At least, that is what people have been telling me over the years.
And by "people" I mean,
the barn owner.
random barn folks hanging on the fence.
a gate steward at a horse show.
a judge at a horse show.
|"Feels tight enough to me!" Harley wears a special contoured girth, made by Prestige, to prevent the saddle from being pulled into his shoulders due to a forward girth spot. Worth every penny!|
In contrast, there are a handful of individuals who have told me that the girth does not need to be super tight if the saddle fits horse and rider and I have read something here and there to support their claims. One of them was a tack professional who designs saddle pads and shims. The other one was a therapeutic riding professional at a certification workshop. She was one of the workshop trainers for instructors and insisted that we check for girth tightness at the sternum of the horse. She explained that if you check for girth tightness at the side, and especially if the girth has elastic ends, you will almost always be able to feel that you can tighten it up a hole or two. I guess this would be true until you run out of holes in the billets!
The workshop trainer asked us to compare the tightness of the girth at the sides and then at the sternum for a horse whose girth had been "tightened up" in typical fashion for lessons. At the horse's sides, the girth had some give and I could easily pull it away from his body. It felt like I could raise it up one more hole. When I felt the girth at the sternum, it almost felt like he was being split in two! I could barely squeeze my fingers between the girth and his body. The workshop trainer told us about the soreness that can develop at the girth spot on horses who are consistently worked with a girth that is too tight. A little prodding or pressure applied at the side of the girth spot may be enough to cause the muscles to tense up or the horse's facial expression to show discomfort. Horses in chronic pain from the girth or other tack may become frustrated and show stronger vices, like ear pinning, head tossing, biting, side-stepping, walking off, or more dangerous behaviors under saddle. As riding instructors, she stressed that it was very important for us to look out for the well-being and happiness of our equine staff. This was as important for our riders and volunteers as it was for the horse. A pony in discomfort can become a dangerous pony very quickly and, of course, no one wants to cause an animal any pain. Girthiness is to be taken seriously as the symptom of a greater problem.
I took this lesson to heart and started checking the girths of all my therapeutic lesson horses at the sternum. I also taught my volunteers to do the same. I had to loosen more girths than I tightened in the beginning, but before long my group of helpers became very good at checking and tightening girths correctly. My lesson horses seemed happier. Some even displayed a reduction in unwanted behavior, like head-tossing while being girthed-up. It is required practice to check the girth several times in a therapeutic lesson, especially if the rider is not independent or able-bodied, so I was constantly monitoring the safety of the girth tightness that I chose for my horses. The "sternum test" really worked! It was an enlightening experience.
I started applying this practice to my own horse. He had not displayed "girthy" behavior, but I still wanted him to be comfortable when I asked him to work. I tightened the girth until it felt secure at the sternum. Looking from the ground, the girth rested snuggly against his sides. I have known horses that hold their breath and pop out their rib cage to protect themselves from the girth, but Harley was not doing this. I rode my horse. The saddle did not shift. If we went on trails and moved at speed or traveled up and down hills, like at the Turkey Trot, my tack stayed secure. Even when Harley is having a "bouncy" day, my saddle stays put. I never think about the girth when I am riding until someone at ground level looks at my saddle billets with wide eyes.
I cannot tell you how many times this had happened. I am standing next to some horse person and he or she glances at the girth for my saddle and suddenly the person's eyes get big. Next, I hear that my girth is too loose. I have tried handling this situation in a number of ways. In the beginning I always got off and tightened the girth. I did not want to worry anyone about safety, especially at a horse show, and, hey, maybe they were right? I do not want to get caught hanging under my horse's belly. Talk about looking like a newbie! However, sometimes I would tighten the girth or ask someone else to tighten it for me (can't seem to reach a dressage girth from the saddle), and then later that same day another person would make the same discovery about my girth. I cannot just keep tightening it!
Other times, I attempted to explain to whomever was trying to save me from certain death, that the girth was tight at the sternum. At this point the person's eyes would usually glaze over or he or she would raise an eyebrow in disbelief. Something about anatomy terms seems to have that effect. Of course, people whom I see all the time, like the barn owner, would listen to me and usually ignore the girth after that, but that did not take care of random new folks. This is where "looking young" is not a good thing. People seem to think that I need help, because I look like I am new to whatever I am doing: riding, teaching, trying on shoes, etc. Just imagine being treated like a novice in everything that you do whenever you meet new people. It gets old really fast. Trust me.
The strategy that has worked the best so far when informed that I am in eminent danger, because the girth securing my saddle is too loose, is to very nonchalantly say,
"It is always like that".
For some reason random people are more likely to accept complacency then they are thoughtful technique. On one occasion, the other person dropped the issue immediately and responded back with,
"Oh, people always say that to me, too."
I am baffled by this, but if it keeps the savers off my back, I am willing to play along. Maybe they assume that I am less concerned with safety than they are or too ignorant in my riding practice to bother with. I do not want to be rude to someone who is trying to look out for a stranger's safety, because there is something to be said for that, but I also need an effective counter response so that I can continue on my way.
Although I use the "sternum test" for all the horses that I tack up, Harley is the only one who triggers action in "concerned girth activists". This has happened with more than one saddle/girth combination. Since I cannot see what his girth looks like when I am on his back, I cannot share their perspective. Do you think that he could have figured out a way to hold himself away from the girth, so that it looks dramatically loose? He is slap-sided, which probably exacerbates the visual effect. I only get these comments when he is standing still and only after riding for a while. When I get off to untack, his girth looks exactly the same as it did when I tacked up. I have tried putting his girth up an extra hole on each side (elastic on both), just in case, but I learned at my last lesson that the "looseness" is still apparent, because my teacher lost her thought while explaining something to me at the end of our lesson. Her eyes, which had dropped to the girth, widened and she stopped midsentence to look up at me and say,
"Your girth has like this much space." She was using her thumb and index finger to measure out about an inch. I had been caught up in the wonderful stuff that she was saying about our work during the lesson and almost didn't realize what she was talking about at first. In the same situation, I am sure that I would feel obligated to share the same information with my own student. My expression sank a bit as I sighed, smiled a little, and whispered,
"It's always like that..."