will not be riding him until he is back to his old “good boy” self in hand. We aren’t even going to trust him in the cross ties for a while. I don’t understand how he could go from being a great, well-behaved boy, to a raving lunatic? I have had the local vet check him, and my equine chiropractor is coming at the end of the month. If he has no signs of pain, I’m afraid I will have to give him up. I want to be able to trust him not to injure himself or ME! Just last week my 5-year-old daughter sat on him while I walked him around. WHAT’S HAPPENED TO MY GOOD BOY?
Thank you
Kelly Sundquist

As I read your email, many thoughts come to mind, the first of which is that it is difficult to pass judgment on a horse’s behavior without actually seeing the horse in action. I have learned through experience that there is generally more to the story than the person relaying the incident sees, and in this case, it is being relayed third-hand. Usually if I am there in person and able to step back and observe, I can find a cause or a reason that the person handling the horse may be unable to see.

That said, there are a few other thoughts that come to mind. I am not a big fan of cross ties and I think they can be highly dangerous, as in the case of your horse. If a horse panics in the cross ties, the chances of him getting in a big wreck and getting seriously hurt are very high. If your horse were pulling back at all, I would not put him in cross ties. You may try tying him to a solid object or hitching rail in a rope halter to see if that would discourage him from pulling, but sometimes a rope halter can make a puller worse because of the additional pressure on his face. There are several Q & As on my website about horses that pull back and also the use of cross ties, so read more about it there.
The other thought that comes to mind is that this is a cold-backed horse. I am not totally clear on whether or not the horse was saddled when this incident occurred, but it sounds like he was. A cold backed horse will sometimes react violently to the saddle, but typically not until it has been put on, the girth tightened and then the horse moves. When he moves, he suddenly feels the constriction and pressure on his back and blows up, often throwing himself on the ground. I have found this to be especially common in TBs. It is possible that she inadvertently got the girth too tight too soon and when the horse reacted and was cross-tied, a full-blown panic set in. This would also be consistent with a reluctance to move forward.

Horses rear either in a refusal to move forward or when forward movement is inhibited. Pain can certainly instigate rearing in a horse; however, it does not really sound like the previous lameness issue is a factor here. It is possible that when he first blew up in the cross ties; he tweaked his back and then was in pain. Hopefully your chiropractor has made a determination on that. There are also several articles on my website about rearing and the causes and solutions.

Going on the assumption that your horse is cold-backed (which is my best guess), all you need to do is make sure he is not tied in any way when you saddle, massage the girth area before tightening and tighten the girth very slowly, walking him between each tightening. Often cold backed horses will crow-hop a little when you first ask them to canter and you need to just work them through that by continuing to move them forward. These measures will alleviate the problems. Good luck and be careful!

Issues From The Saddle: Fear Of Riding And Inappropriate Horses Logo

Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Hi Julie,

I first saw you in 2005 at the Louisville Equine Affaire. You were awesome, and you were so right about fear management, your seminars are packed yet nobody ever talks about the issue of fear!! Here’s my situation – I am somewhat of a nervous, timid rider. Every time, and I can’t tell you how sincerely I mean this, EVERY TIME I get on the horse, it is an accomplishment for me. That is how I view it.

I bought a well-trained, well broke paint horse 4 years ago, when he was 15 years old. He’s a real cutie, but boy does he have my number. I regularly work with trainers to help me be the leader for my horse, because I know that this is not my strong point. Here’s what happened – I hopped on today and went outside to the outdoor arena to putz around before picking up a trot. Before I knew what was happening my horse rolled – I rolled out of the way and was not hurt, but boy did it scare me. Is this common? I was having trouble getting him to stand still while I was mounting – was the rolling his way of telling me he didn’t want me to ride him?

Here are the emotions I am feeling – fear, anger, hurt feelings (yes, believe it or not I am trying not to take this personally, but I can’t help wondering whether he did this because he didn’t want to be ridden). I have had trouble with him lately in the cross tie putting his ears back when I approach with the saddle. He does not try to nip but gets a sour puss face and wrinkles his nose. And it is becoming increasingly difficult to get him to stand still when I mount. I do give him treats before I ride, but only in his bucket in his stall. Thank you for any help you can give me. I don’t want this to happen again. It’s never happened before. Is this a behavior problem?


Answer: Christine,
I commend you for your courage and also for getting a mature, well-trained horse to help you gain confidence. Far too often, people that are dealing with fear issues are also riding totally inappropriate horses: too young, too green, ill-tempered or with other training issues. The horse is a very important part of building your confidence.

It sounds like your horse is a pretty good guy and the issues you describe are minor. All horses, no matter how wonderful they are, need leadership, guidance and discipline from their owner or rider. They need you to be a leader and they are very adept at discerning your leadership skills. There is never a void of leadership in the herd and at any time that you fail to show your self as the competent captain of the ship, the seeds of mutiny are planted. When you are dealing with a fear issue, it is easy for the horse to pick up on your uncertainty and therefore hard for him to view you as the leader.

The best way to maintain your authority over the horse is through ground work, where you control his actions and move him out of your space, and by being aware of your actions and the horse’s reactions at all times, from the ground and from the saddle. We often allow small erosions to our authority over the horse with little things like not correcting him when he moves into you, letting him walk off without a cue when you mount, letting him cut the corners of the arena or slow down or speed up, unauthorized by you. You must be thorough and always follow thorough on what you have asked your horse to do, no matter how small a thing it is.

As for the rolling, this is not uncommon and usually not too big a deal. The horse is not rolling because he doesn’t want you to ride him, although that can become a learned behavior (if your horse rolls and then you put him away and don’t get back on). It is not too big a deal because when the horse goes down, he goes down slowly, giving you plenty of time to slip your feet out of the stirrups, stand up and step off. Usually what makes a horse roll is an itchy back, sweating, after a light rain shower or when he comes upon a particularly choice rolling spot that is irresistible. Most horses will try it at some time or another and when they do, they should be spanked, kicked and yelled at until you get them moving. Then you might want to trot a little, so he associates his actions with having to work harder. A horse will usually give you warning that he is abut to roll by pawing or gathering his legs up underneath him; when you feel him do this, get after him right away and move him off.

Your horse pinning his ears when you saddle is also not too big a deal, as long as he doesn’t gesture like he is going to bite you or break some other rule like moving when you told him to stand still. If he does break a rule, correct him. If he is just expressing his emotion (ears back and wrinkled nose), ignore it. You can’t punish him for having an emotion. Of course, you want to make sure your saddle fits him well and that he is not anxious over being saddled because of pain or a sore back.

The horse not standing still for mounting is more of a problem and it indicates that your horse is willfully disobedient and does not respect your authority. You need to work through this issue from the ground, by going back to lead line work and getting control over your horse’s feet. He needs to know that you mean what you say when you ask him to stand still. This is covered in detail in my groundwork DVD called Lead Line Leadership and there are some Q&As on my website about retraining a horse to stand for mounting.

The fact that you are taking your horse’s behaviors personally and having your feelings hurt is more of a concern to me. I think you know that you are being very anthropomorphic (instilling human characteristics in an animal) and that is dangerous territory with horses. He is a horse and he is acting like a horse; he is not trying to get back at you or hurt your feelings. By taking things personally, you are not able to be an effective leader and you are not controlling your own emotions. Horses are very emotional animals and they will mirror the emotions of the animals around them, so it is imperative that you remain cool, calm and objective. Don’t ever get sucked into a horse’s emotion and don’t give the horse more credit than he deserves. He is just a horse, not a human, and he doesn’t have the complicated mixed emotions that come with human relationships.

You have come a long way and you can become the leader that your horse needs you to be. Review the article on my website about coping with a fear of horses again as a reminder of how to control your emotions. Continue your work with trainers and keep investing lots of time doing ground work. With persistence, you can work through these issues and your horse will give it up.

Good luck!


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 Logo

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.


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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