Author’s note: This post has been expanded and updated in a new post. Please read Girthy Horse? Simple Steps to Make Saddling a Pleasure.
Does your horse pin his ears when you tighten the girth even though you’ve had your saddle custom-fitted? Does your mare get grumpy, swish her tail or threaten to kick when you cinch her up? Discomfort during saddling is so common that many equestrians think nothing of it. But resistance during tacking up can set the tone for your whole ride, and lead to diminished athletic performance too.
Disciplining your horse may stop the biting, kicking, moving away or tail swishing, but it doesn’t improve how the horse feels about saddling. In fact, it will usually make the process even more undesirable, resulting in increased tension in the horse’s mind and muscles. That’s not exactly how you build a harmonious connection with your horse! But if you take some time now to make tacking up not only tolerable, but actually enjoyable to your horse , it will pay big dividends for the rest of his life. And the good news is that it is not difficult to do.
You may be wondering what that thing in the top photo has to do with tacking up your horse. Well, it has a lot to do with it! That funny-looking thing is an equine sternum, or breastbone, accompanied by the costal cartilage and ribs. The ribs in this specimen have been cut off, but they normally continue on up to attach to the horse’s spine, as the photo below of an entire equine skeleton shows.
Most riders don’t give much thought to their horse’s sternum. They may pay attention to their horse’s legs, back and neck, but they don’t realize that if their horse’s sternum is restricted, it will negatively impact how the horse is able to use those other parts. This can manifest as one or more of the following: a tight, hollowed back, shortened stride length, lack of impulsion, difficulty in collection and bending, or overall stiffness. So while the movement potential of the sternum and ribs might be small in relation to other parts of the horse’s body, it is important.
That’s because the sternum and ribs affect many different parts, including the neck, back, shoulders and hindquarters. Restriction in one part restricts the others. Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais, the originator of the Feldenkrais Method®, taught me that the more parts of the body that are free to move, the more efficiently effort is distributed throughout the body, lessening strain and promoting easier, healthier and more elegant movement.
What I have discovered is that many horses, especially those that dislike being girthed up, have less than optimal movement in their sternum and ribs. And the more they tense up while being saddled, the more restricted and uncomfortable this area becomes. Conversely, the freer the horse’s ribs and sternum are, the more comfortable girthing up can be. And this ease of movement contributes to improved attitude and performance under saddle as well.
Horses inhibit the movement of their sternum and ribs for any number of reasons, but previous bad experiences with being saddled or ridden probably top the list. Expecting discomfort, the horse develops the habit of contracting the muscles around the sternum and ribs in an attempt to minimize the discomfort or as a natural response to anxiety, often accompanied by shallow and rapid breathing. A vicious cycle can arise, since the more restricted the ribcage is, the more uncomfortable the horse feels when she is girthed up and ridden, so the more she contracts her muscles to protect herself. That is why it is important to interrupt this body pattern of anxiety and offer the horse relaxation and comfort in its place.
So what can you do to keep your horse happy and comfortable with saddling? Or what can you do if your horse is already unhappy about being girthed up? Don’t despair! There are several Debono Moves that gently bring improved awareness to the sternum, ribs and spine. Most horses find these hands-on Debono Moves enjoyable and relaxing, so when they are done as part of the saddling process, the horse begins to associate saddling with pleasure. In addition,the improved movement through the rib cage helps free up the neck, back and legs, so your equine partner can perform more easily and comfortably.
Read on to discover how the Debono Moves helped two horses overcome severe reactions to being saddled up.
“That’s not her bareback pad. The purple one is.” The barn manager spoke these words as the colorful Paint mare, ears pricked forward, was examining the red fleece pad held out to her by Anna. Anna left and returned with the purple pad. As she held it out to the horse, the mare immediately pinned her ears and angrily swished her tail. Anna turned to the group of other Debono Moves students, incredulous. “Did you see that? She knows which one is hers! She wasn’t upset at all when I showed her the red pad.” The two fluffy bareback pads seemed identical except for color; although I’m sure they smelled differently to the keen nose of a horse.
We had been told that the Paint mare, named Tia, had gone from being a “girthy” horse to a dangerous one. Her negative reaction to being tacked up, even with a bareback pad, was extreme. More than once, Tia had reared up and fallen over backwards when the girth was tightened. If her girth was tightened very, very slowly, Tia tolerated it, but kept her ears pinned back and her eyes wary. Simply approaching this horse with her tack in hand was always met with flattened ears and a swishing a tail. In all other ways, Tia had no problems. She enjoyed being groomed and handled. And once the rider was aboard, the mare did her job.
Anna and Marie, two of my workshop participants, had offered to work with Tia . They discovered a small area on the horse’s back that tense and sore, which probably caused pain when she was saddled. Using hands-on Debono Moves moves, Anna and Marie helped the mare move freely through her entire back and rib cage, which relieved the strain. Now that the Tia felt better, they hoped that the mare would realize that tacking up would no longer have to be painful.
Seeing the Paint’s dramatic reaction to the purple bareback pad, I explained that she would have to be convinced, gradually and cleverly, that being tacked up could be a comfortable experience. It wouldn’t be enough to relieve the soreness and hope that the mare would figure out that saddling no longer hurt. As long as a horse has a negative association with tacking up, she brings her fear to the process each and every time. And that fear is as real to her nervous system as the physical pain once was.
Tia gave me a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate how to use Debono Moves to help a horse change her feelings about being tacked up. Combining pleasurable hands-on moves with varied and unusual placements of the pad, saddle and girth, we helped the mare transform her negative associations into positive ones. Right before our eyes, Tia went from expecting pain to anticipating pleasure. The saddle, pad and girth were no longer objects to fear, but became associated with good feelings.
While Tia ’s reaction to saddling was extreme, many horses show more subtle displeasure at being tacked up. Oftentimes the discomfort causes the horse to contract the muscles around his ribs in an effort to control the tightening of the cinch. This is the reason why you can tighten a cinch and a few minutes later discover that it is loose. And I often I see horses restrained on short cross-ties to prevent them from biting the person who is saddling them. Or there will be ear pinning, tail swishing and threats with a hind leg. All of these behaviors indicate that the tacking up process is not comfortable for the horse. Equine dislike of tacking up is so widespread that many people just accept that horses won’t like it. So they either discipline the horse or ignore the behavior entirely. In either case, the cause of the horse’s discomfort remains.
We owe it to our horses to make the process of handling, saddling and riding them to be as comfortable as possible. And your horse will be better able perform his job when he isn’t creating physical and emotional resistance to minimize discomfort. Resistance to saddling can lead to training problems and contribute to restricted movement. Conversely, enjoyable saddling sets for the stage for harmonious riding experiences.
The first step, of course, is to make sure that all tack, including the bridle, fits properly and is comfortable for your horse. An evaluation by a professional saddle-fitter is strongly recommended, as is a full veterinary examination. In addition, you need to carefully and honestly review the work you do with your horse. Are you sitting crooked on your horse? Are your aids excessive? The work too demanding or monotonous? Your horse may object to being tacked up because he knows what is coming next! Lessons with an experienced, positive trainer and sessions with a Feldenkrais Method® Practitioner would be a useful starting point to make sure that you are not the cause of your horse’s discomfort. In the meantime, read on to discover how Debono Moves helped a horse eliminate his objection to saddling and transformed it into a pleasant experience for horse and human.
A beautiful, loudly-colored Appaloosa gelding we’ll call “Sarge”, is usually a very pleasant, happy horse. So when he started pinning his ears while being saddled, his people took notice. His saddling, which had always been done with care, had somehow become uncomfortable to him. He even nipped a couple of times, which was out of character for the Appy gelding. It progressed to the point that lightly brushing or touching him on the barrel or girth area on his left side (the side where his girth was usually tightened), caused him to pin his ears and move away. Sarge’s veterinarian did not find a medical cause for his girthiness.
The first time I worked with Sarge, I recognized immediately that he wasn’t comfortable with people standing on his left side, even if he wasn’t being touched. Since I get much better results if I ensure the physical and emotional comfort of the horse, I began the session on Sarge’s right side. I noticed that the Appy was tense all over his body and his breathing was shallow. Sarge’s stiffness was noticeable when he turned his head, since his rib cage remained rigidly straight. Since no other part of his body helped share the effort of turning, this increased the strain on his neck. As I observed the Appy, I simply stood at his right side for a few minutes, breathing in a relaxed way. Then I used my fingertips to delicately lift the lower neck muscle. This was an area that I felt Sarge would not be as defensive about and it was the “open door” that would allow me in to help him overcome his girthiness.
Sarge, with his head now lowered, closed his eyes and licked and chewed. He apparently enjoyed the relief that my hands gave to this often-overworked muscle. I then gradually moved my hand down to the front of his chest and began gently working with his sternum, or breast bone. Sarge, like many horses, loved this!
Balancing Equine Movement
It appeared that Sarge began objecting to saddling because he had soreness in his rib cage. Horses and humans develop tight or sore areas because we habitually overuse some parts of our bodies and under-use others. The Debono Moves “wake up” the parts that have been under-used while they relieve the strain on the over-worked areas. With the effort of moving now balanced through the body, movement is freer, more comfortable, and efficient. Stiffness and discomfort often disappear.
I worked my way back along Sarge’s body, relieving tension in overworked muscles. After using my hands to gently lift the muscles along his back, I kept one hand supporting his back muscles while I put my other hand on back of his pelvis. This seemed to give the Appaloosa a feeling of connection through his skeleton and helped him stay relaxed, focused and breathing easily.
I worked with Sarge all along the right side of his body, including his legs. The support of my hands helped release muscular stress and strain. I enjoyed observing his deepened breathing as I gently invited movement through his ribs, spine and pelvis. These Debono Moves not only felt pleasurable and improved his body awareness and flexibility, but could help Sarge create positive associations with being touched in the areas where the girth and saddle would contact. Sarge was content with my work on his right side, even happily letting me explore around his girth area.
I wanted to make sure that Sarge could maintain his relaxed state when I worked with him on his left side, which was his more defensive side. To make the transition easier, I asked the Appy’s handler to take him for a short walk and then turn him around to bring him back to me. This way I stayed in the same spot and it was Sarge who presented me with this left side. This was very different than if I had asked the horse to remain still while I walked around to the side he habitually protected. I began by lifting Sarge’s left lower neck muscle, since he already knew what to expect from this Debono Move and he again loved it! I continued working my way back, helping Sarge gain a better awareness of his body and releasing tension.
Since Sarge is not a large horse, I was able to drape my right arm over his back. With one hand on each side of his rib cage, I gently slid his rib cage a bit forward and back, allowing Sarge to experience how his rib cage could move easily and comfortably. By working with both sides simultaneously, it distributed my pressure – and thus Sarge’s attention – to both his right and left sides at the same time. He already knew how good this move felt on the right side, so this was a way to bridge that feeling to his left side and reduce the chance that he would reflexively protect and stiffen that side. After several movements, I changed to an alternating rhythm, sliding first one side and then the other in light, easy movements. Moving my hands back behind the last rib on each side, I softly supported Sarge as his breathing deepened. It was exciting to see how much more of his rib cage and belly now expanded with each breath!
With the Appy relaxed, I asked for his girth. It was too soon to saddle him up that day, but I hoped to begin introducing the girth in conjunction with some Debono Moves. But Sarge was not ready for that just yet. When the Appy saw the girth in my hands, a look of worry re-entered his eyes and his breathing became shallow. While the signs were subtle, it was essential that I notice and respect his reaction. I put the girth down and helped the Appaloosa find his happy place again. There would be time enough to use the girth another day. I wasn’t about to rush the process and lose the ground that Sarge and I had gained. I believe in closely listening to the horse and taking the time it takes to encourage a positive response.
With Sarge’s relaxation and comfort re-established, I draped the girth over my arm but didn’t touch him with it. I continued to do hands-on moves so that he would begin to associate this piece of tack with pleasurable feelings. Accepting the girth’s presence would be the first step in re-introducing contact with the girth.
I ended that first session by giving Sarge gentle pressure through his pelvic bones, helping to connect him front back to front. Relaxed and content, Sarge’s person took him for a short walk. We could all see that the Appy had more movement in his rib cage and his breathing had deepened. He had lost that worried, tight look. And as his people noted, he just seemed happier. More than one person commented that it was the most relaxed they had ever seen him. Feeling very happy myself, I arranged to return in a week for Sarge’s second Debono Moves session.
It was wonderfully satisfying to see that Sarge retained his relaxed countenance when I returned a week later. I first did several Debono Moves with the Appy and then introduced the saddle pad. Placing it in its normal position on his back brought a temporary wariness to Sarge until I moved the pad up to his neck. Sarge was fine with the saddle pad draped over his neck, since he didn’t have any negative associations with this placement. My intent was to promote relaxation and pleasure as I slowly re-introduced the horse to his saddle, pad and girth. Placing the pieces of tack on him in non-habitual ways would help stimulate new, positive associations with them. If I simply tacked him up the usual way, he might have reverted back to his habitual, negative reactions.
Since Sarge had become accustomed to the presence of the girth on my arm as I worked with him, he no longer showed any negative reaction to it. This allowed me to use his girth in a new, positive way. Instead of simply being neutral and accepted, it’s even better if tack can be used to give the horse positive feelings. Since Sarge enjoyed a Debono Move (called Sternal Coaxing) that involves gently moving the sternum, I held the girth between the horse and my hand and used the girth to move his sternum. Thus, the feel of the girth became associated with a pleasurable, relaxing sensation. While I start this process by just holding the girth in my hand, I eventually work up to doing Sternal Coaxing with a girth that is attached to a saddle, even gradually tightening the girth while moving the sternum and ribs. The allows the girthing up process to go from a tolerable experience to a pleasurable one. And very importantly, it helps the horse experience that it’s possible to freely move the ribs, sternum and spine while wearing tack. This translates to improved comfort and performance under saddle as well.
Over the second and third sessions, I used the pad, saddle and girth in various unusual ways. For example I held the girth against Sarge’s barrel to gently slide his ribcage, which is a movement he enjoyed. And I placed his saddle on his croup, making sure that it did not fall. I eventually put his pad and saddle in place, but with the saddle facing backwards and without the girth. The Appy was relaxed throughout. During these sessions I moved back and forth between his left and right sides and Sarge remained quiet and calm.
One of Sarge’s people began doing Debono Moves with him after my schedule prevented me from returning after his third session. Alert for even the most subtle negative reactions, she ensured that the Appy maintained his physical and emotional comfort while she gradually tacked him up. And she eventually put the saddle, pad and girth on him without any anxiety! This was a real accomplishment and a testament to the care and concern that Sarge’s humans have for him. They listened to their horse and took the time needed to ensure the comfort and well-being of their beloved equine friend.
Mary helps the bay feel how his ribs can freely move while he’s saddled. This helps prepare him for his rider, too.
It is important to emphasize that Debono Moves does much more than relax and comfort a horse, although that is an important first step. After releasing physical and emotional tension, the horse often needs direction to make better choices, otherwise he will revert back to the same neuromuscular habits that created the problem in the first place. Debono Moves provides hands-on guidance so that the horse learns how to move more freely and comfortably. This improves athletic performance, focus, balance, coordination and flexibility. Visit Mary Debono’s website for more information.
Please note: Debono Moves was formerly called the “SENSE Method.”
Debono Moves is a service-marked term of Mary Debono. Feldenkrais Method® and Awareness Through Movement® are registered service marks of the FGNA.
Copyright © 2012 by Mary Debono