Girths, Cinches and Science

I just now found an article published in September of 2020 discussing the ‘performance inhibiting spinal pressure’ researchers documented when racehorse trainers strapped a roller or surcingle around their yearling’s barrels. I was intrigued because when I was researching background information on the impact of girth position and tension for my series on horse training, about five years ago there was very little in the way of actual research.

Making sure that readers were introduced to the idea of functional anatomy in my second book of the series, The Gymnastic Circle, was non-negotiable to me. So when my publisher broke their contract with the rather petulant statement that ‘they didn’t like anatomy’, I managed to refrain from snapping back that I didn’t like crippling horses, took a deep breath and went the independent e-publishing route.

One of my basic premises is that riders and trainers must understand that horses have to learn how to move while carrying a saddle. Horses even have to learn to consciously over-ride the automatic neural reflexes triggered by pressure on their back. Introducing your horse to the girth and the saddle so they learn how to move freely in spite of have such a thing strapped to their back BEFORE you ever get on can prevent a whole lot of problems from cropping up later on (click here).

So, in spite of the lack of documentation, I went ahead and insisted that if you wanted a horses to move freely and naturally under a rider, you needed to make sure that they could do everything you wished without any tack on at all. Before adding even a surcingle or roller, you and the horse should both know what correct movement was and be able to sustain it while working at liberty. Then I included classical in-hand schooling exercises that could help the horse learn to move naturally in spite of having a band strapped around their barrel.

When it came to researching how to go about fitting a saddle, girth placement was not even on the table to consider. There were a few ‘ergonomically designed’ girths in the eventing and hunter-jumper sections of tack catalogues. Happily I wasn’t able to justify discussing those girth designs as it turns out that the rationalizations for them are inaccurate.

According to the 2020 study that I just found, pressure on the horse’s sternum does not measurably affect their performance. It is the position of the girth behind the horse’s elbow that affects their stride. The authors of the article did note that they should have realized this because the position where their sensors detected the highest pressure were the very same spots where horses develop cinch sores.

There are now other studies looking at reducing the pressures on the horse’ back that might eventually lead to a constructive look at girth placement. Because even the latest computer assisted saddle tree designs do not relieve the one-sided pressure points that appear just behind the shoulder blade of the leading foreleg at the gallop.

I am also happy to report that I passed over the whole subject of magical saddle pads. Recent studies on how adding saddle pads affects saddle fit indicate that most pads are of questionable benefit. Specifically, more padding increases instability, inspires tighter girths and generally makes thing worse for the horse.

But, there is precedent for asking questions about girth placement from the times when horses were essential working animals, not optional recreational ones. Historically, Square Horses were ridden in center-rigged saddles with short trees. Rectangular Gallopers, including modern racehorses, are generally ridden in 3/4 rigged saddles with longer trees. Straight-shouldered trotters, from the heavy horse of Medieval knights to modern Quarter horses, are ridden in 7/8 rigged saddles with the longest trees and the longest most forward set stirrups.

Those centuries old saddle making techniques reflect the bio-mechanics of the horses they were designed for and that precedent is what I relied on in my book, Rider Up. The vital question riders need to ask is whether or not particular saddle tree, girth and stirrup placement are suited to an individual horse. But I have yet to find either saddle makers or researchers focusing on just where the girth should lie in order to minimize both those pressure points and its interference with the horse’s movement.

Adjustable gullets are a huge step forward for the horse, but discussions still tend to focus more on whether or not saddle trees are beneficial to the horse. I am still not finding much in the way of studies considering functional anatomy, girth placement, pressure points and how to go about designing saddles so neither the girth or the saddle tree interfere with the movement of the horse’s foreleg.

While I do not have all the answers in Rider Up, I can certainly help people frame their questions so their horses get the help they need. Asking those unsettling question are part of the reason my publisher dumped me. I also realize that provoking change is rarely profitable, so I have had to ask myself what my definition of success actually is.

Equestrians do tend to get hidebound and fail to question methods they are accustomed to. And in all truth, the possibility of shifting the equestrian paradigm enough that people begin to ask themselves questions like ‘Would changing the girth placement on the saddle tree make carrying a rider easier for the horse?’ gives me a much deeper and more enduring sense of accomplishment than any flurry of sales. The more people asking those uncomfortable questions the more likely it is that some one will design and fund the research that can continue to change things for the better for all our horses.

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