Three trainers weigh in on the complicated issue of understanding and working with a horse that sets back when being cinched. We explore the possible causes, what to do during a set back episode, and solutions to the problem.
The words "cinchy" or "girthy" have two meanings. Some people mean the horse that snaps, bites, or dances around acting cranky when you tighten his girth. Others use the term to mean a horse who panics when you cinch him up-one who may take it to the point of flying backwards, panicking, maybe even falling down.
When a horse sets back, there are likely two issues: the horse's reaction to being cinched up and the pulling-back problem if the horse is tied. Our three trainers each said that every horse should be taught to accept saddling using gentle methods, systematically exposing him to pads and blankets prior to putting on a saddle. They further stressed that horses shouldn't be tied until they'd been taught how to give to pressure. If a horse has had a scare being tied or cross-tied, the trainer should backtrack in the training process until the horse feels comfortable being tied. We asked the experts to focus on the saddling part of the problem for this discussion.
Question: In your experience, what might cause a horse to set back when cinched up?
Ken McNabb: Often the problem happens when a horse is tied and then cinched up before he's broke enough to understand what's happening. He begins to buck in response to the tightened saddle. He then finds he's tied, and that turns into a pulling-back problem. There are other potential reasons, but what is most important is to realize that they all boil down to one of two things: Either the horse is afraid or he's learned he can get a release by setting back. In most cases, you're dealing with fear.
Wendy Hilton Smith: Horses are naturally cautious and claustrophobic, and this instinct can come out anytime they feel trapped or confined. Horses need to be taught in a progressive order to accept tight spaces and pressure on different parts of their bodies.
I've come across a variety of different personalities/temperaments and quirks in horses. Some develop more of an issue with being cinchy due to a difference in temperament or due to improper handling in the past. Either way, these horses need a handler with patience and the knowledge of how to handle the situation to prevent making it worse and to improve the horse's ability to accept the pressure of the cinch over a period of time.
Susan Harris: This problem almost always originates when someone girths too tight and too fast. This is especially the case with a young horse being started under saddle.
In addition to the horse getting scared, the girth area is sensitive, particularly in a green colt who isn't used to girth pressure. When the girth is tightened, it cinches down on a big muscle behind the horse's elbow and that can both hurt and shock a horse.
The ascending pectoral muscle (see diagram on page 58) goes inside the front leg on each side of the breastbone to the inside top of the shoulder blade. It is about 3 feet long and it carries a lot of weight-the ribs, organs, and the rider. It helps to suspend the horse's ribs and his chest between his front legs, and it can get really tired and sensitive.
The horse's reaction if you shock him there is to hold his breath and to sink back toward his hindquarters. Holding his breath and backing up makes his chest expand, and makes the girth even tighter. He's likely to panic, which may end in him falling down or flipping over backwards.
Question: If this is a new behavior for the horse, what might be different that's causing it to happen now?
Ken: Anytime a horse has a new reaction, I ask myself, "What's different?" Maybe he was tied and being saddled while someone went by with a leaf blower. He may have set back and gotten loose, so now he thinks that pulling back is the way to escape the tension. Maybe he has sore withers and resents the saddle because it hurts. Maybe he's gotten slightly claustrophobic.
We may never know the reason. Frequently we look for a cause and end up making excuses. But beyond making sure the horse isn't hurting, we have to remember that the cause may not be as important as the cure. The behavior has to change, so we have to figure out what to do to help the horse past this problem.
Wendy: If a normally compliant horse all of a sudden becomes cinchy, I would check the cinch, the blanket, and the saddle to make sure nothing is poking or hurting the horse. I would also thoroughly check the horse's back, ribs, withers, and under the belly area for any sores or injuries. I would then evaluate the way I saddle and cinch my horse up.
If the routine and tack are the same, then I need to step back and think about what I may be doing to cause the problem. Sometimes switching saddles, blankets, or cinches could be a cause. I would also pay attention to how quickly and tightly I may have pulled the cinch up. I would ask myself when was the last time I saddled and rode this horse. If it's been a while, that could be the problem. Did you tie the horse to saddle when you normally allow him to stand ground tied? Are you preparing the horse for a rider who may weigh more than you and therefore you're thinking that the cinch needs to be tighter than you normally would tighten it?
Something I've also noticed in working with owners is that they may say the behavior is new, but they were just unaware of it before. A lot of times they've missed the signs of the horse telling them that he's not comfortable with the cinching process until he blows up.
Susan: If this is a new behavior, it's almost always related to girthing too tightly. If the horse has sore muscles or is carrying a lot of tension in that area, even girthing tighter or quicker than he likes might trigger this. Particularly with a horse you don't know, be careful about saddling while he's tied or cross-tied until you know what you're dealing with.
Slow and Easy
Girthy or cinchy horses may be trying to tell you many things. Here are the highlights from our trainers:
• Before you saddle your horse, take time and proceed step-by-step to accustom him to the feel of the pressure that comes with being cinched up.
• Understand that a cinchy set back is often fear based, so try to determine where your horse's fear comes from.
• Some horses react violently to cinching because it causes pain. Work with your veterinarian to discover if your cinchy horse is trying to tell you that it hurts.
• Keep in mind that a cinching set back is a panic attack, not a horse being defiant. Never punish a horse who has set back during cinching.
• Get yourself safely out of the way until a cinching set back is over.
You can't help the panicked horse by being in the middle during his inability to focus.
Question: How can you stay safe in the midst of a cinching set back?
Ken: Get out of the way until the wreck is over. When a horse explodes, he's not concentrating on where you are. If the horse is tied, do not attempt to release him while he's pulling back. It puts you in a dangerous position. When he sets back, if nothing breaks, he'll lunge forward, likely on you. If you untie him when he pulls back, he learns there's a release by pulling back.
Realize that he won't be able to focus on any verbal cue (such as "whoa") that you give him, so unless you can talk to him calmly, it's best to stay quiet. If you can remain calm, you can talk to the horse but without getting too close. Most people try to calm the horse but there's panic in their voices, which doesn't help the horse any.
Wendy: It's best to prevent this from happening in the first place. Don't do things that will cause a horse to develop this bad habit. Don't tie him while saddling unless he has accepted the whole process for quite sometime. If you're in doubt about your horse hurting somewhere, have a veterinarian look to see if there may be a problem you can't see. Many times a vet can refer you to a chiropractor or massage therapist to work out a physical problem that may be bothering the horse.
Susan: It's important to remember that this is a panic attack-not a horse being defiant-and it's dangerous to the horse and to people around him. During an episode, stay calm and breathe, so you don't add to the horse's tension. Don't yell, whack him, or try to get behind him and drive him forward.
If you can do it safely, try to unsnap or release pressure around his head. Without putting yourself in danger, try to release the girth as quickly as possible.
Once the horse has gotten his composure back, lead him around in a circle until you get a little relaxation sign, like chewing or dropping his head, then go on with saddling carefully.
We teach horses to yield to pressure, but you can't rely on a horse who is panicking to remember that lesson. Don't compound it by having him tied hard and fast so he's likely to pull back.
Question: What three ideas can you share to help correct this behavior?
Ken: I use several lessons in the round pen. That way, the horse is not trapped. I do lots of sacking out, teaching him to accept scary objects that resemble a saddle, say by wrapping a saddle blanket around his girth. If the horse moves, I send him off, redirecting his movement. Eventually I teach the horse to stand ground tied for saddling.
My favorite exercise is a bit complicated to explain but the gist of it is that I make a cinching rig by attaching a long rope to a cinch on one end, as if to create a surcingle. I make a breastcollar out of string, to hold it in place. Then I tighten the cinch slightly, and release it when the horse is calm. If he loses his composure, I ask him to move forward, redirecting his movement. I work this lesson until the horse is comfortable at the walk, trot, and canter and with the cinch tightened at various tensions. The important element is that I can drop or loosen the cinch/rope at any time, so the horse never gets trapped or too scared.
Then I also do various give-to-pressure exercises, so that if he's ever tied and begins to pull back, he won't panic. Remember that the horse is likely being cinchy because he's afraid.
Wendy: I recommend that you not tie a horse that you know has an issue with being cinchy. If you're tying him up because that's the only way you can get the saddle on, you're skipping too many steps and will end up with more problems.
If the horse willingly accepts the blanket and saddle while standing still, but shows signs of being cinchy when you start the cinching process-lays ears back, swishes tail, raises head up, turns to look, nips or bites at you, cow kicks, gets tight under the girth area-then you need to work on the cinch area. Take the saddle off and make one wrap of a soft lead rope around the horse's girth area. Stand in front of the girth line, hold the rope in one hand, and ask the horse to bend his head toward you slightly. If he shows any of the negative behaviors, keep doing it until he stands still and relaxes.
From there, you can work the same lesson, tightening the rope (but not tying it), and work up to where you can saddle him, drawing the cinch up tighter and releasing the same way you did with the rope until the horse is bored with the process.
Occasionally, even after doing all of these exercises, some horses remain touchy about the cinch area, or they do fine for a time and they get cinchy again. They are typically goosey about other areas of their bodies too. These horses need to be handled according to their temperaments and accept that you may have to continue these exercises for longer than you may want to. There are no quick fixes.
I've also found that if I'm having particular trouble with a horse whose behaviors are getting dangerous enough (biting and kicking) that it wouldn't be safe for me to continue, he may be more willing to work on cinching after working on other exercises that involve sweating, changing directions from right to left often, and so forth.
Susan: First, remember that this full-blown cinchy episode is really a panic attack brought on by a physical stimulus. Don't punish the horse, and be careful not to get hurt.
Second, the better you do ground work and prep for saddling and get a green horse used to gradual girth pressure, the less likely this is to happen. You can put a polo wrap around the girth area even with a foal. Most will swell up, hump their backs, and threaten to buck. Work up to using a surcingle with a blanket, and with an older horse, eventually a saddle. If you do it gradually and without trauma, you're inoculating him against cinchy episodes.
Third, exercise good horsemanship about saddling and girthing. Use a clean, soft girth; groom the horse properly before riding; and girth gradually, walking the horse a few steps and then girthing more. Give the horse fair warning, and don't over-tighten the girth. To check tightness, you should be able to slip your hand easily between the girth and the hollow behind his elbow-that's where those sensitive muscles are. If you have to dig your fingers in, that's way too tight.
If you have a touchy horse, use a soft padded girth, maybe with a little stretch. But watch that you don't pull all the stretch out of it trying to make it tight enough. This will make him uncomfortable, if not give him a girth sore.
Also, the muscles under the girth respond well to massage. You might have a massage therapist teach you how to massage them properly. That can help to relieve the horse's pain.
Don't discipline the horse, or knee him in the belly to get him to "let out the air." Studies show that the horse doesn't really expel air when you do this, and it's much more likely to teach him to bite and kick. I make a deal with my horses. They aren't allowed to bite or kick, but if they say "Ouch!" I have to listen and take care of it.
This topic is a good illustration of the importance of realizing that there are many aspects to behavior issues, and it's important to look at a behavior problem from a variety of different perspectives