Saddle Fit and Girth Choices—You Can’t Have One Without the Other!
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Unless the billets on your saddle are positioned correctly, your saddle will not stay in its proper place on your horse’s back. And no matter how many times you stop and reset the saddle, or what type of girth you use, your saddle will continue to slide forward. Accessories such as the girth can affect not only the feel of your saddle but how the saddle fits the horse. However, one cannot really discuss girths without consideration of how the girth is attached to the saddle—billet alignment is a crucial point I would like to briefly address first.
Ask yourself: Does your saddle slide forward no matter what kind of girth you use? Have you ever had to stop in the middle of your ride and reset your saddle because it has moved forward onto your horse’s shoulders?
How do you know if the billets on your saddle are aligned properly? Place your saddle on your horse’s back, making sure that it is correctly situated behind his shoulder. The billets should hang perpendicular to the ground in the girthing area. If they hang too far back, gravity will pull them forward into the girthing area, which will pull the entire saddle forward. The girth will always find its position at the narrowest point of the rib cage behind your horse’s elbow, and the unfortunate result is that the saddle either gets driven forward into your horse’s shoulders or clear on top of his shoulders.
Why does this matter? The horse’s shoulder blade (scapula) consists of both bone and cartilage. At the very least, a saddle that is pulled forward onto his shoulders acts like a straitjacket—your horse will be unable to move freely through his shoulders and his movement will be compromised, sometimes severely. At worst, a saddle that constantly drives into your horse’s shoulders first will produce a buildup of scar tissue on his scapula. If the problem persists over the long-term, the tree points of the saddle will begin to actually chip away the bone and cartilage. Horses with this kind of irreversible damage often have telltale “holes,” particularly on their left shoulder blade.
If the billets hang too far forward into your horse’s elbow area, they may make him sore in the elbows. And once again, gravity will drag them (and the girth and saddle along with them) back into the girthing area. You might think that this is not a problem because now at least your horse’s shoulders are free. However, there will be too much pressure on the panels at the rear of the saddle. Too much of the rider’s weight will be on the horse’s lumbar and kidney area. This is especially problematic when your mare is in season, since this excess pressure on her ovaries may cause her to show extreme discomfort or resistance when being saddled and ridden.
What causes improper billet alignment? Frequently, the problem is that either the width or the angle, or both the width and the angle of your saddle tree is not the correct size for your horse. There are many sizes, shapes and designs of girths. When you girth a saddle with long billets, the girth should be at the last 2-3 holes of the billets. One of the highest points of heat and friction occurs where the billets lie against the edge of the horse. Less distance between the bottom of the flap and the top of the girth means less irritation. Every saddle has a different flap and billet length depending on the manufacturer. Try different lengths, shapes, and materials to see what girth works with your horse.
A common mistake is the shape of the girth. A horse has a curved shape with relief needed in the elbow area, an area easily chafed by the girth. It is necessary to have a girth that has an area cut out behind the elbow. In the image, girth B is preferable to girth A. This allows the horse to move the front leg without being inhibited by the girth itself. Girth A is very straight with only one strip of hard leather through the center, putting all of the pressure onto that thin leather strap and acting like a ‘knife’ across a horse’s sternum and pectorals. Girth B has cut-outs for the elbow. The stiffer leather goes all the way out to the edges with a soft leather backing which disperses the pressure over a much larger surface area, making the horse more comfortable. The wider center also helps stabilize a saddle from slipping side to side or going forward. A correctly shaped girth should displace pressure as evenly as possible along its length. Ideally, it should have a wider surface area along the sternum of the horse, which is the strongest point of contact. These ‘diamond’ girths are anatomically accommodating—narrower at the ends where it sits under the elbow area and widening to between 5-8 inches at the sternum to displace the pressure evenly.
Girths are such an important topic that I will continue with this discussion next month.