Reasons & Remedies for Saddling Sensitivity
by Stefanie Reinhold
What is ‘cinchy’?
In a nut shell: ‘Cinchy’ describes a horse that shows an adverse reaction to the saddle cinch or saddle girth, either during the saddling process or well before – for example when approaching the horse with the saddle.
These adverse reactions can range from subtle (tense facial expression) to aggressive (kicking or biting). Any response apart from a relaxed acceptance must be viewed as a defensive response on part of the horse.
Why is my horse ‘cinchy’ or ‘girthy’?
When looking at any unwanted behaviors in horses, we are looking at 3 possible scenarios:
- An unpleasant physical experience at this moment (pain, discomfort, etc.)
- An unpleasant emotional experience at this moment (fear, panic, etc.)
- A memory of an unpleasant physical or emotional experience, which is now anticipated (but may not occur…)
A google search shows: Most trainers address a negative reaction to the girth or cinch as a behavior issue. This is an unfortunate misrepresentation. As responsible horse owners, we need to consider physical pain and discomfort first, then rule it out or address it in order to then successfully address the behavior issue or habit that may be associated with this discomfort.
Physical Discomfort as Cause for Cinchy Behavior
Asking ourselves ‘could it be pain?‘, we need to start looking at the girth area, mainly the area of the deep pectoral muscles. Here some tips:
- Run your fingers (carefully) from the center of the rib cage (under the horse, sternum) up towards the saddle area, across the ascending pectorals (see image). Look for reactions: Anything from muscle flinching in that area to more volatile reactions like kicking and biting. NOTE: Be careful! Start with very soft touch, take it up a notch only if no reaction from the horse. Never press harder than would be comfortable for you. Practice on your own leg first.
- Did you get a reaction? If yes, it is time to investigate girth fit, tightness, material, placement, etc. Your horse is in discomfort!!
- More clues: Is your horse ‘short-strided’ or tight in the shoulder? This could be another indicator of discomfort in the deep pectorals.
The detective work in finding out what causes the discomfort in the girth area (meaning in the deep pectorals) does not stop at riding equipment.
You also need to look at feet, any hidden front leg or shoulder discomfort, tightness in the poll, imbalance in self carriage. The underlying problem can also be a subluxation of any of the underlying skeletal structures (vertebrae), often called a ‘rib out’. Contact an equine chiropractor to rule out this very common cause of girthyness. More often than not, it is difficult to find the reason if all factors have been sufficiently addressed and girthy behavior persists. Gentle bodywork that addresses the entire system of the horse’s body and rules out compensation patterns – such as the Masterson Method of Integrated Equine Performance Bodywork – will often be the key to resolving the hidden causes of girthy behavior.
Reasons for girthy or cinchy behavior can include:
- a saddle with a tree that pinches in the whithers
- a saddle with protruding screws or knotty, aged flocking
- a saddle that does not conform well to the shape of the horses back (bridges or rocks)
Girth/cinch or pad problems:
- a saddle pad that bunches
- a saddle pad that is too thick, thus making a well fitting saddle fit like a shoe, that is too small
- a soiled saddle pad (for example plant debris, sand, old hardened sweat etc)
- a synthetic saddle pad that ‘heats up’ during the ride and promises discomfort later on
- a pinching girth/cinch or buckle (especially Western cinches with the buckle in the wrong position)
- a too tight girth/cinch
Physical problems (sometimes caused by above)
- Sore spots, abscess, insect bites or other wounds in the girth or saddle area (infected tick bites)
- Back pain: the horse anticipates back pain when being ridden and thus has anxiety around the saddling process (for example: back-pain due to muscle spasms or hock problems).
- Sore feet: The abdodimus pectoris muscle can get tender and sore when horses have pain or soreness in their front feet because of the way the horse moves to avoid the pain.
- The horse associates the process of being saddled with a stressful experience, such as
- feelings of panic or claustrophobia (often caused by starting the young horse in a hurry)
- a negative riding experience, either in present or past (former owner, trainer)
- unsoundness or painful illness (such as any digestive issues, ulcers, hoof sensitivities) that become very stressful when ridden
- The horse associates the process of being saddled with a stressful experience, such as
Equine massage or body work can help with any muscular issues, whether they may be primary – such as muscle spasm – or secondary – such as sore ascending pectoral muscles due to sore feet.
However, the first recommended course of action is to uncover the root cause, involving professionals such as vet, farrier, equine chiropractor, acupuncturist, etc. After the root
cause for the discomfort is remedied, the secondary discomfort and tension due to compensation can often be helped within only a few sessions of equine massage or body work.
So here again in a nutshell:
- Check Saddle Fit
- Check girth/cinch placement and material
- Check for wounds, bruises or muscle pain
- Involve an equine chiropractor or vet (or both)
Resolve the problem, then release any tension resulting from compensation through gentle bodywork. (You can learn basic equine bodywork techniques yourself.)
Only then is it time to replace the problematic and now habitual behavior in the horse through training measures.
As always, enjoy your horse!
Horses have been around for a lot longer than our modern conveniences like horse vacuums and show sheen spray. While we can be grateful to have access to these conveniences, not everything we use today is actually helpful or beneficial.
What did experienced stable hands do in the ‘old days’? What can we learn from them?
Sometimes, it’s the simple ‘old-school’ solution that gets the best result.
Here 10 “old-school” grooming and horse care tips:
100 strokes to shine
The German cavalry prescribed a minimum of 100 brush strokes (with a horse hair brush) per horse per day. The recruits had to groom their own horses and were subjected to rigorous inspections. Grooming was not only viewed as a means to clean the horse but also to provide a good massage, increase blood circulation and well being. But the recruits were encouraged to be quick about it: “There is no value in grooming beyond the point of when the horse is clean.” (Care of the Troup Horse, 1937)
What’s in an onion?
Apparently something that makes the horse hoof shiny. Cut an onion into half and rub the clean and dry hoof with the raw onion before entering the show ring. It will provide shine without the unwanted side-effect of attracting sand and dirt.
Laurel oil for hoof growth
Laurel oil (bay leaf oil) has been a staple in hoof care for centuries. The thrifty groom would massage the oil into the coronet band, then sparingly spread a thin film over the rest of the hoof wall. Then hoof treatment was applied to the collateral groove and the sole of the hoof, never the frog!
Caring for the sweaty horse after exercise
The hot and sweaty horse appreciates having his eyes and nostrils cleaned with a damp cloth. Then 10-15 minutes of calm walking in hand, in winter or cool weather covered with a simple wool blanket. Follow up with a vigorous rub down with a bunch of clean straw to dry the coat further, then brush the coat smooth with a coarse natural brush.
Caring for the horse’s mane
The knowledgeable old-school groom never combed a mane! Instead, the mane would be finger-combed, the dandruff on the crest would then be brushed off with a horse hair finishing brush, parting small sections with the fingers, and then the groom would smoothen the mane by brushing.
Wherever there are horses, there will be flies… Besides cleanliness, the old-school barn master prescribed a natural ally in the war against the buzzing pest: swallows. Encourage swallows to nest in your barn and you will keep the fly population low.
And another fly repellent…
If you cannot convince the swallows to nest in your barn, try a ‘spiked lemon’. Spike a lemon with cloves and hang it up in your barn.
Keeping leather soft
After cleaning saddle, bridle & other leather accessories thoroughly with saddle soap, the old-school groom would not let the leather dry out completely but instead apply leather conditioner when the leather was still somewhat damp. After letting the conditioner soak in, remove excess fat with a wool cloth, easily made by shrinking an old wool sweater in a hot wash cycle.
Cleaning very sweaty bridles
In order to remove caked on dirt and sweat before cleaning the bridle with saddle soap, take the bridle apart and soak it for a few minutes in lukewarm water with a squirt of ammonia.Be sure not to forget the bridle in the bucket! Remove after a few minutes.
Last not least… a tasty snack!
The groom in old times provided his horses with tasty branches from fruit trees, birch trees and hazelnut bushes. This was supposed to be healthy and good for the teeth. If you’d like to take it up a notch, soak some bread in beer, a snack that was (or still is…) supposedly popular in some parts of Germany. (Note: This tip is provided for entertainment purposes. If you would like to try this, please check with your vet first!😉
5 Questions that help make the right choice.
Bitting is a complicated topic, but I hope to make it a little easier for you to ask yourself the right questions. The answers to those questions can then be your guide to finding the right bit.
- What lies beneath (the muzzle)?
The muzzle is a sensitive, complex part of the horse’s sensory system. In the best case scenario – suitable bit and sensitive, light hands – it is therefore also a perfect ‘communication hub’ between rider hand and horse brain. In the worst case scenario – the wrong bit and rough rein influence – it becomes the scene of torture.
We need to look beneath the muzzle to determine:
- How wide is your horse’s lower jaw?
- How concave or flat is the cavity of your horse’s palate?
- What is the angle/shape of your horse’s ‘bars’ (the toothless lower part where the bit rests)? Is it shaped like a roof, with a small contact area? Or is the contact area flat, wide and fleshy or anything in between?
- How thick is your horse’s tongue?
- Last not least: Any old injuries/scars/odd tooth arrangement or presence of ‘wolf teeth’?
Lift your horse’s lip, feel around, carefully grab the tongue, stroke over the bars, touch the palate and explore its shape, open your horse’s mouth and observe any visual clues. In other words: familiarize yourself with the landscape of your horse’s mouth.
- What does the exterior of the muzzle look like?
After you have explored the inside of your horse’s mouth through palpation and visual exploration, it is time to look at the outside.
- How long is your horse’s mouth (meaning the opening, where does the corner of the mouth end relative to the nostril)?
- Do you notice any chafing or cracking, warts, or scarring?
- How deep is the chin groove?
- How fleshy is the muzzle?
These factors – in combination with the factors above – are important when it comes to choosing the right bit and bridle. (E. g.: A horse with a short mouth will not do well with a dropped noseband. A horse with a long mouth does not need ‘2 wrinkles’ to have the bit in the right position.)
- What is the horse’s personality?
- Energy level: Anything from laid back or ‘pokey’ to forward and energetic. Rate your horse on a scale from 1-10, with 10 being the highest energy level.
- Strong-mindedness: Even with the best of training, there are horses, who insist on their own agenda more often than other, more agreeable types. It is important to be realistic about this. (No excuses! Bad training does not count!) Rate your horse on a scale from 1-10, with 10 being the most strong-minded.
- Sensitivity: This plays a bit into the physical make-up and also the history of the horse. A former school horse can be quite dull in the mouth (mentally and physically), another horse has lots of sensitive nerves and reacts to the smallest closing of the hands. Rate your horse from 1-10, with 10 being the most sensitivity.
NOTE: If you are unsure because the horse may be new to you, take your time and enlist the help of a friend or trainer to gently and respectfully explore the respective area with your horse.
- What is the horse’s job and training level?
Considering the horse’s riding discipline and training level is key. Rate your horse on a scale from 1-10, with 10 being the highest level that can be attained in your discipline.
- What can be expected by the rider?
What type of rider will handle this horse’s reins? Rate the skill level as it pertains to a) independent seat and b) careful and sensitive use of the reins and soft hands, on a scale from 1-10, with 10 being a very balanced rider with skilled, soft hands.
Some general rules of thumb:
- A young horse and/or a horse with little training should have the gentlest bit possible.
- Bits with leverage or double bridles only belong into the mouths of horses with the appropriate training level and under a skilled rider.
- Rider safety is first. If you ride competitive trail or endurance, for example, and you have a high-strung animal, you need to take this into consideration. And yes, bits sometimes do stop horses.
- A simple snaffle bit of some type will do fine for most applications – from dressage over trail riding to show jumping – if horse and rider are appropriately trained.
- Snaffle bits with leverage are especially harsh bits! (This includes the ‘Tom Thumb’ bit!)
- The best-fitting bit can become an instrument of torture under a tight noseband.
- Broken snaffle bits (French link, for example) are not necessarily gentler. It depends on the horse!
Write the results of you explorations on a sheet of paper. Also list your concerns and questions, then contact several bit experts and ask what bit they would recommend for your particular horse and situation.
Chose the bit and answer that makes the most sense to you.
Your horse will be the last judge!
Enjoy your horse!
There is a general lack of good, reliable resources and information on the topic of ‘bits and bitting’. Here some resources you might want to explore:
A guest blog article by Connie Johnson Hambley
We’ve all seen it.
The perfectly executed Grand Prix course or the fastest barrel racing time. The rider thinks and the horse moves. Mind and body meld and it’s not a human on a horse, but one team. One unit.
Closing the gap between horse and rider is essential at the highest levels of the sport, but the skill is important for all riders. Not only do I ride as often as I can (which is not nearly as often as I’d like), I volunteer as a horse handler at a therapeutic riding center assisting people with disabilities learn to ride. A handler’s role is to ensure safety first and to allow the rider as much support toward independent riding as possible. Seeing horses settle and adjust to a new rider provides a window into a world without words. Everything shrinks to cues and responses, cause and effect, and the intuition that guides the horse/human connection. It’s a privilege to witness this and my respect for these horses has skyrocketed.
Consider the special needs rider from the horse’s point of view. The horse has had years of training to understand the physical cues on its mouth, sides, and balance. Then it carries a rider whose impaired body provides sporadic, confusing, or delayed cues because neither the rider’s mind nor body can process the physical commands effectively. Think of it as static on a radio obscuring a clear signal to the horse. I use the same technique for handling as I do for my own riding–I empty my thoughts of everything outside the ring and focus on what the horse is trying to process. As a horse handler, I try to be very aware of the moment the horse decides who to tune in. The rider on its back or the handler at its head?
Your horse is very aware of you. Is your rapid breathing and tight grip on the reins because you’re not pleased with it? You might know you’re keyed up because you had a rough day at work or a fight with your spouse, but your horse has no clue. All the tension you hold is static stopping your clear signal from being transmitted to the horse. The flip side of this is also true. If your horse is reacting to your tension, then its raised head or failure to bend could lead to misunderstandings. Misunderstandings lead to over corrections and bigger problems. Did you misinterpret your horses signals? Did you even sense it?
It’s not easy to be completely present each time you ride. Draining your mind of everything but the rhythm of the horse becomes a form of meditation and is a skill built over time. Many refer to this as ‘mindfulness.’ Once mastered, ‘equestrian mindfulness’ can be applied in other areas of your life and there are even books written on ‘horsefulness.’
As a writer, my days are spent “inside my head” searching for the right combination of words. But, when I’m at the barn, I can just be. No words are needed–just a rhythm and a focus on my physical space as well as my mental space. If I’m too much in my own head when riding, I won’t be aware enough of the horse.
To strike this delicate balance, I allow myself a transition from my “other” life to my “horse” life. For me, immersing into the sights, sounds, smells of the barn trigger a relaxation response. I encourage my horse to join me in this transition by performing a greeting ritual. Neck rubbing, treat offering, and forehead snoodling are important steps before grooming and tacking.
These consistent actions help me relax and bring my horse into closer communication with me.
After all, we’re a single unit. We’re a team.
About the author:
Connie Johnson Hambley grew up on a small dairy farm just north of New York City and was a child when an arsonist burned her family’s barn to the ground. Memories from that experience grew the stories that have become The Charity and The Troubles.
Hambley uses every bit of personal experience to create a story that is as believable as it is suspenseful. Hambley writes about strong women from their perspective in situations that demand the most from them. No special powers, no gadgets, no super human abilities. Just a woman caught up or embroiled in something that she has to get out of, hopefully alive.
Interviews include: Boston’s Literati Scene TV Show; Hallie Ephron’s guest on Jungle Red Writers: Ireland, Horses and Senseless Fire; Hank Phillippi Ryan’s guest on Femmes Fatales; Pawling Public Radio; Blog Talk Radio; Rounded Corner of the Writing World; (Australian Author) Penny de Byl’s Five Minute Profile; and Poughkeepsie Journal In Minutes, A Generation’s Work Destroyed by Flames.
Hambley writes page-turners and The Charity is the first in a series. Its sequel, The Troubles was published May 2015. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter for updates and information.
While generalizing is always a bad idea – I’ll start with a little generalizing in order to keep this blog post at a manageable size. The topic – as you well know – fills many a book!
After, what seems, several decades of lots of pushing, prodding, pulling, and bracing in main stream equestrian sports – namely dressage – the general consensus seems to be getting back to a more classical approach, i. e. Lightness! Luckily for our horses, there has been increased buzz around classical riding websites and Facebook pages (such as Silvia Loch’s Classical Riding Club or the HDV12 German Cavalry Training Manual. as demonstrated so wonderfully here by Fritz Stecken on Noble). Along with that goes more awareness around so-called ‘modern’ riding techniques that cause bracing, tension and hyperflexion with the respective public criticism (e. g. “Rollkur” type of techniques or tense “circus-like” dressage performances).
But what’s the hype about?
Why Lightness is Necessary
Lightness is to touch what whispering is to voice. Just as pushing, pulling, prodding is to touch what shouting is to voice. As we become more enlightened about the nature of the horse, we learn that our silent, sensitive partners respond better to whispering than to shouting. As ‘loud’ interaction (whether via touch or voice) creates bracing in our horses, ‘soft’ interaction is the key to suppleness. Suppleness is the highest goal and basis for any schooling of the horse, no matter the school (French, Spanish or German).
So we (those of us, who put the horse’s wellbeing first) are looking for ways to become lighter. Lighter in our aids, lighter in our influences, lighter in our interactions with our sensitive equine partners.
Where Does Lightness Start?
Most riders spontaneously think of the reins. Indeed, sensitive, light rein contact is an expression of lightness. However, lightness starts at a deeper level: The mental and physical relaxation and suppleness of the rider, which can then find its expression in riding in lightness, developed through careful and systematic training (and ‘un’training!).
Getting Started With Lightness – Before Climbing in the Saddle
You don’t have to wait until you sit on the horse to work on your lightness. As a matter of fact, once you climb aboard, it’s hard to work on yourself. Mental & physical suppleness, which finds its expression in lightness, is best started in our every day activities.
5 Tips on How To Develop Lightness
- Practice Mindfulness – While this sounds like something out of a Buddhist retreat manual, it’s rather simple. 10 minutes a day of focusing on the ‘here & now’ won’t turn you into a meditation expert, but can do much for your ability to relax and be in the presence, a useful skill for riders living in the information age. Do this at home, at the office (but not while driving!) (Resources: The UCLA offers free online meditation audio OR Guided Mindfulness Meditation: A Complete Guided Mindfulness Meditation Program from Jon Kabat-Zinn)
- Use Mental Imagery – day-dreaming with a purpose! Research shows that what we mentally train, we have an easier time realizing in ‘real life’. So day-dream away, but with a plan! Imagine yourself riding, then imagine yourself riding in lightness. Isolate various areas of your body, then put the picture together. Tackle anxiety, confidence issues, and limiting beliefs, we well. Do this while waiting at the doctor’s office or on an airplane, for example. (Resources: More about mental imagery for athletes here OR The Art of Mental Training: A Guide to Performance Excellence (Collector’s Edition))
- A Little Stretching – goes a long way! Find a good time of day to incorporate some stretching exercises. 5 minutes in the morning and 5 minutes at night can make all the difference! Many stretching exercises can be done during breaks at work, too! (Resources: Free fitness videos by FitnessBlender OR The Anatomy of Stretching, Second Edition: Your Illustrated Guide to Flexibility and Injury Rehabilitation)
- Improve Mobility – suppleness starts with your mobility. Overcome aches and restrictions that we accumulate through our every day or work activities. (Resources: Speak to someone at your gym about foam rolling OR The Roll Model: A Step-by-Step Guide to Erase Pain, Improve Mobility, and Live Better in Your Body)
- Last not Least – ditch unnecessary stress! Mental stressors cause tension in the body. Take a conscious look at what stresses you in your life and see what you can eliminate (e. g. the dog walker, who is always late; the hairdresser, who just can’t get it quite right; possible overcommittments, etc.)
Hope you will feel inspired to create Lightness in your life. It’s bound to make Riding with Lightness so much easier!
Enjoy your horse & be well!
It is always great to hear when someone gets good results with some of the How To’s I provide. Especially happy about this blog post about grooming with ‘elbow grease’ instead of chemicals. Enjoy!
As I’ve mentioned in the last couple of posts, I’ve been grooming… a lot. But, to be completely honest, I do enjoy it and it kinda of meditative for me. It’s especially relaxing after a long day at work and I can just zone out while currying and brushing.
I’ve noticed however that grooming isn’t something people like to do, or something people do at all anymore. More than often I see people brush their horse’s saddle area as if they were feather dusting a porcelain tea cup and call it done. Don’t get me wrong, if I’m running really short on time, I’ll usually just give a quick once over so I can be on my way. As a kid and learning how to ride, grooming was taken seriously and your horse had to be nicely groomed or you’d get yelled at by your British Horse Society trainer. So, good…
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“Does Dressage Need a Makeover to Attract a Mass Audience?”
This headline appeared in social media this morning, linking to an article by a British horse magazine. Below it, a young rider in a purple dressage coat, lavender pants, horse decked out in matching colors. Frankly, I don’t remember what exactly the horse looked like, apart from the colorful accessories.
Now, thinking about that question again, all I remember in my mind is the rider’s flamboyant outfit. Reading through the ‘yeah’ and ‘nay’ comments and opinions of others, I simply can’t come up with an intelligent answer, in spite of sipping on a decaf soy latte.
But, wait a minute… Is this even the right question to ask?
“There are no right answers to wrong questions.” – Ursula K. Le Guin
Whenever there is the need for analysis, there is a need to ask the right questions and confirm the definition of the substance at stake (IT project managers will agree here).
In other words, if we want to determine whether a change needs to be made, let’s make sure we are all talking about the same thing. What exactly are we talking about? DRESSAGE, you will say.
What Exactly Is Dressage?
And where do we find the correct definition?
Logically, we would turn to the ‘rules we ride by’. The ‘rules’ are the FN Principles of Riding, which in turn are based on the pure and unadulterated classic German riding theory and source of today’s “Training Scale”, the HDV12 German Cavalry Manual, last edition of 1937. Let’s see how the HDV12 defines dressage:
“In order to be able to fulfill all requirements that military duty demands of a war-ready cavalry horse, the green horse’s body needs to be systematically developed by means of gymnasticizing, and the horse needs to be carefully educated. Both elements combined are called dressage.” (HDV12 German Cavalry Manual for Training Horse & Rider, 1937)
This makes a lot of sense. So Dressage is a means to an end, not an end itself. Horsemen, mostly in the cavalry, culminated practical knowledge over centuries, learned what works and what doesn’t when it comes to creating an able and willing equine partner, documented this and it in the form of an Army Regulation.
“…The goal of dressage is to school the horse to the optimum performance level and to make it obedient. This goal can only be achieved if the horse—while maintaining and developing its natural [mental and physical] disposition—is brought into a form and posture in which it can fully develop its potential. In such form and posture, the horse will be able to prove equal to the demands of service for a long time.” (HDV12/1937)
Aha! So the goal is to create an willing and able equine athlete, who will stay healthy and usable for a long time! In 2015 speak: ROI (Return On Investment), folks!
In the context of preparing the horse for a partnership in military service (end), dressage was the systematic schooling (means) needed to create this able military steed. Not an end in itself.
Dressage competitions, in turn, are merely benchmarking events. Here is where riders show how far they have come in their schooling of their horse, here is where this schooling is judged not against the performance of other riders, but according to the governing parameters: the Principles of Riding (based on the HDV12).
- The original question was: “Does dressage need a makeover to attract a mass audience?”
- We asked the question: What are we talking about? What is dressage?
- We discovered the correct definition of dressage as a systematic schooling of the horse to create an able and willing all around equine athlete.
- Dressage competitions are benchmarking events, where we are judged against the ‘rules we ride by’, which are the FN Principles of Riding (based on the HDV12).
Final Thoughts on Dressage, Right Questions, Mass Audiences & Fancy Pants
The ‘makeover’ question raises a lot of other questions in my mind.
Why do we need mass audiences? Why does dressage need to appeal to mass audiences? Who benefits from making some of the proposed changes or even making these concerns priorities?
First and foremost, dressage is or should be about the horse. The real question is a different one. It is time to take the officials by the horns and ask more relevant questions:
Are you or are you not basing the rules we ride by on the classical guidelines (HDV12)?
“Today’s FN Guidelines—the Principles of Riding, the official instruction manual of the German National Equestrian Federation—were developed on the basis of the H. Dv. 12, whereby the 1937 edition provided the main orientation.” Eckart Meyners in his foreword to the English edition of the HDV12/1937
The answer is therefore officially – see FN Principles of Riding – yes! That means it’s time that
- Everybody learn the rules,
- Know the difference and
- Get Back to Classic!
Then, an unlimited number of athletes and spectators can enjoy dressage, knowing we are doing right by the horse. No matter what color your fancy pants…
Enjoy your horse!