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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