Reasons for “girthiness” investigated

Ill-fitting tack is often blamed for girthiness but resistant behavior was linked to that cause in only a small number of the study horses.

A surprising variety of physical conditions, ranging from lameness to tumors to stomach ulcers, can cause a horse to object to having his girth or cinch tightened, according to a retrospective study from the University of California, Davis.

Groom saddling a horse and tighten the girth.

The Davis researchers reviewed the records of 37 horses referred to the clinic from 2004 to 2016 because they pinned their ears, nipped or otherwise reacted negatively to being saddled and cinched. The researchers documented the diagnostic findings from each horse’s initial examinations, as well as any treatments attempted and improve-ments observed.

Finding the cause of girthiness is especially challenging, says Esther Millares-Ramírez, DVM, because there is no standard diagnostic methodology: “One of the points we tried to make with the paper was the importance of a standardized protocol for cases since the clinical signs are not specific.”

Ill-fitting tack is often blamed for girthiness, but resistant behavior was linked to this cause in only three of the study horses. This low number may simply reflect a lack of awareness of the issue, especially in the earliest years of the study, says Millares-Ramírez. “In our daily clinical setting we see a higher number of ill-fitting saddles compared to what was observed in the study,” she says, “However, saddle fitting is something that is coming more into the picture lately and the study comprises cases from 2004 to 2016. We were already performing some saddle fitting in 2004, but it was not as common as it is nowadays.”

In a far greater number of cases, girthiness was traced to either orthopedic issues or gastric ulcers. Ten of the 37 study horses were found to have spinal osteoarthritis, bone spavin, front-limb lameness or other orthopedic problems and their behavior improved once these conditions were treated. Likewise, gastroscopy (viewing the inside of the digestive tract with a camera) showed that 12 of the horses had stomach ulcers, and in all of these cases, treatment with omeprazole resolved the girthiness within the first six months.

Millares-Ramírez says these findings suggest a good place to start when searching for the cause of girth-related resistance. “In my opinion, gastroscopy should be performed in all horses with girthiness, and if gastroscopy is not possible, and in the absence of other abnormalities, starting a treatment for gastric ulcers might be the key to success,” she says. “However, that doesn’t always work. That’s why we advocate to perform the tests, since having this information helps veteri-narians decide the best approach for the horse”

The remaining 11 of 37 horses had a variety of diagnoses, ranging from non-specific withers and sternum pain to ovarian tumors to urinary tract infection. “In those cases [where the diagnosis] didn’t really make sense, we don’t really know if girthiness was just an incidental finding to a bigger problem that was present at the same time,” says Millares-Ramírez. “For the urinary tract infection, for instance, it is hard to say, but pain pathways are amazing, and it could have been related to some referred pain. At this point it’s hard to tell the origin of that girthiness. Those are the cases when you would really wish the horses talked to figure out what’s happening.”

In only one horse in the study girthiness was attributed to a behavioral problem. “We sometimes see horses who are clinically completely healthy, but they are just being aggressive towards the owner. I remember one case where we tried many things; we did start an anti-inflammatory treatment trial, ulcer treatment—even though on gastroscopy there were no signs of ulcers—and the horse’s behavior did not change. Finally, the owner decided to send him to a trainer and that definitely helped.”

If your horse starts to resist saddling or girth tightening, Millares- Ramírez recommends working with your veterinarians to methodically investigate the possible causes. “I recommend first to go to the basics, like saddle fitting, and if that doesn’t bring improvement, I will recommend a full workup: physical, lameness, and gastroscopy examinations.”

Reference: “Girthiness: Retrospective study of 37 horses (2004-2016),” Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, August 2019

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