Cinching Up Just Enough – Julie Goodnight Q & A Logo

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


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

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.

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!

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

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