Today, we continue the Paulick Report's new series on equine behavior and training challenges. This week, we'll focus on horses commonly described as “girthy,” which often means they exhibit irritation or stress when the girth or cinch is tightened. Horses may pin their ears, bite, kick, or charge forward to escape the stimulus. The term is sometimes also applied to horses who exhibit this series of behaviors and also walk stiff or short in their front legs after saddling.
Dr. Nicholas Dodman, professor emeritus at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University and boarded veterinarian with the American College of Veterinary Behavior:
I imagine cinching the girth too tight would pinch and hurt. The horse learns that lesson pretty fast and objects, balks, swings around, maybe even tries to bite to stop the infliction of the pain it anticipates. I don't really buy the ulcer theory [the often-cited suggestion that a girthy horse is reacting to pain from gastrointestinal ulcers]. Back pain and a badly-fitting saddle might have the same effect as aggressive (tight) cinching by inflicting pain at the time of cinching.
Dr. Bryan Waldridge, veterinarian specializing in internal medicine at Park Equine Hospital:
That's a hard one. I don't really see musculoskeletal pain as the cause of that. I think it usually signals to me to look at the GI tract.
There was a discussion about hindgut acidosis on an internal medicine listserv recently. The idea is the pH is too low in the gut, usually due to too much starch in the diet. The bacteria back there produce too much lactic acid and it burns and irritates the colon and makes the horse have gas and be irritable. The hindgut acidosis thing is really nebulous and there's really no good way to diagnose it. I think some of those horses do have hind gut acidosis because you put them on the supplements to raise the pH and they get better. Also if you increase the forage in the diet you're hopefully getting the bacteria to make less acid and less gas.
I think it can sometimes become a learned behavior. You see cases where horses lay down when they get girthed. It's a small percentage but some will just flop down when they get girthed up.
Tim Glyshaw, multiple graded stakes-winning trainer:
That's a tough one. Firstly as a trainer, if you do have horses like that you need to tell the jockey because they can feel off when they're not. When they're girthy like that they may also look off when they're walking. By the time they get to the track they're usually fine. Obviously you don't want anything to happen to the horse and if the horse felt off in the post parade the jockey would say something anyway, but you just want them to know when they're leaving the paddock that you didn't just throw them up on a horse that's sore.
Some trainers have theories that the material of the girth pinches the skin behind their elbow, it's not the tightness of the girth but the pinching. You'll see a lot of people stretch the horses' legs out before the race [to combat that]. We haven't done that. To tell you the truth we've probably only had one or two horses the whole time I've trained that have ever gotten girthy like that. In the morning sometimes they will, but before they race they have so much adrenaline they don't get like that. The easiest and best thing is to do what you'd normally do when saddling a horse anyway, which is to get him out and walk him. If you have a horse that gets girthy like that in the paddock after you tighten the girth, if you walk them a couple rounds they're walking normally again.
What about the ulcer theory?
The last thing I read says 90 percent of racehorses have ulcers, so I guess that could fit. Very few of them can afford to be on omeprazole – that's $40 a day. There are cheaper varieties but none of it's real cheap and it's not economically feasible for some people to give that. Most of the lesser stuff just coats their ulcers but doesn't cure them. I've never heard that explanation, by the way.
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