There’s this hot new kind of girth, do I need it?? It’s human nature—and certainly the nature of us horsey humans!—to jump on a new fad. One of the hot trends in tack right now is the anatomical girth. And look out, because next up is the curved anatomical girth! Shameless plug: E.A. Mattes has a wonderful one of these, called the Athletico, and I can get it for you, if you just have to have it—or if your horse truly needs it. But let’s take a minute to figure this all out before you whip out the checkbook.
There are lots of variations in girths these days, most created on the hypothesis that we want to distribute pressure across as broad an area as possible, and avoid excess pressure on the sternum. These designs vary a lot but almost all are generally contoured: wider across the middle and narrower at the elbows. After that, we are seeing lots of variation in the width of the girth at the sternum, in the position of that center portion (e.g., Shoulder Relief girths), along with buckle angle and position, and more. We don’t have a lot of research out there that tells us a traditional girth is bad, but these newer designs might be better. At this stage, girth makers are doing a lot of experimenting, so the jury is still a bit out, when it comes to the normal body types. If you like the idea and have the money, go for it and get one; but don’t think you’re a bad horse parent if you stick with your current girth on a horse with run-of-the-mill conformation. Now, those odd ponies are a different story, and we’ll get to them in a minute.
What is “normal” conformation in the girth area? Have you ever looked at your horse’s girth groove? (Did you know he had one?) The girth groove is an area just behind the sternum where the belly makes a small upward curve or indention (about 3-4 inches behind the elbow, and about 3-4 inches wide, typically). A girth would naturally want to slide into that little groove and hang out. On most horses, this groove is perfectly positioned behind the elbow and scapula such that when your saddle is placed correctly on his back, the girth will naturally drop straight into that spot. Look at your pony from the side, with and without tack, and estimate where the center of your saddle sits. Do that spot and your billet straps line up with his girth groove? If you answered yes, your horse is a good candidate for a traditional straight girth or a simple contoured girth. Lucky you!
Some body types do not create a straight line from the center of your saddle to the girth groove. If your horse has a massive, slopey shoulder, very long/high withers, and/or or his elbow is set right under the top of his shoulder, a standard girth might not sit correctly on him. Occasionally, a horse with a very short back and big barrel doesn’t have the right alignment for a traditional girth either. Sometimes these horses’ saddles want to slip back or forward, or they tend to get girth galls at the elbow. You might want to try the following girth shapes for some of these types:
Shoulder, elbow, and girth groove are all in a line (horse may have an upright shoulder, probably fights girth galls): Mattes Asymmetric girth
Long wither, center of saddle is quite far behind the girth groove (saddle tends to slide back): Mattes Athletico girth
Short back, big barrel (saddle tends to slide forward, girth galls may occur): Mattes Crescent girth
To see these girths, and photos of the body types described above, go to World Equestrian Brands website: https://www.worldequestrianbrands.com/product-category/ea-mattes/girths-with-cover-e-a-mattes/
One last thing to factor in is your horse’s personal preference. For example, my horse (also known as Miss Thaing) hates contours, neoprene, girth covers, gel, nylon, skinny girths, fat girths, and any kind of leather. She wants a straight, fuzzy cloth girth with elastic on both sides, and no more than three inches wide, thank you very much. Your horse will also have some opinions. Try a few girths on him, and ride in them two to three times before asking his opinion. By ride three, he will see that new girth coming and let you know how he feels: watch his nose for curling, his ears, for turning, his feet for shifting. If you get these or more violent reactions, that girth is not for him! If you think the shape of the girth matches his needs, try experimenting with materials; he may just need a slight tweak, like leather instead of neoprene. (Find friends who hoard tack; we all have some!)
One last note for girth fitting: make sure your girth is the right length. This is especially true for short girths. So often I see beautiful, padded, comfy girths beneath eight inches of thin, hard billet strap. Ow! If your girth buckles sit too low, you can create painful muscle spasms or even girth rubs. Your short girth should end no more than four fingers below the saddle flap, and hopefully you have a buckle guard to keep the buckles off your horse. Take a little time to check out your girth fit; your horse will thank you!