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Getting to Grips with Girths: Part 2

In the final of this series, expert saddle fitter KATHRYN SULLIVAN-BUTT explores girths and correct girth point selection for English saddles.

In our previous issue, we discussed the vast array of shaped and anatomical girths that have exploded onto the equestrian market as riders and their saddle fitters endeavour to address some of the common problems of excessive saddle movement, pinching behind the elbow, and girth galls.

The most commonly used shaped girth is often referred to as forward facing. Rearward facing girths are also available but are less common. A quality shaped girth is a good investment for you and your horse if it aids good saddlefit, so it’s worth discussing them in a little more detail to understand how they work.

Saddles shifting forward can occur for many reasons which include, but are not limited to:

  • Saddle gullet too narrow
  • Rear saddle panels too deep/inappropriate panel shape for horse
  • Horse anatomy such as croup high, barrel shaped torso, forward girth groove often accompanied by drop belly
  • Wrong saddle tree shape for horse
  • Girth point alignment too far back/excessive pull on rear girth point
  • Rider pushing the saddle forward with pelvic motion
  • Horse biomechanics – high behind, hip hitch motion for example

Conversely saddles can often slip backwards for the following reasons:

  • Saddle gullet too wide
  • Rear saddle panels too shallow/ lack of panel support in front
  • Horse anatomy – e.g. high wither, atrophy in trapezius region, rearward girth

groove with greyhound-like rise of belly to the rear

  • Wrong saddle tree shape for horse
  • Girth point alignment too far forward/excessive pull on point strap
  • Horse and rider biomechanics

Whilst all of the above are the most common reasons, they are certainly not the only reasons for forward or back saddle slip. Furthermore, a combination of several factors can often obscure the overriding reason for saddle shift. In this article our focus is on correct girth and girth point selection to assist with saddle stability.

Anatomy and girth groove location

When saddling a horse the girth will gravitate to the part of the belly where the girth groove is situated, usually the narrowest area. Horses may have wide or narrow girth grooves with either a forward (A), standard (B), or rearward (C) location (see Image 1).

Image 1    good girth line alignment with vertical girth points hanging in good location

The girth’s tendency to drift to the horse’s narrowest circumference (the girth groove) will usually happen regardless of how tight the horse is girthed up – in fact the tighter the girth, the more likely it is to shift to an area with less pressure (where the circumference is less) as the horse moves. Excessive tightening of the girth is also detrimental to the horse’s ability to move and breath freely and may lead to saddling issues over time. Given that the girth is firmly attached to the saddle, the shift forward or back to the girth groove will often pull the saddle with it, leading to the saddle becoming poorly placed for optimum horse comfort, and sliding out of balance for the rider.

Girth point configuration

Forward shaped girth on a dressage horse with a forward girth groove, cut to allow more freedom behind the elbow.

Fortunately, many horses have a standard girth alignment, allowing the girth points to drop down vertically so that a straight girth is usually sufficient (see Image 2).

Image 3: Image jump saddle with girth buckled up A for potential configuration for forward girth groove and B rearward girth groove

Many saddles, like the jump saddle in Image 3, have girthing arrangements that allow for the girth to be positioned forward (A) for horses with a forward girth groove where the saddle might otherwise be pulled forward, or rearward (B) for horses with a girth groove positioned further back. Note also that this jump saddle’s front point strap comes from point of the tree.

Image 4: Dressage girth point configuration for standard or forward girth groove; Right: Girth point configuration for standard or rear girth groove (Note: other than where the girth sits, everything remains the same

In Image 4, dressage saddle A is buckled up for a horse with a more standard or rearward girth groove, while saddle B is buckled for a horse requiring a point strap to assist with the prevention of forward movement (useful for horses with a forward girth groove, those who are mutton shouldered, or for wider shapes such as round pony). Note also that while the two rear girth points can be used in combination (A), using both front points with a forward girth groove will lead to instability and swing at the rear of the saddle. This can be prevented by using the front and rear points (B).

Other than where the girth sits, everything else remains the same.

It may be possible to have the girth points adjusted on a saddle to ensure they align better with the shape of your horse’s girth groove. However, this is a question for your saddle fitter as in many cases if the shape of the panel or tree is wrong then no amount of adjusting the girth point configuration will be successful for saddle stability.

Forward and rearward girths

With the recent explosion of shaped girths, many riders have begun using them – sometimes with good reason, and other times because their best friend bought one. Essentially the idea of a shaped girth is to accommodate various girth groove alignments and to help prevent saddles from shifting forward or back. Shaping at the elbow may also relieve pinching behind the elbow where loose skin and girth galls can be an issue. Wide or narrow gauge girths should mirror the width of the girth groove.

Image 5

The girths in Image 5 are from left to right: two short dressage girths – a standard anatomic shape and a forward cut girth; and two long jumping girths, a standard anatomic and a rearward shaped girth. They are an example of how girths are shaped to curve and nestle into the various girth groove alignments.

It’s no mistake that I chose a rearward facing girth to illustrate a jump girth and a dressage girth as the forward example, as it has been my experience that often eventing and speedy athletic breeds such as Thoroughbreds are more likely to have a rear girth groove, while show ponies and Warmbloods often have a forward girth groove.

However, physics tells us that the pull force of the girth acts in a straight line (not around the curves of the girth) so a shaped girth should be made of firm material that does not buckle, pinch, warp and increase pressure at the front or rear of the girth. Girths with sternum support and two independent buckles that can be done up at different heights – such as the H girth (Image 6) – may also assist with variations in the horse’s anatomy. This allows the girth points to hang vertically, providing a more consistent downward force and thus saddle stability. Sternum support is increasingly seen to take pressure from the sides of the girth where forces are often greatest.

Image 6

With so many girths on the market, and each having a slight variation in shape, finding the right one for you and your horse can be very hit and miss. Knowing your horse’s girth groove configuration, elbow room and so on will help you start to shortlist options. However, nothing beats trying the girth first to ensure your horse likes it. If you have a friend raving about their girth ask if you can try it (but clean thoroughly before and after trial to remove potential contaminants), or talk to your saddle fitter and with your next saddle fitting book in for a girth assessment.

Most qualified fitters will have a good selection of girths to try or purchase and they will be able to shortlist according to your horse’s requirements. When fitting, I personally prefer not to change a girth when the rider is purchasing a new saddle, as it introduces another set of variables into the fit making it difficult to assess whether the horse really likes the saddle change, or is it the girth they prefer? If a girth is truly unsuitable then I will change it, but a refit is a great time to check the saddle and to see how a girth can make things even better.

Ultimately the horse has the final say on what they like, and while new studies on pressure are showing different force analysis with varying girths, we do need to consider the feedback from our horse as well as the science.

Feature Image:A forward shaped girth on a dressage horse with a forward girth groove, cut to allow more freedom behind the elbow.