When I was a teenager I had a naughty Arab/Fell Pony cross, who delighted in several Machiavellian endeavours, one of which was casually lifting a hoof and placing it on my foot, and then leaning on me, with the most wicked expression on her face, while I shouted and pushed and swore. When she thought she’d caused enough mayhem, she’d casually lift her hoof, as if to suggest she had no idea what the fuss was about.
Another lovely little habit was blowing herself out so much that getting the girth tight enough to be safe was quite an undertaking, and required several walks around the yard, followed by quick-as-lightning reflexes to get to the girth before she turned herself into an elephant once more.
But one day, and I’m not proud to admit this, I did use her girthy habit for amusement. We had visitors for lunch that day and my mother had insisted that I take the extremely boring girl, whose name has escaped into the mists of time, but let’s call her Myrtle, because that was the kind of girl she was, up to the farmyard and give her a ride.
Now, Myrtle was one of those kinds of girls who knew everything about everything, and she’d already got me offside by, according to her parents, being academically brilliant, physically incapable of being beaten in any sport and generally an all-round pain in the arse, if you happened to be your bog-average student with no particular talent for
anything other than perhaps flirting, which wasn’t necessarily the career choice my parents had been imagining for me.
So before we even got to the farmyard Myrtle had bored me rigid with everything she allegedly ‘knew’ about horses and riding, and when my best friend Sally also had to suffer through half-a-hour of her company while I caught my pony, Hester, and groomed her, we were both indulging in Judge Judy style eye-rolls behind Myrtle’s back at every opportunity.
I’m not quite sure when the wicked idea of not perhaps doing up the girth quite as tight as I normally would occurred to me. In fact to this day the only defence I can make for myself is that I’m not completely sure, not 100% sure, that it was a conscious thought.
It certainly wasn’t until Myrtle rather bossily took the reins from me, and said she was quite capable of getting on without assistance, that for a brief second I wondered if the girth was tight enough, followed by the uncharitable thought that I didn’t give a damn.
Needless to say Myrtle put her foot in the stirrup and went to scramble up in a rather unladylike fashion for someone who had apparently already competed at several Olympics, got herself in the saddle, and found herself underneath, rather than on top of the horse.
Fortunately Hester unperturbed by this turn of events, simply stood there while Myrtle screamed the house down, and Sally and I tried to control our laughter, while we helped her out of the stirrups. By the time we got her vertical Myrtle was in floods of tears, and took off down the lane, shouting out that she was going to: “tell on you both”.
The only answer to that conundrum was simple – stay out until I was absolutely sure that Myrtle and her obnoxious parents had gone
home. (In those days pre mobile-phones it was relatively easy living in the middle of the countryside to go missing all day – and we frequently did.)
When I turned up again just before dark not unnaturally my mother was more than a little cross. “I don’t suppose they’ll ever come and visit us again,” she told me, sending me to my room.
Fast forward many, many decades and a few girth-related incidents in the meantime, and my beautiful old Anglo-Arab gelding, Beau, had a different kind of girth problem – he simply hated the girth being done up – and it was literally his only vice – but he would, if he could, try and take a chunk. I got adept at tying him short, taking it one hole at a time, and making sure his choppers didn’t connect. Once it was done, he would revert back to his normally sweet personality, but nothing made any difference. Over the years I tried numerous types of girths, including sheepskin covers, but he remained stoically convinced that the girth was a thing of evil.
But over the years of horse-ownership and riding I’ve learned a bit about horses and girths. One thing I learned, teaching my own young ones, was that if I took it slowly and didn’t cinch them tight the first few times they had the saddle on they were far less luckily to blow out. What I also discovered, somewhat to my surprise, in my later years through attending show jumping clinics, is that there is such a thing as a too-tight girth. A too-tight girth on a competition horse, is a bit like an old-fashioned corset on a woman, it constricts their breathing and the ability of the rib-cage to expand and contract, which of course is absolutely vital when jumping, so even though a girth needs to be tight enough to prevent Myrtle style accidents, you still
need to be able to insert a finger-width between the girth and the horse’s body to allow for it to breathe.
Another, and perhaps somewhat old-fashioned idea, but valuable nonetheless is that if you’re doing trail-riding that involves lots of hills, using either a crupper and/or a breast-plate to stop the saddle moving forwards or backwards means that you don’t have to rely on having the girth so tight that the horse is basically in pain every time it takes a breath.
While a too-loose girth is certainly not a good idea, a too-tight girth can cause a lot of muscle-related problems as well as extreme discomfort for the horse.
After saddle and bridle fit, don’t discount the importance of the girth, there are so many out there now which can make life more comfortable for your horse – no matter what the discipline, that it’s worth a bit of time and money to get it right. After all, would YOU want a belt pulled as tight as possible around your waist and then be made to jump or run?
But in the meantime, Myrtle – wherever you are – I’m sorry. I won’t do it again. I promise
Candida Baker’s column from the April 2018 edition of HubVibes