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Top 3 Reasons Your Horse Is Girthy and What to do About It

Top 3 Reasons Your Horse Is Girthy and What to do About It Your horse is groomed to a high shine, hoofs picked, mane neatly combed. Now it’s time for the part of the tacking process you’ve been dreading: saddling. Every time you go to strap on the girth, no matter how gently, your horse pins his ears, bites at you, and maybe even threatens to kick. In extreme cases, he throws himself to the ground in the crossties. All of these behaviors are scary and dangerous for both of you.

Having a girthy horse is a common problem for many owners. Many times, your horse came to you that way. Sometimes he developed girthiness later in your partnership. Either way, you’re not really sure why.

Here are the top three reasons horses develop girthiness. With the help of your vet and a knowledgeable trainer, you can use the process of elimination to determine which issue is causing your horse to be girthy – the first step in fixing it.

Your Horse May Be Girthy Because His Tack Doesn’t Fit

Your horse may be telling you he doesn’t like the girthing process because either it or his saddle is causing him pain. Make sure that your tack fits properly and is placed correctly on his back. The girth should be tight enough to hold your saddle in place, but not so tight that it restricts your horse’s breathing or movement. If it’s too loose, it is liable to rub or pinch.

Ask a professional, whether it’s a reputable trainer at your barn or a knowledgeable horsey friend, to help you evaluate your saddle’s fit. Check to see that it is:

  • Positioned correctly – Many saddles are placed too far forward where they restrict the shoulder’s movement.
  • Fitted correctly – The saddle should be balanced from front to back, shouldn’t be too narrow or too wide, and the tree should sit evenly along your horse’s back (no “bridging” or tighter and looser areas that can pinch or rub).
  • In good condition – Unseen damage, such as a twisted or broken tree, could be causing your horse discomfort and thus his resistance to being girthed. The flocking and underside of the saddle should be totally smooth.

Equine Girthiness May Be a Reflection of Discomfort in the Hindgut

Your horse has a very large and very sensitive digestive tract, which is critical to his health and well-being. The hindgut in particular is massive, filling up the greater portion of the belly. It extends the length of your horse’s underside all the way up into the girth area. The delicate balance of the hindgut is easily disrupted for many reasons, causing minor pain at best and serious conditions like ulcers and colic at worst.

Many assume a girthing problem is related to the stomach. But the stomach is high and deep in the abdominal cavity where it isn’t affected by the girth. Rather, the colon is extremely large and low and extends to the area where the girth sits.

It is quite possible that a minor imbalance in the hindgut, or even a more serious one like colonic ulcers, is causing pain that makes girthing uncomfortable. Here are some additional signs that your horse’s girthiness is internally related:

  • Evidence of grain in the manure
  • Manure is loose
  • Manure is exceptionally dry
  • Difficulty maintaining weight or goes off his feed

If any of these other signs are present, there are ways you can change how you feed and manage your horse to improve the health of his digestive tract. Always consult your veterinarian before making changes to your horse’s care and nutrition.

Girthiness Caused By A Previous Trauma

Horses have long memories, especially when there is pain involved. If you horse was mishandled or experienced an injury at any point in his life, his adverse reaction to the girth may be an ongoing result. Here are some types of trauma that may be causing your horse to act girthy.

  • Poor training – Someone may have tried to teach your horse to accept and saddle and girth too quickly when he was young. Instead of going one step at a time and allowing your horse to get used to the girth gradually, they may have tightened it right away scaring him and causing discomfort.
  • Remembered pain – A girth that was too tight or rubbed, an improperly fitting saddle, an injury, or a digestive problem that caused pain could still be in the forefront of your horse’s memory. If he remembers that a girth hurt once, he may be afraid it will hurt again.

Unfortunately, poor training and past pain are very difficult problems to undo. In each case, you will basically need to start over with your horse’s training. Re-teach your horse to accept the saddle and girth slowly, one billet hole at a time. And by slowly we mean over a matter of days, weeks, or even months as your horse needs.

Need Help With The Process of Elimination?

Do you have some additional questions about your horse and his girth issues? Championship Arabian trainer and lifelong horseman Bill Rodgers would love to help. You can email Bill at rodgerslimited@aol.com and explain your particular situation. He’ll be happy to help you work through the process of elimination and determine how best to help your horse accept the girth.

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8 Responses to “Top 3 Reasons Your Horse Is Girthy and What to do About It”

  1. HI
    I am currently helping my father to break in a draught cross mare approx 5 yrs ( he has broken in hundreds of horses over the years for ourselves and local people…nothing flash just well handled and basic education, saddle and harness with no previous issues).
    The mare came to us with a sketchy background – ie. purchased her off a man who couldn’t give us any straight answers but she was supposedly un started, we have since heard whispers of her being a rescue horse? possibly abused physically and so on.
    We started on her just before xmas 2010. She is a very soft mare and a bit stand offish.
    I started to win her over with feed! of course, and can catch her in the paddock without any treats. she is very flinchy…. but we just took that because she is a young horse that hasn’t had too much handling.
    We really want to use her to ride and drive like many of our horses.
    She gets frightened very easily…. like i haven’t seen before (and we have broken in brumbies and station bred unhandled horses)which makes you suspect things…
    So anyway we have been working on her slowly for 3 weeks, the first day we put a bit in her mouth, she didn’t chew it or play with it and that made us think she has definately had one in before.
    the first 2 days she had gear on she bucked properly… not justa hump up or pig root…. you could see it was pure fear….
    we have continued to put gear on her gently everyday and she shows a bit of girthyness. she has got a lovely mouth and very responsive…. once the gear is on! We are long reining her and she has low traces on and snigs a log ( she is very excepting of things around her feet)
    She is so nervous about the gear going on…. she breaths a sigh of relief once it is on…. she is still very flinchy and has jumped away a few times…
    dad calls her cold back girthy….
    she is a real puzzle
    i have been catching her everyday for a month with out any problems and today when i went to catch her, i had the rope around her neck and and was about to pull the headstall over her nose, when it gave her a huge fright, she roared…literally (like when they really buck)and reared up and jumped away from me. stunned i let her go.
    she pulled up just a few meters away and i coxed the headstall on her without seemily any problems.
    I just don’t know what to do with her…. obviously what ever it is we have to do softly and slowly, but it has me wondering if its worth the effort? is she ever going to come around?
    So i guess i am asking for sugestions about how to fix girthyness and because horses have such a long memory and if she was ill treated will she ever forget it????
    Cheers Kate

  2. Belinda

    Hi Kate,
    I’ve been dealing with both issues you have experienced, flighty and cinchy horse – in my case they are two different horses. But I think that these problems would be separate anyway.

    For the cinchy horse, I pretty much did what this article prescribed, restarting slowly as if you are introducing the saddle again. I gave the horse a month turnout before I began the process again. I added in lots of carrot treats around the saddling process. I restarted the mounting process too, getting on from a mounting block slowly putting the pressure on the back (i.e. leaning over the horse, then pushing on the back, then putting my leg over etc) and stroking the horse and having someone else give them treats. I even rode bareback for a couple of weeks first to disassociate riding with the saddle. It has been working so far, and my horse is accepting the saddle much better. He is also a TB and has sensitive skin, so this is something that will need to be managed carefully. I have bought a sheepskin pad and girth cover to try to eliminate any discomfort.

    Second issue, with the flightyness. I have another unbroken mare who came to us very flighty, especially with ropes near her. I don’t think anything happened to her although I don’t know her history. She just needed to get confident around sudden movements. If yours has been hit in the face or had something bad happen that it now associates with the halter then I think the same treatment is needed to increase confidence. I have so far spent time desensitizing her to rope anywhere on her body, plastic bags, etc. I have kids and that is desensitizing her to sudden movement 🙂 In my opinion, doing all this will build confidence in the horse and then the riding will progress much more easily.
    Cheers,
    Belinda

  3. I am working with a mare that my daughter and son in law got in Wyoming from a quarter horse breeder. She was unbroke and a five year old. They bought five horses including her and ran them up through a chute, put a halter on them and ran them into a stock trailer for the trip back to California. All the others are now under saddle but Red Cloud, although she started out seemingly OK, was a fairly dominant alpha mare and very, very sensitive and flinchy I presume along with very cinchy. They got her started and saddled her with a roping saddle, breast colar, etc. and my son in law was on her in the round pen talking to his twin brother when she blew up (they don’t know why) and bucked him off. She freezes up and practically seems to be holding her breath with tight lips if she is stressed now, head up and the muscle just in front of her wither buldges out full of tension. Well, besides bucking him off, on another occasion, not sure if before or after, they were saddling her and she blew up, pulled away and took off with the saddle not cinched all the way and it ended up under her belly for about 50 to 75 feet when it came off. Then, they sent her off to a “trainer” who called in a couple of weeks and said to come pick her up because she was dead lame. My daughter said she could hardly walk but they didn’t really ask him what he had done with her or what happened. From there, they just quite trying and decided to breed her but she would not stand to be bred and had to be AI’d. Now she is 10 and I have convinced them to let me work with her.
    She wants to please, is very, very sensitive but learns quickly. When I first started working with her, I could not look directly at her when she was circling as it was too much pressure for her. When I put a bareback pad on her she bolted and got away from me when I cinched her and took off bucking around the round pen squalling like a wild thing. That was a couple of months ago. Now I am working with a Farrier and Equine body workerer who has started many horses too and he put the cinch on the first time and she was so nervous when he put pressure on several points in the girth area,she had spasms that traveled all the way along her body to her tail, spasming for several seconds for each location before they would subside. She does not offer to bite or throw herself but gets so tense and backs up but does not pull back. She is OK but tense when I put the saddle pad on and a light weight barrel saddle and even pretty OK when I reach under to get the girth and I always rub and scratch her girth area before going any further. When I start to put the latigo through the cinch, she starts backing up and gets really nervous and wound up like a tight spring ready to explode but she will step forward if I step up in front and ask her to. Her favorite place when she is saddled is to be close to me, even if I am standing on our pedestal above her. Seems to comfort her. She is getting better but even tonight, saddled and down in the big arena just doing some different stuff, when I asked her to bring her head around for a horse cookie on her “off” side which is definately her bad side, she got part of the way around and flinched and jerked her head back like the cinch bit her. I worked both sides, asking her to come around but not quite as far. She also was very nervous going through a small gate saddled, especially when I asked her to squeeze past me on her “off” side but the second day, she would stop when asked half way through and again seemed comforted when I rubbed on her. Your suggestion? She really seems to want to please but one time bolted when saddled and I was just holding her and headed for the driveway, slid on the asphalt and slid into the vinyl fence,breaking the post, falling again and then just standing there looking at me as I approached with an expression like “what happened?” I so want to ride her and know she will eventually be a great horse but dont want to hurt her or myself either in the process. She is not scared of tractors, cars or many things..just on high alert. Would love to her what you think…

  4. emma davis

    i have the worst horse when it comes to girthing.he kicks ive been bitten multiple times,stepped on so many times and kicked also.I do not bame my horse though.He was in an abusive past

  5. Mary Jane

    My horse starts to go in circle when I put on the girth (everytime) and if I’m too fast when tighten it up it rears and this is dangerous. So I am always gentle and I follow and tighten up in a circle at the same time because there’s no other solution and if I dont my horse gets too freaky and……………This is due to past events which I’m not familiar with and I don’t think it would get better..maybe if it is done with a very well trained rider and a lot of time and patience, but she’s (the horse) 16 yrs old so its a bit late for such things I think. Any ideas for relieving that everyday agenda? sorry for my english

    • Dawn Simpson

      Hi Mary Jane at Amy – Have you tried different places to saddle your horse? For example, could you tie the horse in her stall? The comfort of her stall may be soothing, but also giving her some security so she doesn’t pull or rear or circle. We recently had a mare that had always been saddled and groomed in a grooming stall with three walls around her. When we sent her home and they tried to saddle or groom her at a hitch or standing in an open area she pulled backward every time. After breaking three brand new halters, and a few Chiropractor/Massage bills she went to a new owner and hasn’t pulled since as along as she is in her stall or the groom bay. Which leads to my next question, has she had her teeth, spine and soft tissue checked and worked on? Making her physically comfortable to start with will go a long way – along with trying something to ease ulcers, hindgut pain, pro or prebiotics or both! Will she wear a sheet or a blanket? We have had some really good success with two of our ‘girthy’ horses by putting a Back on Track Mesh sheet and Poll Cap on them for 15-30 mins before we are going to saddle them – After having a few sessions of body work done on them. The BOT products help to warm up with muscles and soft tissues and seem to relax the horse and because we follow this routine, they know what is coming next. We follow up with a Back on Track pad or liner under the saddle. We swear by BOT products because we have seen amazing results! You should also be able to have your tack fit checked by a reputable saddle fitter or even your body work specialist (chiropractor/massage). Smith-Worthington has GREAT resources for assisting with saddle fit and they will adjust English saddles of all types. When looking at your tack fit, don’t forget to look at your girth! I have one horse that improved his girthiness just by switching to a fleece lined girth rather than leather. I would highly recommend making sure the horse(s) are comfortable both inside and out, then start with a routine and take it very slow. I’d love to hear from you if you find any other solutions – feel free to look me up on Facebook/Google+ or greatlakestack.com

  6. Three Day Eventer

    My horse will kick (and by kick I mean purposely try to kick you) and throw the saddle off of his back. The tack fits and if I tighten the girth slowly, he throws a fit, and if I do it fast, he throws an even bigger fit. I had a trainer look at him and when she did it, he stood perfectly still. But, he still throws a tantrum when the girth is put on. I think he had a bad experience, but I am unsure how to solve this. Any tips for helping him?

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