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Spare a thought for your Girth

As you can imagine, it is not uncommon for me to have conversations with clients about tack and the impact that this can have on their horse’s musculature and performance. Mostly these chats tend to revolve around saddle fit and, more and more frequently, bridle fit. The other day the discussion moved on to girths – design, fit, stability and pressure. It struck me that girth fit is a topic in itself which is worthy of a bit of exploration.

Now when I am asked my advice about tack I always caveat my opinions by explaining that whilst I am not a qualified saddle fitter, I approach the subject from the point of view of a bodyworker who has a keen interest in biomechanics and an understanding of the musculature of the horse’s body. Over the course of my 12 years in practice I have found tension and discomfort in the girth area of many horses working in many different disciplines. This has led me to the conclusion that standard girth design is not optimally configured for the horse’s comfort.

There have been many evolutions of girth design over the years – I freely admit that when girths with elasticated elements first erupted on to the market many years ago I lined up to purchase one, buying in to the belief that they provided some sort of pressure relief.

But over the course of the ensuing years, I have learnt more, researched more and questioned more. The more papers I read about saddle stability, the more I started to question the perceived benefits of a girth that, by its very essence, causes instability. When we think about it a correctly fitting, stable platform between horse and rider definitely seems preferable from the horse’s point of view – I tend to think of myself and running (not a born runner!) but would I find it easier, more comfortable and less of a strain running with a loosely fitting backpack carrying an independently moving entity or a snug-fitting harness carrying the same independently moving entity? Definitely the latter…

Research supports this view with a paper by Murray, R., et al. - Girth pressure measurements reveal high peak pressures that can be avoided using an alternative girth design that also results in increased limb protraction and flexion in the swing phase published in The Veterinary Journal (2013) showing that girths with elastic components have no positive effects in terms of reduced pressure distribution or improved locomotion but in actual fact only serve to decrease the stability of the saddle. In addition, it is also worth noting that elastic girths are all too easy to over-tighten. So you may have gathered that my view of elasticated girths has changed over the years!

So the million dollar question – what type of girth is best for our horses? Well, the same study identified that the greatest pressure from the girth (a range of girths were tested) is behind the elbow which is the common site of girth galls and tension. This is an area that influences many different muscles including the extrinsic muscles of the forelimb involved in movement of the forelimb as well as those influential in flexion and “rounding” of the back and, by association, protraction (bringing forwards) of the hindlimb. For efficient locomotion these muscles need room to contract, but sufficient shortening of these muscles may be difficult if there is too much pressure caused by the girth. In summary this study indicates that pressure behind the elbow from the girth not only has the potential to cause discomfort to the horse but it could also have a direct impact on performance.

So ideally we are looking for a non-elasticated girth that is anatomically shaped to avoid pressure behind the elbows – I have searched and searched for something akin to the prototype used in the study (below) which was proved to reduce pressure and improve movement symmetry and I have drawn a blank, even more significantly it is really hard to find a girth without an elasticated element fullstop.

(image credited to Trainer magazine - the red shaded areas represent the areas of pressure compared to the anatomical girth they are overlaid with)

It seems that the market hasn’t yet caught up with the science. However, if anyone can enlighten me please do so as I would love to have a great girth to recommend to clients – otherwise it seems that there is a gap in the market for any of you budding entrepreneurs out there!

To read the full paper cited above in The Veterinary Journal

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