Is your horse showing signs of girthiness? Also known as girth aversion or cinch sensitivity, horses that are girthy express signs of discomfort when they are being saddled.

A girthy horse may respond to having a girth tightened by expressing various behaviors ranging from tossing their head, biting, swishing the tail, stomping their hooves, and moving away from their handler. [1]

Such behaviours can be problematic for horse owners, handlers, and grooms to manage. These behaviors could also be a sign of an underlying health problem, such as gastric ulcers.

Girthiness may also be caused by active pain, improperly fitting tack, other health conditions, or the anticipation of physical pain based on past experience. [1]

If your horse shows signs of girth aversion, have them assessed by a veterinarian to determine if a health problem is causing the issue. It is also important to have their saddle fit evaluated to rule out any pain that might be caused by a poorly fitted saddle.

Girthiness in Horses

Girth aversion (or cinch aversion) refers to a horse’s adverse behavior to having a saddle girth or other training equipment tightened around the belly.

Although behaviors associated with girthiness can occur in different circumstances, some horses are particularly prone to reacting when being tacked up or when their abdomen is touched. Your horse may even become girthy upon seeing a saddle.

Girthy behaviour is a response to discomfort. [1] If these behaviors continue, they can be unsettling and potentially dangerous. Without intervention, the aversive behaviors may worsen over time.

Identifying specific causes of girth aversion can be challenging for horse owners and researchers. However, various contributing physical and behavioral issues have been identified in horses. [1]

Research

According to a 2019 research study that examined the problem in 37 male and female horses of various breeds and ages:

How you address girth aversion will depend on the cause of the condition and may involve rest, medications, therapies, dietary and management changes, changes to the tack utilized, and behavioral interventions.

Prevalence

The exact number of horses that display an aversion to having the girth tightened is unknown. However, in a survey of horse owners, 34.2 percent reported abnormal behavior in their horses during tacking-up and mounting. [1]

Google reports that there are over 8,100 searches for girthiness in the US every month.

Anecdotally, girthy behaviour is a common clinical observation although it is rarely the reason owners present their horses for veterinary assessment. [1]

Over a 12-year period, 0.09% of the total number of horses presenting to UC Davis were noted to show signs of girth aversion. [1]

Signs

Common signs of girth aversion include: [1]

  • Turning and looking at the area on the belly where the girth is positioned
  • Biting the person who is tacking the horse up
  • Biting at objects such as the stall door
  • Nodding the head
  • Swishing the tail
  • Pinning the ears backward
  • Sucking in air
  • Kicking out
  • Moving away
  • Humping up of the back

Note: Signs of pain can be nonspecific as some horses show general behavioral changes, regardless of the cause/type of pain. [1]

Diagnosis

Accurately diagnosing the cause of girthiness often requires a systematic approach to rule out potential health problems. [1]

Diagnosing girth aversion in your horse may require veterinary tests and a saddle fitting evaluation. [1]

Veterinary Tests

If your horse is showing cinchy behaviour, consult with a veterinarian. A thorough physical and musculoskeletal examination may be necessary and include gastroscopy and a lameness exam.

Gastroscopy:

This test is used to check for ulcers in the stomach and involves placing a three-meter-long scope down the esophagus and into the stomach to visualize both the squamous and glandular mucosal surfaces.

Lameness examination:

A lameness exam is conducted to determine if your horse is experiencing pain in the soft tissues or joints.

This exam typically involves evaluating the horse while standing and during movement, completing hoof and flexion tests, and in some cases using diagnostic anesthesia (nerve and joint blocks) and or imaging (radiographs, ultrasound, MRI, and other tests).

Saddle Fitting Evaluation

Consult with a saddle fitting specialist to evaluate equipment issues that could be causing pain and aversion to the girth.

Pain caused by saddle-related issues may be due to any of the following:

  • An incorrectly positioned saddle (ie. saddle sits too forward)
  • Poor saddle fit (ie. saddle is too narrow or too wide)
  • A damaged saddle (ie. saddle has a broken or twisted tree or is has uneven flocking in it) [2]

Causes

The exact causes of girthiness is often difficult to identify. However, behaviors associated with girth aversion may be related to the following: [1]

Gastric or Colonic Ulcers

Gastric ulcers affect a significant number of horses. It is estimated that approximately 60 to 90% of performance horses have the condition. [3][4][5][6][7]

Anecdotally, horse owners often report that girthiness is associated with gastric ulceration, which can cause stomach discomfort. [1] Hindgut issues or colonic ulcers may also cause pain that makes girthing uncomfortable.

As previously mentioned, a 2019 study found that 32% of horses presenting for girthiness were diagnosed with gastric ulcers. [1]

It’s important to note that not all horses with gastric ulcers show signs of girth aversion. [1]

Pressure Sensitivity

Some horses may experience discomfort when the girth is on/tightened due to pressure exerted on anatomical structures located beneath the saddle and girth.

Girth aversion may be due to discomfort in the areas where myofascial trigger points are located and in the cutaneous muscle.

Myofascial Trigger Points (MTrPs)

Myofascial trigger points are known as hyperirritable spots in the skeletal muscle that contain palpable nodules in tight bands of muscle fibers. In a study of 38 horses, myofascial trigger points were assessed in the pectoral region. [8]

Researchers palpated the MTrPs on the horses to assess their behavioral reactions and assigned a severity score for their reaction (mild, moderate, or severe).

Horses with an owner-reported history of girth-aversion behavior demonstrated increased reactivity to palpation (had a higher severity score) compared to horses without a history of girthiness. [8]

Cutaneous Muscle

A study of 12 horse cadavers determined that tactile stimulation of the skin overlying the cutaneous muscle is associated with a reflex muscular contraction that causes twitching in this area of skin (panniculus reflex).

Continuous stimulation of the panniculus reflex may occur due to the pressure exerted by tack and could play a role in consistent sensitivity to the girth in some horses. [9]

Anticipation of Pain During Ridden Exercise

A study that collected information from 66 horse owners found that 34.2% of repondants indicated that their horses displayed abnormal behavior during tacking-up and mounting.

Recognition of such behaviors is important, because it may reflect anticipation of pain under saddle and during ridden exercise.

Potential causes of pain during exercise may be due to: [1]

  • Physical Issues: Includes a wide range of health problems such as gastric ulcers, musculoskeletal issues, and others.
  • Improper Saddle Fit: Poor fitting saddles are a known cause of poor performance, contributing to tension and improper alignment in the back muscles.
  • Girth Materials/Tension: Materials with less elasticity, higher tension, and narrow contours may be less comfortable for horses to wear than materials with increased elasticity, lower tension, and wider contours. [10][11]

Musculoskeletal Problems

Horses with issues or injuries related to their musculoskeletal system (bones, muscles, joints, ligaments, and tendons) may exhibit girthy behavior. [1]

In a 2019 study of 37 horses that demonstrated girth aversion, some had musculoskeletal problems including: [1]

  • Thoracic and lumbar vertebral osteoarthritis
  • Cervical vertebral osteoarthritis
  • Bone spavin
  • Front limb lameness

A study of 77 horses with pain originating from their vertebral column found they were prone to reacting when the girth was tightened or had decreased performance under saddle. [12]

Other Health Issues

Hormonal changes due to reproductive disorders, such as ovarian tumors, are also correlated with behavioral issues that include aversion to the girth. [1]

Other health issues found to be associated with girthiness include: [1]

  • Painful withers
  • Liver abscessation
  • Ovarian tumor
  • Vena cava aneurysm
  • Sternum pain
  • Urinary tract infection
  • Mass on the girth area
  • Sand impaction
  • Sacroiliac region pain

Behavioral Issues

Girthiness may also be due to a behavioral issue. [1] Horses can remember negative experiences for an extended period of time. [13]

Your horse may develop girth aversion in response to a past experience such as having the girth tightened too quickly, getting pinched by the girth, or feeling confined while being tacked up.

Treatment

If your horse has aversion to girth tightening, work with your veterinarian to determine if your horse is experiencing pain. You should also consult with a saddle fitter to ensure your saddle is properly fitted.

If your veterinarian diagnoses your horse with a medical issue, intervention may be required. Treatment for conditions associated with girthing problems may involve: [1]

Analgesic medications: Oral or injectable analgesics such as phenylbutazone (Bute), flunixin meglumine (Banamine) may be used to reduce pain related to musculoskeletal issues.

Ulcer treatment medications: Gastric ulcers may require treatment with the drug omeprazole (or additional medications) as prescribed by a veterinarian. [14] Add Visceral+ to the diet to help maintain stomach and hindgut health.

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Changes in diet and management: Provide a forage-based diet and allow horses to eat forage regularly. Feed supplements that protect the gastrointestinal tract to reduce the risk of ulcers developing.

Surgical intervention: Surgery may be required to remove tumors or abnormal tissue that is causing pain.

Rest: Time off from training may help some horses recover from injuries or conditions that require rest to heal.

Joint injections: Horses with degenerative joint conditions such as arthritis experience a reduction in pain when injections of steroid drugs or therapeutic substances (hyaluronate sodium or polysulfated glycosaminoglycan) are administered.

Therapeutic intervention: Chiropractic adjustments and acupuncture may help horses reduce or eliminate pain due to imbalances and misalignments in the body.

Behavioral intervention: Work with a behavioral therapist to assist with resolving negative behaviors associated with girthing (provided physical causes have already been treated or are not involved).

Changes in saddle or saddle fit: If your horse is experiencing pain due to improper saddle fit, your saddle may require an adjustment. In some cases, it may be necessary to purchase a different saddle that fits properly.

Prevention

Although girthiness cannot be prevented in every case, the following considerations can help to avoid the problem.

Observe your horse carefully: Noticing changes in your horse’s behavior can alert you to potential health problems.

A 2022 study showed that abnormal behavior during tacking-up and mounting was common. [15] Changes in behaviour may indicate active pain or the anticipation of pain during ridden exercise.

Another study found that many owners are unaware that their horses showed behavioral abnormalities during tacking-up or mounting. [16]

Support digestive health: Add Mad Barn’s Visceral+ to your horse’s diet to support stomach and hindgut health. Gut issues are a major source of discomfort and can contribute to girthiness.

Regular veterinary assessments: Have your horse’s health assessed annually and consult your veterinarian if you suspect any health problems.

Check your saddle fit: Have your saddle fitter check your saddle once or twice per year to ensure it fits your horse properly and has sufficient and balanced flocking in it.

Don’t over-tighten the girth: Work with your coach, trainer or a behaviorist to ensure you know how to properly tack up your horse. These experts can give you tips on saddling your horse safely and comfortably.

Provide consistent farrier appointments: Maintain your horse’s hoof balance and musculoskeletal health by keeping regularly scheduled trimming/shoeing appointments.

Feed a forage-based diet: Feed a minimum 1.5% body weight as forage (unless otherwise advised by your veterinarian) to support optimal digestive health and to reduce the risk of ulcers.

Consult with an equine nutritionist: Speak with a nutritionist to ensure that your horse’s diet is meeting all their nutrient needs to support optimal health.

You can submit your horse’s information online for a free diet assessment to find ways to reduce your horse’s risk of ulcers and to support gut health.

Is Your Horse's Diet Missing Anything?

Identify gaps in your horse's nutrition program to optimize their well-being.

References

  1. Millares-Ramirez, E.M. et al. Girthiness: Retrospective Study of 37 Horses (2004-2016). J Equine Vet Sci. 2019.
  2. Greve, L, Dyson S. Saddle fit and management: An investigation of the association with equine thoracolumbar asymmetries, horse and rider health. Equine Vet J. 2015.
  3. Murray, M.J. Gastric ulceration in horses: 91 cases (1987-1990). J Am Vet Med Assoc. 1992.
  4. McClure, S.R. et al. Prevalence of gastric ulcers in show horses. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 1999.
  5. Camacho-Luna, P. et al. Advances in Diagnostics and Treatments in Horses and Foals with Gastric and Duodenal Ulcers. Vet Clin North Am Equine Pract. 2018.
  6. Reese, R.E. et al. Nutrition and dietary management of equine gastric ulcer syndrome. Vet Clin North Am Equine Pract. 2009.
  7. Bell, R.J. et al. Equine gastric ulcer syndrome in adult horses: a review. N Z Vet J. 2007.
  8. Bowen, A.G. et al. Investigation of Myofascial Trigger Points in Equine Pectoral Muscles and Girth-Aversion Behavior. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. 2017.
  9. Van Iwaarden, A. et al. Topographical Anatomy of the Equine M. Cutaneus Trunci in Relation to the Position of the Saddle and Girth. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. 2012.
  10. Bowers, J. et al. Comparison of girth materials, girth tensions and their effects on performance in racehorses. Aust Vet J 2005.
  11. Bystrom A, et al. Influence of girth strap placement and panel flocking material on the saddle pressure pattern during riding of horses. Equine Vet J Suppl 2010.
  12. Dyson, S. et al. Osteoarthritis of the thoracolumbar synovial intervertebral articulations: Clinical and radiographic features in 77 horses with poor performance and back pain. Equine Veterinary Journal. 2009.
  13. Hanggi, E.B. et al. Long-term memory for categories and concepts in horses (Equus caballus). Anim Cogn. 2009.
  14. Zavoshti, F.R. et al. Therapeutics for Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome. Vet Clin North Am Equine Pract. 2017.
  15. Dyson, S. et al. Do owners recognize abnormal equine behavior when tacking-up and mounting? A comparison between responses to a questionnaire and real-time observations. Equine Veterinary Education. 2021.
  16. Dyson, S. et al. An investigation of behaviour during tacking-up and mounting in ridden sports and leisure horses. Equine Veterinary Education. 2022.