Q: “My 11-year-old gelding, Troy, doesn’t like to be girthed. In fact, he pins his ears and bites the air as I cinch him up, even though I do it slowly. Since his recent vet exam found him sound and healthy and his saddle fits well, my friends have been telling me it’s a just a bad habit. The advice has been to either ignore the behavior or punish him for it. I’d rather Troy not act so grumpy, but it doesn’t seem fair to punish him for it either. Do you think SENSE Method work will help?”
A: Yes, I certainly think SENSE Method can help Troy. But first, let me applaud you for having your veterinarian rule out a medical condition. It is essential to do that first.
Horses are limited in the ways they can communicate with us. Troy’s display of pinning his ears and biting the air is his way of telling you that you are hurting him or he is worried that you will hurt him. Troy seems like a very polite horse; at least he isn’t biting you!
Without seeing Troy, it is impossible to know with certainty, but my experience has shown that horses who exhibit Troy’s reaction to girthing are sore through the ribcage. Since sore muscles hurt more when they move, the horses learn to inhibit movement there in an attempt to avoid the discomfort. Fastening a cinch across a sore, inflexible area can cause pain! You can already see that punishing Troy for displaying his reaction would be doing him a tremendous disservice. Instead, I’ll lead you through an approach that can help your horse overcome his aversion to the girth by eliminating its cause: pain. In addition to having a happier partner, you should find Troy to be suppler under saddle as well.
There are many muscles that participate in moving the ribcage. When your horse inhibits certain muscles from moving, he is actually keeping them in a state of chronic contraction. This is fatiguing and contributes to the soreness. In addition, other muscles have to work overtime to compensate. This vicious cycle results in even more soreness and lack of movement. The key to supple, pain-free movement is having all of the parts work together; with no one part doing more than its intended share. Therefore, your task will be to convince Troy that keeping his muscles chronically contracted is no longer necessary.
While that may sound like a big challenge, it usually isn’t that difficult. Your first job will be to take over the work that these muscles are doing. This will render their contractions unnecessary, and your horse’s nervous system will start allowing the muscles to relax. In SENSE Method we call this Supporting the Pattern, since we are exaggerating or supporting what Troy is already doing. If we were to contradict his pattern (such as trying to force movement to happen instead of allowing it to), it is likely that he would become anxious and further contract his muscles.
SENSE Method operates on the level of the nervous system, since the nervous system controls the functioning of the muscles. Keep this in mind as you touch your horse. Horses are incredibly sensitive, and a light touch is often much more effective than a heavy-handed one. When in doubt, use less pressure. Remember the motto: Less is more!
Okay, let’s get started. Stand by Troy’s left side, facing his ribcage. Stand balanced on both of your feet. Place your hands softly on Troy’s ribs. You can use either the palms of your hands or soft fists. People prone to wrist tenderness (such as those with carpal tunnel syndrome) are often more comfortable keeping their wrists straight, so holding their hands in soft fists may be preferred. Either way, remember to exert as little pressure as possible and keep your hands soft.
Using the smallest amount of pressure possible, gently slide Troy’s ribcage forward, toward his head. Your hands should not move across the skin. Look at the area in front of his shoulder blade. If you are indeed sliding Troy’s ribcage forward, you should see the muscles around his shoulder soften.
Sliding the ribcage forward should elicit a change to deeper breathing, a sigh, a contented look, or a lowering of his head. If Troy seems at all anxious, you are probably trying too hard and doing too much. Throttle back, and try again. It’s very helpful to think the movement through before you actually do it. Remember, use the smallest amount of pressure possible. You are not trying to force something to happen, but rather showing Troy what’s possible by providing him with this additional support.
Experiment with the placement of your hands. It is impossible to dictate an exact place where your hands should be, since a lot depends on the size of both you and your horse. Try several different hand positions and see which one requires the least amount of effort.
Do the movement a few times, on both the left and right sides. Notice if one side moves easier than the other. Does Troy seem to give a greater release on one side?
With the same degree of sensitivity, move the ribcage toward his withers, in an upward diagonal direction. Again, be aware of his reactions to the movement. Does Troy seem to prefer the forward or diagonal direction? Which elicits the greater response? Can you find the best place to put your hands for the diagonal movement?
By providing this physical support for Troy, his muscles can begin to release their contractions and the soreness will diminish. Very importantly, you are showing him that movement of his ribcage can be pleasurable and not something that needs to be inhibited. Also, since you are moving his ribcage relative to his shoulders, the movement of his shoulders will become freer as well. It is likely that his stride length will also increase.
Troy will enjoy feeling how much more movement he has and will likely want to recreate and expand on it, carrying this newfound suppleness over into his under saddle work. Continue to be unhurried and gentle in girthing him up, and he will thank you for it!
Remember that this is just the first step for Troy. In upcoming articles we will explore other aspects of working with the sternum/ribcage and its importance to rounding the back, engaging the hind end, and allowing the neck to be free and supple. Keep checking in with us!