An English girth and western cinches share the same basic and vital function – to keep the saddle securely on the horse. But they can also affect the horse’s comfort and gait. Improved research, technology and understanding of equine behaviour indicates the right girths and cinches can have a distinct bearing on comfort and performance.
Girthing issues are a “huge” part of Lesley McGill’s Langley, B.C., saddle-fitting business, The Saddle Doctor. “I put on one of my saddles and the horse tries to bite me or I do up the girth and he collapses or he holds his breath or he hiccups. Then I realize the girth is cracked or lying in the wrong position,” said McGill. “If the saddle has sort of a mystery fit, I’ll grab a really nice, benign girth from the truck and you can often see the horse change, night and day.”
Finding one, however, isn’t always, well…a cinch. Most tack shops carry a dizzying array of models with prices from $30 to $400.
To start, consider:
- the type of riding you do
- your saddle
- your horse’s conformation
- personal preference
Then, determine approximately what length you need.
The Long and Short
Grab an imperial-unit fabric measuring tape. Forget centimetres for now, as sizes for girths and cinches come in two-inch increments, measured in length from end to end. Then put the saddle and pads on the horse and:
- Place the tape at the rigging ring (western) or the middle holes of the billet straps (English) on the right side.
- Affix with duct or electrical tape or get a helper to hold it.
- Bring the measuring tape under the barrel at the girth line – the narrowest part of the ribcage, usually about a hand’s-width behind the elbow – to the rigging ring or middle billet holes on the left.
Western – Take the measurement and subtract 16 inches and you’ll have a good estimate of your horse’s correct cinch size. Round up to the nearest size.
English – A girth affixed to the middle billet holes allows for changes in fit. Short, or dressage girths, which fasten to long billets, should sit about four finger-widths below the saddle pad to reduce bulk under the leg.
There are three basic styles of girths, with variations on each:
Straight – Equal width from end to end. Appropriate for most disciplines and body types. However, a horse with a narrow, forward girth line might find a straight girth pinches the elbows.
Contoured (aka anatomic) – Tapers away from the elbows and widens at the belly, offering freedom of shoulder movement and less likelihood of chafing.
Roper – This Western-only design, widens through the centre into a diamond shape to help spread pressure across a greater area and stabilize the saddle.
It’s time to consider which of the many materials – natural and synthetic – will be best, remembering that the girth or cinch should be soft, flexible and comfortable for your horse. Ideally, it also wicks sweat away from the body and allows heat dissipation to thwart sores and chafing.
Pros: Durable, traditional English look, comfortable.
Cons: Regular cleaning/conditioning required to maintain suppleness. Expensive.
Notes: Cared-for, leather is long-lasting and can improve with age.
Neoprene (synthetic rubber)
Pros: Non-slip, very easy to clean, repels moisture.
Cons: Little to no heat dissipation or wicking. Can crack. Some horses are allergic.
Notes: Some models feature airholes or waffle pattern for some breathability.
Mohair string (Angora goat hair)
Pros: Western traditional, strong, breathable, dries well, cool.
Cons: Gets dirty easily. Difficult to clean. Can cause galling if too loose. Expensive but less so for mohair blends.
Notes: Nylon, polyester, cotton, alpaca also used for string.
Synthetic fleece/genuine wool or sheepskin
Pros: Soft, economical, washable.
Cons: Can become matted over time. Easily picks up sticks, burrs, leaves, etc.
Notes: Outer side usually nylon webbing.
Pros: Inexpensive, absorbs moisture.
Cons: Not long lasting. Can get hard, stiff with use. Loses strength when wet.
Notes: Often combined with other materials like rayon.
Pros: Durable, washable.
Cons: Doesn’t absorb moisture. No stretch.
Notes: More often used as outer covering or backing.
Other materials you might see include: gels, foam, memory foam, even PVC.
At the End
The quality and integrity of girth/cinch ends is as important as what’s in between. While western cinches traditionally were fastened with a cinch tie knot, most riders now use large-ring buckles. English buckles are fairly standard, although new designs feature spring-loaded tongues for easier adjustment and security.
Where English girth ends differ is the shape and whether they’re elasticized.
Humane (or equalizer) ends consist of a V-shape buckle system that provides even pressure on both billets and makes tightening easier. Split-ends are common, especially those with elastic inserts, which themselves are a point of occasional debate.
Fastening is undeniably easier with elastic and many, like Vickie Keam whose REM Saddlery in southern Alberta builds custom English and western saddles, believe it offers “a little give, so the horse has a little bit of relief when they breathe.”
But elastic on one end? Some feel it causes a saddle to pull to the side. Both ends? Might promote overtightening.
When is Tight Too Tight?
Too much cinch or girth tension can create discomfort right from the neck, sternum and elbows to even as far back as the stifle, Keam said. And, if the horse’s ability to breathe is compromised, performance may be affected, especially during sports requiring high-cardiovascular effort.
On the flipside, a too-loose girth puts the rider at risk of a slipping saddle and creates problems for the horse. Keam compared it to carrying a child on your shoulders. If you don’t have a good grip, “You’re always compensating, trying to keep that child up there. But if you grab his legs and run, that child feels pretty secure. It’s the same for the horses. They can move better because they’re not compensating for shifting weight on top.”
Line ‘er Up
Fastened, a girth will naturally end up at the girth line. The girth or cinch must fall perpendicularly at this spot or the saddle will slip, usually forward, impinging on shoulder and leg movement.
“It’s so important, getting, not only your saddle lining up with your horse’s girth line, but your girth lining up with your girth line,” McGill stressed.
Keam agreed. “A straight girth is so important. You can’t have a girth on an angle or you don’t have a tight girth,” said Keam, who is also an equine osteotherapist. “Truckers will tell you, when you’re tying a load down, your lines have to be straight.”
McGill reminds riders that, “One girth won’t last forever. Some horses are just sensitive and you have to change your girth fairly regularly because it becomes uncomfortable or hard, or it’s not the correct shape.”
Take time to find an appropriate, comfortable girth or cinch that suits your purposes, fits correctly and, most importantly, that your horse likes. Then check it regularly for dirt, wear, or stiffening. He will thank you and it will go a long way toward many safe, productive hours in the saddle.
Shoulder Relief Girths and Cinches
U.S.-based Total Saddle Fit purports to have started a “functional girth movement” with its Shoulder Relief Girth. According to promo material, the girth “changes the position and angle of the billets to prevent the saddle from interfering with the shoulder.” A two-inch offset behind the shoulders “redirects the billet line and prevents the saddle from being pulled forward.” The company also features a new, patent-pending version with elastic, said to facilitate chest expansion during respiration, and a western cinch.
McGill, who offers her clients a shoulder-relief brand with a seven-day trial period, said the design has merit. She cautioned, however, that it can move the saddle into a different position, affecting the fit, and that it will not suit every horse. “It’s really designed for the horse that has a saddle that wants to go forward or up onto his neck or has a girth line that doesn’t line up with the saddle,” she said.
An English/Western Hybrid
For western riders who have trouble doing up the cinch, or would like a way to tighten up while astride, B.C. treeless saddle creator Nickers Saddlery has another option that acts kind of like a girth/cinch combo. The Sensation Ride Common Sense Cinch’s has a fixed latigo that goes through the rigging and attaches back onto itself with roller buckles on each side. With no need for latigos on the saddle, bulk under the rider is reduced. The cinch has an elastic insert that offers some stretch. Removable felt, neoprene or wool covers are also available.