Girth Pain Syndrome; you might be asking what is that? Many horses react when they are being girthed or cinched up. Some of the reactions can be mild and some can be quite severe ranging from reaching back to bite the handler, moving away, grinding of teeth, flinching, closing eyes, shaking, swishing tail and grunting. For some horses, the pain may be mild and they learn to live with it and for others it can be quite severe, causing trembling and even collapsing of the hind end when saddled.
Most of the time these behaviors are considered 'bad behavior' or 'he always does that' without a second thought that the horse may be trying to tell you something. It is so common that horse is labeled 'girthy'.
The origin of this syndrome is unknown but there are several different things that can contribute to this. A poorly fitted saddle, ulcers, injuries, back weakness, rib cage misalignment, improper riding, imbalanced hooves or nerve pain. It is known that it involves the shoulder girth and rib cage under the girth and the spinal nerves T2, T3, T4.
A horse that is bothered by this can exhibit undesirable behaviors while being ridden. These can include grunting, short stepping, refusing to go forward freely, swishing the tail, laying back the ears, humping or bucking at the start of a ride and then settles down as if nothing happened, violent bucking in extreme cases, unhappy and rushing, resisting leg aids, and difficulty bending.
Other signs of girth pain can be seen by uneven shoulder development causing the saddle to slip to the lower side, tightness or sensitivity in the muscles above the shoulder blade and girth area and jumpy or sensitive reaction when lightly caressing the area under the girth. The hoof of the painful side can sometimes be seen as growing more upright and smaller as a result of the horse favoring it.
Some treatment options are chiropractic adjustments. You will need to find one that understands this syndrome and can adjust the vertebrae of the neck, shoulders and rib cage that are involved. The proper adjustment can sometimes show immediate improvement. This approach is treating the cause instead of the symptom.
Acupuncture can help to settle the nerves and release the pain cycle giving the muscles and nerves time to heal. Massage therapy in this area is helpful if the horse can tolerate it but is usually only temporary.
Saddle fit examination by a professional saddle fitter can also prove to be an effective way to bring relief. Rider posture in the saddle should be examined as well. A rider that sits weighted to one side or the other unintentionally can put excess strain on the muscles and cause nerve pain and damage to the tissue.
Saddle placement is equally important. Too often the saddle is placed on top of the shoulder blade restricting freedom of movement and causing pain or the saddle slides forward onto the shoulder after a few minutes of riding.
Saddles that sit too low over the wither can then flatten out with the weight of the rider on them. As the horse moves the wither is constantly being banged. The nerves in this area are extra sensitive. Sometimes the horse will develop white hairs in round patches either on top of the wither or right behind the wither or on either sides of the wither above the shoulder. This is an indication of nerve damage and an improperly fitted saddle.
Lunging a horse with girth pain before riding can make a big difference in relaxing the muscles of the shoulder, wither, girth and back, helping to minimize the discomfort. For some horses, 20 minutes of lunging before mounting can make all the difference in their attitude and willingness to move forward.
Another suggestion is to not tighten the girth fully until the horse has had a chance to move around on a lunge line. Then gradually increase the tension on the girth. In most cases, by doing this the horse will show less signs of discomfort.
Once relief has been achieved, there may be some behavior modification needed to inform the horse that the pain no longer exists. For many years the horse has learned to live with this and the behaviors associated with the pain become habitual. It takes time for the horse to trust that the pain is gone and the behaviors no longer serve a purpose.
There has not been enough conclusive research done on girth pain and it's consequences on the horse. Sadly there are very few horses that don't at sometime in their lives experience this syndrome. As a responsible horse owner, being aware of this syndrome and it's possible causes can help to keep your horse happier and hopefully pain free. Sometimes it only takes a small change in what or how things are done that can make a big difference for the horse.