Starting Romeo Part 5: First Girth

First Girth. In this exclusive training series, Kate Fenner from Kandoo Equine is taking  you deep into the essential foundation lessons for any horse. 

If you missed Parts 1-4, you can catch up on www.horsesandpeople.com.au or via the following links: 

So far, Romeo has learned basic handling, including haltering, grooming, picking up feet, tying up and ‘give to the bit’, both at a standstill and at the walk. 

Join us and watch the un-started, five-year-old Friesian gelding, gradually work through each of the lessons – and why not follow along with your own horse?

Whether your horse is un-started or already going under saddle, but you feel these are areas that need a little work, you’re in the right place.

First girth

The first girthing is not often given the attention it truly requires and, as such, can result in dangerous and unwanted behaviours. All too frequently, horses are strapped into saddles and moved off to ‘buck it out’ and, apparently, discover they can’t remove the saddle. Thus, an assumption is made the saddle has been accepted and the trainer progresses to the next phase of training.

This is known as ‘flooding’ and there are several problems with this approach; not all of which will be immediately apparent.

Firstly, learning the saddle is difficult or impossible to remove is quite a different thing from being relaxed or happy to have it there.

Secondly, what patterns are unwittingly being established by the trainer? Could the horse be experiencing a release of pressure with the bucking behaviour, making it likely to continue well beyond this first girthing stage?

Further potential problems lie in the risks associated with the ‘bucking it out’ behaviour and include musculoskeletal damage from collision, falling or the bucking itself.

For these reasons, we’re going to break the lesson down very carefully for your horse, as shown by Romeo here.

Rather than flood the horse with the new experience, we’re going to systematically habituate Romeo to the feeling of wearing a girth. As with each of the lessons, our aim is to have Romeo in the Engagement Zone (if you missed that article, you can read it here), relaxed and attentive, as we work through the sequence of steps in the lesson.

Even if your horse is already wearing a saddle, this is a great lesson to do and should only take a few minutes. While you’re working through the lesson, check your horse’s emotional level at each stage. Does your horse remain relaxed throughout the lesson? If so, that’s great news and they obviously have a good solid foundation here. If not, perhaps you notice your horse’s head elevation increase at different times during the process, or perhaps your horse goes to nip you when you fasten the girth, then take the opportunity to establish this lesson now.

Before you begin:

Have your horse in the bridle. The bridle gives you a lot more control than a head collar, should you need it, and also allows you to practice ‘give to the bit’ and shoulder control once we have the girth bucked up.

Step 1:

Using a long, soft lead rope, habituate your horse to having the rope over their body. You will have covered this in lesson 1, so this should just be a refresher.

(To read Part 1 click here)

Try to neither creep around or be overly animated, just go about it as you would with an older or more experienced horse. If your horse raises their head or moves their feet, you’ve probably gone too far too fast, so go back a little and begin the lesson again.

Ideally, your horse will stand as Romeo is doing, but if you’re having trouble holding your horse’s attention, or they are trying to graze, then simply hold the end of the lead rope.

Be sure to habituate your horse to having the lead rope around their legs. This is important, because we are going to use a long line later and, should things not go completely according to plan, you don’t want your horse taking fright if the line is dragged on the ground by their legs.

Step 2:

Use your long, soft lead rope – a 12-foot line is ideal – to wrap around your horse’s girth. Initially, lower the buckle over the horse from the lefthand side and take it, as you would a girth, from under the horse’s barrel. Simply pull the rope over and around the horse a few times.

Once your horse is relaxed with this, hold the buckle in your hand and grasp the rope in the same hand, so it is now around the horse’s girth. You want to always hold the buckle in your hand, because they are often heavy, and could potentially hurt you or the horse should it move suddenly and swing around.

Tighten and loosen the ‘girth’ using both hands, praising the horse for standing. Assuming your horse remains relaxed with this process, you shouldn’t need more than a few repetitions.

Step 3:

Now it’s time to get moving. We need movement to train, and your horse will already be experienced with the ‘give to the bit’ lesson and moving around you in small circles (see Part 3). Begin on the lefthand side of the horse, with your left hand on the rein and your right hand holding the lead rope around your horse’s girth (the buckle end also in your hand).

Cue your horse to walk around you while practicing ‘give to the bit’, and slightly tighten and loosen the girth as you go. If your horse reacts with an increase in emotional level, simplify the step by asking them to stand again, and repeat the tightening and loosening action. If your horse remains relaxed, continue and add some reverse-arc shoulder control to the exercise. Remember to do this on both sides of your horse.

Step 4:

The next step is to habituate your horse to both the saddle cloth and the roller.

Again, it’s important not to creep around, being overly cautious. However, if your horse appears a little anxious, then you can make it easier by folding the saddle cloth in half or quarters to make it smaller.

Rub the cloth on your horse as you would a brush. Cover the whole body from the ears to the tail, and down the legs. As you notice your horse visibly relax, make the saddle cloth bigger by unfolding it and continue the lesson.

At the end of your habituation period, you should be able to throw the saddle cloth over the horse, into position and not see an increase in emotional level. Again, this lesson should be done from both sides of your horse.

Step 5:

Put the saddle cloth aside for the time being, and get the roller or surcingle. I use this as a first girth as it is a good stepping stone to a saddle, without the complication of flaps, stirrups, heavy weight and larger surface area.

Habituate your horse to the surcingle in the same way as you did the saddle cloth. I like to make sure I drop it on the ground a few times too, not something you want to do with your saddle, I imagine!

Step 6:

In this step, we’re going to buckle up the girth, so now’s the time to clip the lunge line to the left side of the bit.

We need this in case we’ve misjudged the horse’s emotional level for some reason and they take flight. It’s important your horse doesn’t get away, because if they do buck, they may injure themselves, and you’ll have a lot more control with the long line and the bridle. Of course, if you’ve worked through steps 1 to 5 well, it’s not likely to occur, but it’s always better to err on the side of caution.

Most surcingles have two buckles and the most important thing to remember is to get one properly fastened before fastening the second one. Later, once the horse has habituated to the girthing process, we can do the girth up one hole, one strap at a time, but for now, it’s more important the girth is secure, in case the horse moves off.

Pull the strap through the buckle a few times without fastening it to ensure they remain relaxed. When you do fasten the girth for the first time, make sure it’s tight enough to hold the surcingle securely in place, should your horse try to leave and buck. Then, fasten the second buckle if there are two.

Step 7:

Ask your horse to move off at walk around you. After a few circles, swap sides by changing the line to the other side and asking for walk again. Once your horse is relaxed circling around you in walk, ask for trot, and be sure to change directions by stopping and changing sides.

Remember, this is a habituation exercise. We’re getting the horse used to the feeling of wearing the girth, not trying to tire them. For this reason, transitions are great, because they keep the horse engaged with you and also change how the girth feels around them.

If your horse is progressing well and remaining calm, ask for canter in both directions. I wouldn’t ask for a long canter, rather a few transitions from trot to canter, and back.

When this lesson is done well and your horse remains in the Engagement Zone, there is no reason it should raise a sweat. Chasing the horse around a round pen, trying to ‘get the buck out’ will only confuse, frighten or frustrate them, and make the horse associate being girthed with such an experience.

Cue your horse in and lavish with praise!

Step 8:

Congratulate yourself! You have worked quietly through a lesson that is often very traumatic for a horse, well done.

By breaking this lesson down for your horse and guiding them through it, you have set them up for success for the remainder of their foundation training.

Next lesson…

In the next lesson (in the August 2018 issue of Horses and People), we’re going to teach Romeo to long-rein, drawing on everything he has learned in the previous lessons.

Check out Dr Kate Fenner’s podcast for more step-by-step, ethical and sustainable horse training courses.

This article was published in Horses and People July 2018 magazine or buy the whole series as an e-book.

Dr Kate Fenner, BEqSc (Hons), PhD

Kate is an equine scientist with a PhD in horse behaviour and training from the Sydney School of Veterinary Science. She is also an equestrian coach (Equestrian Australia and British Horse Society) and horse trainer (John and Josh Lyons Certified Trainer). Kate has ridden, trained and competed in Dressage, Jumping, Western and Polo in Australia, Europe, the United States and Asia.

After years of experience starting horses for clients, Kate feels strongly that owners are best served by learning to train their own horses. As a result, she founded Kandoo Equine and has developed a series of ethical, easy to follow, step-by-step guides that are suitable for horses and riders of all levels.



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