Excessive Girthiness

Q. I start young Thoroughbreds for racing, and occasionally I work with a horse that gets really "girthy." Some even get to the point of falling down, and others get a hump in their backs as if they are going to explode. Can you tell me why this happens, what it is called, and what I can do to prevent it?

A.  We see two distinct responses when comparing yearlings and 2-year-olds in the beginning of their breaking period to older horses at the track. Imagine the fear a young horse must experience upon being saddled and girthed the first time. Evolution has prepared him for a response to fear of the unknown with the "flight or fight" response.

I am sure that, in the horse's mind, this is a simplified version of a more complex response to another form of restraint. The weight of the saddle and confinement of the girth must be perceived as restraint, at least in the early stages of training. Therefore, we might expect to see a release of both adrenalin and endorphin. A name for the resulting behavior would be fear- or pain-induced aggression.

To minimize such behavior, start the horse in a stall or small round pen using just the saddle and progress to a surcingle buckled loosely. Gradually work up to a saddle with a girth. Care should be taken to make sure the saddle or a heavily padded surcingle does not slide beneath the horse. It is also a good idea to first stretch the forelimbs after loosely buckling the girth and give the horse a few turns around the barn before tightening the girth.

The other type of response I see is in "girthy" horses that are exhibiting a pain response. These horses come out of stalls after being tacked as if their feet are tied together, exhibiting a gait similar to a horse with severe bilateral (in both front or hind feet) hoof pain--the "walking on eggshells" gait. After a few turns around the shed row, they generally begin to walk normally. I've found that these horses are actually suffering from some sort of foot pain. Often they have coffin joint pain or deep pain in other structures not responsive to hoof testers. Thorough examination, which might include diagnostic blocking and/or intra-articular joint therapy, will confirm this diagnosis. The horses I often see with this condition have underrun heels, which, when corrected, alleviates the pain.

Why do these horses respond in this manner when girthed? I've observed that an area along the heart girth slightly above the point of the elbows, appearing as a small depression in the lateral thorax, is very responsive to palpation on them. Although not fully understood, the connection seems to be that the girth exerts pressure here and the horses respond as if in extreme foot pain. A foam channel under the girth can alleviate the condition. Again, stretching the forelimbs out in front of the horse once the girth is tightened can also help. It is always wise to have your veterinarian perform an examination to determine the underlying cause and help avoid further discomfort.

About the Author

Jay Addison, DVM

Jay Addison, DVM, is a practitioner in Independance, La.

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