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Horse Girths: How Tight is Too Tight? Simple Advice

One of the things that newer riders sometimes struggle with is knowing how tight the girth on their saddle should be. It can be tricky to get the hang of, since we do not want to hurt the horse, but we also need the saddle to be tight enough that it will not slip while mounting and riding. 

What Is a Horse Girth?

The girth is the strap that holds the saddle in place. It connects one side of the saddle to the other. It stretches around the horse, sitting just behind their front legs. In English riding it is called a girth, and in Western riding it is known as the cinch.  Fastening a girth is an essential part of tacking up a horse.

Woman tightening a horse's girth by bracing a hand on the horse's shoulder.

Does the Girth Hurt the Horse?

The girth should not be painful to the horse as long as it is put on correctly, and is not too tight. 1 It is important that it is in the right place, which is a couple of inches behind the horse’s front legs. This keeps the saddle sitting in the right place as well. If it is further back, then the saddle is more likely to slip back and be uncomfortable for the horse. 

To keep the girth from being too tight, it is a good idea to not tighten it all the way right at first. When you first put the saddle on, tighten the girth only to the point where it is snug enough to stay in place, but not tight. Leave it like this while you finish tacking up and walk to the arena.

When you get to the arena, tighten it a little more so it stays snug. Then it is a good idea to walk your horse around the arena for a few minutes before tightening it again and getting on. It is also recommended to walk the horse a bit in between tightening the saddle and mounting up so they adjust to the tightness of the girth before you are in the saddle.  

How to Tell if the Girth is Tight Enough

The girth should only be tight enough to hold the saddle in place while you mount up and ride. Some riders are more balanced than others, and this usually comes with experience. These riders may be able to ride with a slightly looser girth than a rider who is not as balanced in the saddle. It also will depend on the individual horse. Horses that are very round with low withers will need a tighter girth to keep the saddle from slipping to the side. Some horses are also very sensitive about the tightness of their girth, and will act up if it is too tight. 

To make sure your girth is not too tight, try sliding your hand between the horse and the girth. If you are not able to fit your fingers behind the girth, or you have to really force it, then the girth is too tight. It depends on the individual horse, but usually you want to be able to comfortably fit your fingers up to the top knuckle between the girth and the horse.

Some horses need their girth a bit looser than that, and it will take some time to figure out exactly where it needs to be for them to be comfortable and still allow you to mount safely.    

TE girth mint
a western cinch

How to Keep Your Horse From Biting You While Saddling

Some horses do not like having their saddle tightened up. These horses are likely to stomp their feet, and possibly try to bite at you or the saddle during the cinching process.

One way to prevent them from biting you is to tip their nose away from you. If they are already bridled, you can do this by shortening the rein on the opposite side a little, and holding it while you tighten the girth. This way they cannot turn their head far enough to reach you. If you have not put the bridle on yet, you can do the same thing with the halter by tossing the lead rope over their neck from the opposite side and holding onto it while you saddle up.

Since horses that do this are often sensitive to being cinched up, it is advised not to tie them up while saddling. They are more prone to panicking, which can cause a dangerous situation when they are tied to something. It is also recommended to slowly tighten their girth in increments to keep them more comfortable. 

What to Do if Your Horse Holds Their Breath When the Girth is Tightened

Some horses have a tendency to hold their breath and puff themselves up while being saddled. This is likely because they are anticipating the girth being tightened. It causes the girth to not be as tight as it should be once they exhale. If the girth is not tight enough, the saddle can start slipping when you are mounting. It is always good to be aware if your horse does this so you can be prepared.

One way to deal with this is to tighten the girth up, then walk your horse for a lap or two around the arena. Then tighten the girth again. Taking them for a walk will give them time to exhale, and then you will be able to get the girth tightened properly while still safely on the ground. It is also possible to get on and ride them for a lap or two to accomplish the same thing. Just be sure not to forget to tighten up the girth more. Also be careful putting more weight in one stirrup than the other, as this can cause the saddle to slip if the girth is too loose. 

Why Some Horse Saddles Have Two Girths

Western saddles will sometimes have two girths, called cinches. They have the regular one at the front of the saddle, and also a “back-cinch” that attaches on either side of the saddle behind the stirrups.

The back-cinch goes around the barrel of the horse. This one should not be as tight as the cinch at the front, but should be snug against the horse’s barrel. This cinch is designed to keep the saddle in place and not slide forward or lift up at the back. This helps to avoid putting additional pressure on the horse’s withers and shoulders. These cinches are used in Western riding, typically when trail riding or events involving speed and maneuverability.  

What to Do if Your Saddle is Slipping

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The girth is designed to keep the saddle from slipping. However, the saddle may still slip for a few reasons. One reason would be that the girth is not tight enough. It is always important to remember to check how tight your girth is before you get on a horse. If you feel it slipping a bit while riding, don’t hesitate to check it again, or ask someone on the ground to check it. The saddle may also be slipping because it does not fit your horse correctly. Horses come in all shapes and sizes, and saddles are not necessarily a one-size-fits-all item. 

Conclusion

While the girth does have an important function in keeping the saddle in place, it is important to remember that it does not need to be over-tightened in order to do so. Part of keeping your horse happy and comfortable while going for a ride is making sure the girth is used correctly.

Research sources used for this article:

  1. Bowen, A. G., Goff, L. M., & McGowan, C. M. (2017). Investigation of myofascial trigger points in equine pectoral muscles and girth-aversion behaviorJournal of Equine Veterinary Science48, 154-160. []

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