A series by SUSAN McBANE explaining equestrian and scientific terminology in relation to equine behaviour and psychology, and its effects on horses and training

(This series is based on a glossary of equestrian and scientific terms published in ‘Equitation Science’ by McGreevy and McLean, 2010, the standard book on the subject. The glossary definition is given in quotation marks, followed by Susan’s discussion.)

COLD BACK (girth shy): ‘Hyper-reactive behaviour (occasionally bucking) or instability, sometimes to the extent of collapse when the girth is tightened, or the saddle is placed on the back, or the horse is mounted.’

THE original idea behind this term was that horses showed dislike of the saddle because they did not like the feel of cold leather on their backs, not that the backs themselves were cold. Decades ago, it was the exception rather than the rule to use numnahs or saddle pads and in winter working riding horses were often clipped out (thankfully not so often today). This was widely felt to be the reason for horses sinking down away from the saddle when it was placed on their backs. Tightening the girth, it was imagined, pressed the cold saddle down on to the back, increasing the cold feeling.

Horses might veer away from the saddle, showing the usual defensive posture of head up, frightened eyes, ears pricked hard and back down. Some made various energetic movements to avoid having the saddle on such as rearing, bucking, spinning round, backing into a corner or, if tied up, kicking their own bellies or the handler, trying to turn round and bite him or her or pulling hard back on the tether which, of course, could result in the horse falling and swinging with resultant serious injuries, breaking the ring attachment or the headcollar, or pulling the ring out of the wall which sent it flying around on the end of the rope – a lethal weapon. Collapsing or lying down was/is another defensive technique to avoid the pain associated with tack.

Various methods of lessening the horse’s behaviour or fear were recommended, such as gradually retraining the horse to accept the saddle, warming the leather against a car radiator or the tack room stove, tacking up slowly and carefully and leaving the girth fairly loose, then walking the horse around for some time to give the saddle time to warm up and the horse to get used to it, before mounting. Some less considerate people would simply put the saddle on and girth up normally (if they possibly could), saying that they ‘wouldn’t stand any nonsense’ and the horse ‘has to learn to behave and get used to it’. Not many, from my memories, considered that the horse’s back or girth area might actually have been painful, or that the horse associated tack with being ridden which, in his case, must have been also painful or otherwise unpleasant, hence the fear reaction.

Some horses do behave in the above ways from memory or habit even though the original pain or discomfort may no longer exist, and these can be retrained by ‘over-riding’ or ‘over-shadowing’ which basically involves (ideally a helper) giving the horse distracting food treats during careful tacking up, and rubbing around the withers when he allows progress. In this way, provided the existing tack does not hurt him, he begins to associate being tacked up with something pleasant.

‘Cold backs’ are not uncommon today and people often resort to the old remedies. In fact, the hyper-reactive behaviours shown by ‘cold backed’ horses are the result of discomfort or pain now or in the past, and there are myriad reasons for that, even something as simple as the horse rolling on a stone or tweaking himself in the box. A true horseman of generations past, Reginald Sheriff (R.S.) Summerhays, who found my first horse for me, wrote many excellent books on horsemanship and horsemastership (care and management) and says in his Summerhays’ Encyclopaedia for Horsemen, under ‘Back, sore’, not ‘cold’ interestingly: ‘Caused by bad stable management and poor horsemanship, e.g. the use of ill-fitting saddles, creating pressure or friction on particular parts of the back; slack girths; working unfit horses, etc. Prevented by ensuring the back is hard, that the saddle fits, and that the rider is sufficiently competent to sit squarely without rolling in the saddle.’  Three cheers for that! Ever the gentleman, he nevertheless didn’t mince his words and always spoke out for horses. He lived well into his nineties.

Times change, or do they?

How sad it is that the causes RSS gave all those decades ago still exist today. Yes, we do not clip horses out so much now (with legs off and leaving no saddle patch), and we almost always use numnahs or saddle cloths (which can cause problems in themselves) so the original thinking no longer holds water, but ‘cold’, or rather sore-backed horses are still with us. I think the problem is actually getting worse as people increasingly buy saddles unseen and untried via the internet. The lack of instruction in horse care and management, specifically the use and fitting of tack, by many of those riding schools that remain, and by some instructors, plus reluctant owners who naturally don’t want to hear that their expensive (or cheap) saddle doesn’t fit and is hurting their horse, are other reasons for badly fitting saddles continuing to be used and harming horses. Buying the correct length and width is not enough: the saddle has to be the right shape to fit the profile of the horse’s back, and the cut and seat have to fit the rider and the purpose for which he or she wants the saddle if there is to be any hope of sitting in a balanced position.

If a rider follows the old advice of fitting the saddle loosely and walking the horse round for a few minutes before mounting (if the horse permits that), her problems are not over because riding a horse in an ill-fitting saddle is inviting back injuries, pain, fear and violent behaviour, or at least a ‘poor’, but justified, way of going on the horse’s part.  The answer is to leave the saddle off and bring in expert help and advice. Causes of pain should first be diagnosed by a vet; other specialists may then be brought in, such as a physiotherapist or a chiropractor.

RSS mentions ensuring that ‘the back is hard’. He meant that the skin has been hardened by rubbing methylated or surgical spirit into the saddle and girth area, common practice years ago.

Compensatory movement

If you have ever had to wear shoes, boots or clothing which restricted your movement, or which actually caused discomfort or pain, you will understand compensatory movement. You will have found yourself moving in an unnatural, unaccustomed way to avoid the pain. This would involve using muscles which were not meant for that movement, or muscles which were not fit and conditioned to the level of work you were expecting them to do. You might have been surprised to find that your body started hurting in areas far from the source of the discomfort because of this unaccustomed muscle use, as your body tried to balance itself in your new way of moving.

This is exactly what happens to horses when they have painful or even just uncomfortable tack. Lameness in any leg can cause pain further up the body, often in the back, as the horse tries to save the leg. Pressure from the saddle will mean that the horse tries to hold his back in a stiff, defensive way to avoid the pain while keeping on trying to work for you, and, because of this unaccustomed muscle use, will start to hurt elsewhere. He may become desperate and buck you off, he may rear, nap, squirm around or do anything to try to get away from the pain and discomfort. All the time, his body is sustaining injuries, both in the back and elsewhere, which can take a long time to heal.

This can also happen with bad riding. Holding horses in a firm, rigid and unrelenting contact is a prime candidate for causing neck, shoulder, back and hindquarter pain because the horse is denied the effective use of his natural head and neck balancing pole, being forced to compensate by using his body tissues in a way for which they were not designed. This, to my mind, cruel way of riding is extremely common and a well-known cause of pain, lameness, defensive behaviour and, ultimately, a possibly crippled horse.  This has been known for years yet this style of riding is still common. From the viewpoint of a ‘cold-backed’ horse, pain, however it is caused, in the back and/or girth area can be the reason for his not wanting to be tacked up.

Ensure your saddle and girth FIT!

One of the best developments in the horse world in recent years has been the appearance of thoroughly trained and qualified saddle fitters. These are not necessarily ‘master saddlers’, who specialise in making saddles, although a person can be both with appropriate training and experience. The Society of Master Saddlers (SMS) runs an excellent training course for saddle fitters in the UK, and there is a very thorough training course accredited by the University of Utrecht School of Veterinary Science. Google ‘Society of Master Saddlers saddle fitters’ and ‘Master Saddle Fitting Consultants’ respectively, and you’ll find information about both qualifications, and information to enable you to find a suitably qualified fitter in your region. Another important website is www.saddleresearchtrust.com, which is the site of, obviously, the Saddle Research Trust. The SRT is doing sterling work, publicising the vital importance of saddle and girth fit, and keeping us up to date with research including the use of sensor technology to reveal pressures and fit.

Some fitters carry a stock of good used saddles, so the expense of a new one may not be necessary. A used saddle may be able to be altered to fit your horse (who, remember, will change shape throughout the year so will need periodic checks by your fitter anyway); this may mean that your fitter will have to send it to a saddler, if he or she is unable to make the necessary changes.   

I cannot stress strongly enough that it is crucially important to have a properly qualified fitter fit your saddle and girth. With respect, I have always found that fitters trained by companies specialising in their own saddles, and who do not have either of the above two qualifications, do not have the same depth of knowledge as fitters who have attained one or the other of them.

A good fitter will show you where a saddle should sit on the horse’s back. The current fashion is to put them too far forward, restricting the shoulders at the top near the withers when the horse moves (it’s no good just checking a saddle on a stationary horse), and can also bring the girth too far forward, digging in behind the elbows as the forelegs move backwards. Girths cut away behind the elbow help to avoid this. You should be able to fit a hand’s width between the elbow and the front of the girth. The girth should be made of comfortable material with a means of expansion such as elastic inserts in the centre or at both ends, so that your horse can breathe freely. Many modern girths are too hard and rigid to be suitable for anything but standing still, and girths with elastic at only one end pull the saddle over to the non-elasticated side with each breath your horse takes.

Numnahs and other pads need to be smooth and clean so that they do not create pressure and friction due to caked-on dirt, dried mud, bits of bedding or hay, creases in their fabric, or stitching. (Of course, check that your horse’s back and girth area, plus his head, are free of mud and dried sweat before tacking up.) Seams are a common cause of pressure with numnahs and pads, so make sure whatever you use comes outside the edges of the saddle all round, and stays there with appropriate fastenings. Good numnahs today are shaped to fit along the shape of the horse’s withers and backbone; they should be pulled well up into the gullet of the saddle so that they do not press down on the withers or spine, causing pressure and injury.

If your saddle is slightly too big and ‘loose’, you can amend this temporarily by using various pads and risers (some risers are hard and uncomfortable), but be aware that they will also change the balance of the saddle and maybe your position, weight distribution and riding. Conversely, if your saddle is too tight, putting padding underneath it will clearly make it even tighter.

To check whether the pressure on your horse’s back is even, when you remove the saddle look for an even imprint on his back with no areas sweatier or more pressured than others or with obviously disturbed hair, and with no depressions in the flesh where the saddle has been pressing in. If soft swellings arise later, you’ve got a problem. Check the girth area before and after riding, and at other times in between, to check for lumps, swellings or, heaven forbid, bare patches, or raw or bleeding wounds. The latter should be treated like any other wound on your horse. Any saddle or girth injuries mean that your horse cannot be ridden till they are gone, and then not in the tack that caused them. If your horse flinches at all when you are grooming him, suspect pain.


Rugs pressing on withers, points of shoulders and hips can cause discomfort and restrict a horse’s movement which, again, can result in compensatory movement and have long-lasting bad effects on a horse’s action and comfort. Again, look for rubbed, disturbed hair or, worse, bald patches.

Riding and learning

Being competent enough to sit straight and squarely on your seatbones and not move about too much, therefore moving the saddle itself and inadvertently giving the horse weight aids, or at least causing him to alter his way of going to compensate for the pressure of your changing weight, all come down to riding properly. The rider’s seat, its position and use (application of leg and weight aids) is totally influential: no horse will or can go well if poorly ridden and today there is much poor riding because of poor instruction and lack of learning in riders.

The standard classical seat, easily adapted for jumping, is still the gold standard to acquire. In addition to a deep, balanced, still and moulding seat, permitting independent, sensitive hands, you need the correct techniques – ones which are effective, easy for the horse to understand and for you to apply. This takes effort on the part of the rider and the willingness to pay for good lessons, but nothing worthwhile will be achieved without it. To find a teacher of classical riding or Equitation Science in your region, go to the appropriate websites in the next paragraph.

LEARN MORE AT: The Australian Equine Behaviour Centre (www.aebc.org.au), EquiSci (www.equitationscience.co.uk), the International Society for Equitation Science (www.equitationscience.com), the Classical Riding Club (www.classicalriding.co.uk), the Equine Behaviour Forum (www.equinebehaviourforum.org.uk), and www.theequineindependent.com.  Also, follow up the links and publications on each site.

(The Equine Behaviour Forum published the full glossary in its magazine, ‘Equine Behaviour’. A hard copy costs £3.50 and a digital copy (include your email address) costs £2.50. Please make your cheque payable to ‘Equine Behaviour Forum’ and send it to the Editor, Dr Alison Averis, 6   Stonelaws Cottages, East Linton, East Lothian, EH40 3DX.)

SUSAN McBANE has an HNC in Equine Science and Management, is a Classical Riding Club listed trainer and Gold Award holder, co-founder of the Equine Behaviour Forum and a Practitioner Member of the International Society for Equitation Science. Author of 44 books, she is a co-publisher of ‘Tracking-up’ magazine (see advert this issue). For information on lessons and clinics, visit www.susanmcbane.com, ring 01254 705487 or email horses@susanmcbane.com

Author: Features Editor

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