No ride on a saddled horse would last very long without a girth, the belt-like piece that secures the saddle to the animal.
By attaching via its buckles to the billets (the girth tabs or straps on each side of the saddle), the girth encircles the horse’s barrel immediately behind its forelegs and prevents the saddle from slipping or falling. Western riders keep their saddles in place the same way, but they call the belt a cinch rather than a girth.
Most English girths have two buckles on each side, but most English saddles have three billets to attach to them. The reason for this mismatch is that the third billet is actually a spare one, to be used if another one breaks or if your horse’s conformation makes the positioning of the other billet impractical, uncomfortable, or unsafe.
This ability to change billets comes in handy, as it allows for more customization. In most cases, attaching the girth to the outer two billets is the recommended practice, as it offers the most secure and balanced anchoring of the saddle. Certain saddles and horses, however, necessitate a different set-up, such as using the first two billets. The type of riding discipline is also a factor, with some requiring fastening toward the back and others toward the front.
In the end, it is up to you to experiment with different girth positions until you find the one that provides the most stability for the saddle and the most comfort for the horse.
All Girths Are Not Created Equal
You can find girths made in traditional leather as well as other substances such as cotton, animal hair, synthetics, or even elastic. Flat, heavy cotton is common among unshaped girths, along with padded cotton reinforced with nylon webbing.
Some girths feature materials chosen to address specific needs, such as those constructed of strands of nylon cords to permit the passage of air and promote the evaporation of sweat. Mohair string girths work well for horses whose conformations cause saddles to slip backwards or whose hides chafe easily.
Fleece girth covers also protect the sensitive barrels of horses, and some girths boast sheepskin liners to prevent harmful contact between the strap and the animal. These liners include both attached and removable designs.
Girths also differ according to their contours, with some shaped to provide the horse with sufficient elbow room. As the girth sits right behind the forelegs, it can get in the way of a horse’s elbows as it moves. Shaped girths address this issue by minimizing the width and bulk in that area.
One such girth is the Atherton, which features a wider strip of strong leather at the center of a shaped baghide leather strap. The overlay girth works on a variant of this idea, with a central leather piece that mimics the curved shape of the girth, and it often bears decorative stitching at the middle. The Balding girth narrows the margin of interference behind the forelegs and reduces chafing by using a flat piece of leather cut into three strips that cross and fold at the center.
Balancing Form and Function for Proper Fit
The girth should spread pressure evenly over the area it covers, but while doing this it must be snug enough to keep the saddle in its place yet not so tight that it causes discomfort and injury to the horse. A girth that is too narrow or one whose central reinforcing strip is too narrow may create painful pressure points. There also has to be enough slack to allow the horse free movement of the legs.
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