help for a girthy horse
Cory Kieschnick, assistant professor and Department of Equine Science and Management chair at Delaware Valley University, also contributed to this article.

Q.My 17-year-old mustang shakes his head every time I cinch him up. Even if I pretend to tighten the cinch, he does it. I’ve never been rough or tightened it too fast. How can I change this behavior?

Ronella Clegg, via Facebook

A.When horses are sensitive to having the saddle cinch or girth tightened, they often react by pinning their ears, kicking, tensing their body and moving around, or similar behaviors. This is often referred to as a horse being “girthy,” “cinchy,” or “cinch-sensitive.”

Most of the time this behavior starts when the horse is surprised by the girth being tightened or when the horse is experiencing some discomfort from the equipment being used. (Editor’s note: Please also contact your veterinarian to rule out gastric ulcers, which can cause discomfort and might also be related to “cinchy” behavior.)

This behavior can persist as a conditioned fear (a fear response triggered by a specific stimulus but not the actual pain that was initially felt). As a result, the horse displays an undesired behavior. What we don’t realize is that we are triggering a learning sequence, which is responsible for teaching the horse to continue displaying the undesired behavior when we tighten the girth or cinch.

The sequence is:

  1. Pressure from tightening the girth (request of a behavior).
  2. Response of ear pinning, kicking, tensing, etc. (undesirable behavior offered).
  3. The rider finishes/stops tightening the girth (releases the pressure, therefore rewarding the undesirable behavior).

Because we do this unconsciously and frequently in the same way, we don’t realize that the horse thinks his undesirable behavior is responsible for stopping the girth from being pulled, and it is likely that the horse’s intensity of the response will increase over time (more biting, more intense kicking, tensing, etc.).

Once we make sure the horse is not in physical pain and that the equipment fits properly, then we can start the behavior modification process. To try to solve this problem, follow this sequence:

  1. Start tightening the girth or cinch by applying an intermittent, continuous pressure by quickly moving the girth or cinch up and down a tiny bit while holding it against the horse and near the billet straps or cinch strap. The horse will display the undesired behavior thinking that it will stop the tightening of the girth, but this time it will not work because you will keep applying the intermittent pressure on the girth.
  2. At that point, once the horse realizes that this old behavior is not stopping the girth or cinch from tightening, the horse will try a new behavior. In that moment, we can stop the intermittent action of the pressure and select a more desired behavior (for example, the horse facing forward and relaxed). We can practice this sequence multiple times until the horse learns that the new behavior to stop the girthing is to look forward and stand relaxed.

An even more efficient way to improve this situation is adding positive reinforcement through clicker training to the sequence. This is done by using the same intermittent girth pressure described, but then using the clicker (which has been previously linked with a food-based reinforcement) to reward the desired behavior such as the horse’s head forward and body relaxed. The clicker immediately tells the horse that that is the correct response. This way we are not only retraining the undesired behavior, but we are also adding a positive outcome to the girthing action. This will help the horse erase the memory of the conditioned fear associated with the girth or cinch and substitute it with a positive association.