Dealing With The Girthy Horse
What Is A 'Girthy' Horse?
A girthy horse is one that routinely objects to having its girth fastened or tightened. The horse may bring its head around and try to bite its handler, may breathe in so the girth cannot be tightened all the way or even 'cow kick' - kick forwards.
Girthiness can easily become a habit, and an unpleasant one, but how does it start? Why do some horses object to the girth while others are not bothered by it?
Ill Fitting Tack
A girthy horse may be trying to tell its rider something - this saddle doesn't fit me. The first thing to check with a horse that doesn't like having its girth fastened is the fit of the saddle. Remove any saddle cloth or numnah and get up top. Then have a friend check that with you in the saddle there is still a clear gullet over the horse's spine (from front to back, daylight should be clearly visible). Also have somebody watch you ride and make sure that the saddle is not interfering with the motion of the horse's front legs.
Sometimes a saddle that once fit may cease to do so either because the horse has gotten fitter or because the saddle needs reflocking (restuffing).
A horse that suddenly becomes girthy when not having a problem before is probably in pain. The lead cause of this is a sore back.
Any horse that abruptly starts objecting to the saddle and girth should be checked by a chiropractor. A qualified equine chiropractor can easily fix anything that may be 'out' in a horse's back. He may also recommend stretches and physical therapy for the horse. Catching back problems early is better for you and for the horse. If your horse is getting repeated back problems, then this may go back to saddle fit. They can also be caused by the rider - it might be a good idea to have the chiropractor check you as well.
Another source of pain that might cause a reaction in the girth area is ulcers. Scoping a horse to check for ulcers is expensive. Many vets, when they suspect ulcers, will simply prescribe the medication and see if it fixes it. If the horse does not respond to the medication, then something else is going on.
Ulcers in horses often recur and can be associated with stress - they're more common in show horses. Horses that have had ulcers before often benefit from the addition of a couple of spoonfuls of apple cider vinegar to their food.
Girthy behavior is more common in mares than in stallions or geldings. It's possible it may be even more common in mares that have been bred. This might be related to differences in conformation - a good mare has a slight dip of the belly behind the girth that is not present in geldings.
A mare who objects to the saddle only when in heat may have internal soreness or uterine cramps going on - it's worth trying a mare supplement or Regumate (I recommend Regumate only if the natural supplements do not help due to the fact that the drug is dangerous and should not be handled by human females of breeding age).
Girth Type And Fit
Some horses are girthy from day one and without there being any sign of a condition that could cause pain. I honestly feel that these horses are simply uncomfortable with the tight feeling of the girth, much as not everyone likes to wear a tight belt.
It's therefore worth experimenting with the type of girth you use (This is also a good idea if there is a medical reason for girthiness as it can stop it becoming a habit). I have four recommendations:
1. A stretch girth. I have found that nine times out of ten, switching to a stretch girth will reduce or eliminate symptoms of girthiness. If the horse doesn't like the constricting feeling of the girth, he or she will be happier with a girth that has some give to it. I would personally go as far as to say most horses should be ridden in a stretch girth - it has to be more comfortable.
2. A shaped girth. A shaped girth is thinner behind the horse's elbows and is believed to give more freedom of movement. Some horses go much better in these, indicating that they may have a preference. You can get shaped girths that are also stretch. Western cinches also come in shaped design.
3. A sheepskin girth sleeve. Some horses find the girth 'hard' and putting a sheepskin sleeve over it makes them more comfortable. If you do use one, be sure to clean it regularly.
4. A string girth. String girths, also called cord girths are an old fashioned style of girth that is made of soft nylon or mohair. When looking at these girths they look hideously uncomfortable. However, some horses absolutely love them. They wick better (less sweat under the girth) and grip the horse's coat so they do not slide forward into the horse's elbow. They are particularly good for sensitive or thin-skinned horses and come in both English and western styles.
Safety with a Girthy Horse
Girthiness can be dangerous for two reasons.
First of all, the horse may bite or kick you. While addressing the cause of the girthiness, then stay alert for this behavior. If the horse tries or threatens to bite, I recommend pushing the nose away with a firm 'no' rather than hitting it. Remember that there is probably a reason for the behavior and address it. If it persists after the cause is removed (it can become a habit) then firmer discipline might be needed, including a smack on the muzzle with the open hand. Never hit a horse higher up on the head and never hit a horse on the head with anything but your hand.
Second of all, a horse that 'bloats' to avoid the girth being tightened leaves you at risk of ending up riding with a loose girth. I recommend checking the girth when up and then again about five minutes into the ride after the horse has warmed up. Actually, I recommend this with all horses, but it's more important with ones who are being difficult about their girths.