Question: I have a problem when I tack up my horse, Thea. Bridling she is fine, placing the saddle on her is fine, but doing up the girth is not. She turns around to bite you so I have to either have someone holding her or I have a long rein one side that I can pull on. After the girth is done up she pulls back and does a mini jump in the air. She doesn’t have a sore back and I’m sure her saddle is ok [vet confirmed], I think its just behavior. How can I resolve it?
Answer: Answer from April Reeves, Horseman’s U.com: Good for you Mel – you’ve diagnosed the problem correctly. Most people never get there. Just so you know – the solution is easy.
I have rehabbed hundreds of horses with this problem, and I will tell you that the horse never gets to the place where he’s happy to be cinched up. What we are going to do is to alleviate the discomfort for the horse, get the horse to accept the process with obedience, and learn something new about training horses.
When I tack any horse up, whether the horse is older, unbroken or even happy about being cinched (they do exist), I never draw up the girth tight at first. I will do it up so that if the horse were to move, the saddle won’t fall off or fall under the horse. Then I go about bridling and whatever fussing I need to do before I move the horse away from the area of saddling. I will walk the horse for about 5-10 steps, then softly draw the girth up again, but not to where I will ride with it. Then I walk the horse again, and finally softly snug the girth up to where I need it. I use this process for all horses, regardless of their like or dislike of being cinched.
I never do the girth up tight. I use saddles that fit the horse, so I don’t need to crank it. You may want to ease up on how tight you are cinching.
Once I have the girth where I need it, I will gently bring each front leg up and stretch it, giving the skin a chance to unfold from underneath. Some horses get pinched and irritated. In all my years of riding, even for days in the bush, I have never had a saddle sore or a cinch gall.
You will use the same technique as I have described above, and you will be adding one more training tip – how to keep the horse out of your space when you are saddling.
Horses should never reach around to you unless invited. It’s a sign of disrespect and disobedience. It can lead to being dangerous if you own the wrong horse.
Let’s establish the rules of space – we are going to teach Thea that when your hand comes up, her head gets out of the way. We will begin on the ground with a halter and lead. If you have a rope halter – that’s best, otherwise the thinnest one you have and a long lead line and long crop or dressage/buggy/lunge whip.
We often get into the habit of pulling our horses around us because it’s just easier that way, but what you are saying to the horse every time you do that is “please walk on me and by the way, it’s ok if you invade my bubble. Trouble is, it’s not ok. So for the next while (the rest of your life with horses) you will lead Thea away from you. You will walk into her space and she is expected to move away, even if she has to sit on her haunches and swing around. Those are the rules for life.
Begin in a large ring or space that’s flat. Walk her as you normally would, staying between her head and shoulder. Don’t hold onto the lead rope tightly. Keep slack in it and don’t add pressure at any time (unless she runs away). As you move forward, you will now turn to the right, meaning you are going to walk into her head. Make a large circle at first, and as you ask her to turn away from you, hold the end of the whip in your hands up higher that her head will ever go, and hold your hands up to her eye. Gently pulse with both hands in a rhythm at her eye, and if she makes contact with your hands, let it happen. She is hitting you (as opposed to you hitting her) as she is in your way. This is what you want. Don’t back down or drop your hands if she doesn’t comply right away, just let her keep bumping her head into your hand. Your hands are a brick wall, not a soft sponge. Don’t panic if she hits your hands either, just keep them high and in a rhythmical pulsing motion.
Mares have a tendency to not like this exercise very much, and can get quite sticky. They often throw their heads up as high as they can and back up, so keep the end of the whip really high and let her hit it on her own. Having a horse swing its head over you is a sign of dominance, so we are going to change the rules forever. If she backs up, move quietly with her as far as she wants to go. Just keep following her with your hands at her eye and the whip end up. The whip won’t hurt her; it just makes you appear larger and taller than you are.
Your hands need to follow her eye wherever it goes. This is important.
When she finally does submit even just a little bit, and moves away from you, praise her a lot. This is really tough work for a mare. This is one of those things‚ few mares are ever good at naturally.
Keep working at this for about 3 days. If you are doing it consistently then you will find a difference in the first day. While she may still challenge you each time, she should eventually submit over time.
Don’t change how you do this work if she doesn’t submit quickly. Keep it up and be consistent. This is the key to training horses. Too many horse owners get emotional and quit too early. Think of it this way – hold a piece of string between your two hands. The left hand represents the start of the training, and the right hand represents the end of the training; where you want the horse to be. Your training at this moment is somewhere on the timeline‚ of this string. But you don’t know where that place is exactly on the string. It could be at either end. So, don’t give up. It may be at the right hand.
A good trainer always believes he is at the right hand, even if it takes longer than expected.
And the smallest try is a very big thing to a horse.
Ask Thea to move about a step at a time at first, then a quarter turn each time as she progresses, and always praise her. The moment she lowers her head and moves away, love on her as much as she will take. Lowering the head is a huge sign of submission. You are almost there! So, ask her to move a step, and when she does, move forward a few steps, then ask for another step away from you, move forward, and eventually ask for more steps away from you. Build up the process.
For the first day, keep this up for as long as it takes and when she is submitting somewhat (or if she is submitting well) take her to the saddle up area. Begin to saddle, and keep the girth loose but safe, in case she moves. Keep a watch on her reaction at first to the girth. Get the bridle and everything else done, then move her from the area. Stop again, tighten about one notch or hole, and move her again.
Try not to tie her up. Keep the lead either on the ground or draped over the post. I never tie up a horse tightly. I train them to ‘want’ to stand and stay, and if I do have to contain a horse I don’t know, I will drape the lead around a post for one turn, so that if the horse pulls back they can get free. I am fortunately faster than they are, and can grab the lead. You want her to have the freedom to express her dislike, and you want to set up the situation where she can learn the lesson. Tying her will only restrict her from learning.
If she turns her head to snap at you, bring that left hand up as fast as you can to match her speed. Let her bump into it, and when she does, and she moves away again, just stand quietly with her and let her soak in what just happened.
Then try to bring the girth up one more notch. Move slowly but confidently. Again, repeat the process with your hand up and let her smack into it. When she puts her head back again, praise her and stand quietly to let her soak this lesson up.
If Thea does her little hop and jump routine after the girth has been taken up one notch, move her away from you in a circle quickly. This will make her little routine uncomfortable, and she will get the idea eventually that every time she hops about and gets emotional, she has to work at something. They come down pretty quick when there’s a job attached to a behavior (this is something to remember – if you want your horse to settle down or chill out, give the horse a job and make him do it quickly). Do not reprimand her for hopping – you don’t need to ever punish a horse. All you have to do is replace behavior you don’t want with behavior you do want.
The process you do with leading and moving her away from you will help you with the saddling issue. We often solve horse behavior problems correctly by teaching them another method. You don‚t have to fix a saddling issue with a saddling solution. Often the solutions lie in other methods and areas. The reason for this is that most problems are a result of a hole in the horse’s training. All we are doing here is going back to groundwork foundations and re-establishing good manners. When confronted with a sudden problem, go back, not forward. Horse issues are always about holes.
Don’t expect a miracle the first week or so. Mares like this will take time to come around. If you are consistent and patient, you will learn something very valuable that horse training often takes a lot of time, but the rewards are so amazing.