Is your horse happy when you do his girth up? If the answer is yes, then good, but make sure you know what to do should that no longer be the case. It is all too easy for our horses to slip, or spin in the field, or simply turn awkwardly and strain a muscle. You might not see this, you might not know, until you go to girth up your horse and he puts his ears back. Equally you might have a horse that has always put his ears back, and you have simply accepted it as part of his behaviour.
Remember your horse is only capable of communicating with you through his behaviour, it is up to us to make sure that we are listening. We always recommend that you begin with the eliminating the possibility that the horse is in pain before you begin to alter the behaviour. There is no point is challenging your horse’s behaviour till you are confident that it is not a pain response. All you are doing if you do that, is cutting off the opportunity for the horse to communicate with you.
Your horse may have always put his ears back, or started doing it recently, either way you can start to resolve this problem. Have a good professional check your horse over, so that you can rule out whether the behaviour is a pain issue. This may include a physio or osteopath, a saddle fitter, a dentist. Remember pain can be referred, so don’t assume it must be a problem with the girth.
Once you have thoroughly investigated and are confident that the horse is not in pain, then two things will happen. Either the behaviour will stop, as the horse realises he is not in pain, or it will continue, as a learnt response. The horse has learnt the association between the girth being done up and pain. Their behaviour is a response that has been learnt from the pain reaction. It is possible to re-train the horse not to respond in this way.
Begin the re-training by breaking down the process into small pieces and re-training each part of the process. Identify where the horse’s reaction begins. Does he start to fidget when you pick up the saddle, or does he only flinch when you actually do the girth up? Dependent on the severity of the reaction, it will take a proportional length of time to correct the training. Remember to spend time on each stage of the process, rewarding the desired response with praise, or some action that your horse enjoys, such a scratch on the withers. Be wary of simply using food as a reward, as this can lead to further problems. Once each stage of the process has been broken down and worked on, you will be able to join them together and be able to saddle and girth up your horse, while he remains happy and relaxed.
Lizzie Hopkinson is a director at www.ethicalhorsemanshipassociation.co.uk