If you’ve spent enough time around horses, you know it’s just as easy to train a bad habit as it is a good one—possibly even easier. It’s your responsibility as a horseman to address an issue as soon as it arises to ensure that your horse doesn’t let one bad reaction become a habitual response.
One example of this is a horse nipping or biting at you when you tighten the cinch. Here, I’ll explain what can cause this behavior, ways to prevent it, and how to fix it if it rears its ugly head in your saddling routine.
What Causes Biting While Cinching?
This is in the context of cinching your horse, but if you think about it, it could apply to almost any aspect of being around your horse. Discomfort can lead to resentment, which can lead to undesirable—and even dangerous—responses. Here are a few reasons your horse might react with a bite when cinching.
If you ride a mare and she’s in heat, her skin can be more sensitive during that part of her cycle, which can cause discomfort when cinching. Avoid fast, tight cinching if you know she’s more sensitive.
Poor saddle and pad fit can cause your horse discomfort, which leads him to resent saddling. Be sure that your saddle fits correctly over his withers and back, and that your pad doesn’t cause any pinching spots or pressure points. If you need help getting the right fit, work with a trainer or professional saddle-fitter to ensure that your tack fits correctly and is adjusted for your horse.
Think a tighter cinch is better because then your saddle’s not going anywhere? Think again. Cinching too tightly can cause pain and even leave sores behind that make the process even more painful. Instead, work your way to the tightness needed to secure your saddle—loosely tighten the cinch in the barn, take it up a couple notches before you head to the arena, and get the final fit before you step on. Remember, you can always tighten a cinch during a riding session.
How’s your pre-saddling grooming? Are you thorough, or do you take shortcuts? Failure to remove all dirt, hair, and debris before saddling can lead to sores and rubbing that cause pain. Take the time to groom well with a curry and a stiff brush so you don’t face issues in the future. While you’re grooming, look out for galls in the girth area and other sores. These could could need attention and treatment to keep your horse happy and healthy. You might have to lay off riding for a couple of days while it heals, but it’s worth it to avoid bigger issues.
How to Banish the Bite
All of the above situations are avoidable with care and thought. But all it takes is one time of your horse getting away with biting for a habit to begin to develop. You must address this behavior immediately. Do so before it becomes a larger, ongoing issue that’ll adversely affect your time in the saddle.
When you have a problem like this to manage, I suggest not tying your horse for saddling. If he’s tied, you can’t quickly move into action to address his behavior. While you fix this issue, saddle in an open area, and rest the lead rope in the bend of your elbow, or ask a friend to hold it. The key is to be able to move quickly when your horse reacts negatively.
Carefully set your saddle on your horse’s back, and slowly tighten the cinch. If your horse doesn’t react with a bite or some other negative response, move forward with saddling. Should he reach back to nip at you, go to the tried-and-true method of moving his feet.
Whether it’s leading him around or longeing, the key is to make him move the instant he tries to nip. This gives him a job and moves his mind away from his reaction so he can move on from it. After a little movement, stop your horse and tighten the cinch a little more. Repeat the process every time he nips. You can also incorporate a swift swat on his hindquarters to get him moving. However, don’t smack him in the face. This leads to head-shy behavior, which will make it hard for you to bridle your horse creating another problem to overcome.
During this process, your timing is critical. If you wait too long, he won’t associate the work with his reaction. But you also have to let him have a chance to react—or not react—before putting him to work.
Little Problems Grow
Always remember that little things can grow into big things. When a horse has a small behavioral issue, it can turn into a major problem if you don’t address it immediately. Letting it go and assuming it’s an isolated incident is never the answer. I never think of a reaction as an isolated case. I’m aware that it might come up every time my horse and I are in that situation. Nothing a horse does is isolated—they’re creatures of habit, and it’s our job to instill good habits instead of bad ones.