Saddle Fit & Girth Galls
Girth itch is an infection similar to ringworm that occurs typically in hot, sweaty, humid weather. It typically affects younger horses or those who are immuno-suppressed, and can be spread by dirty tack or using brushes on multiple horses. It starts as dandruff-like raised flakes in the girth area, then spreads, and eventually can turn into an open wound that becomes much more difficult to heal. Tack that is too tight or stiff and inflexible may cause this chafing that leads further to saddle sores. Occasionally, a foreign object like a burr may become lodged between tack and horse, causing chafing. Some horses with very sensitive skin are prone to saddle and girth sores and require extra care.
This problem can be treated medically, but it is typically caused (and worsened) by an ill-fitting girth. You may try different types of girths to see if there is any positive effect, but girth sores can happen to you regardless of whether you use a $250 leather girth or a $30 synthetic girth. It could possibly be a reaction to either the tanning process or cleaner used, or perhaps because of dirt (sand or the like) getting in between the girth and your horse’s skin.
Another part of the problem might simply be the shape and design of the girth you’re using. We have found the best girths for English saddles to be shaped about 5" or 8” wide in the middle, slightly cut out in the elbow area, with elastic on both sides. These girths are super soft and smooth on the bottom so no dirt gets in.
Treatment of Girth Galls:
If the problem has progressed to an open sore, sponge the sore and area around it with saline solution and cover it with a soothing ointment or cream. Many people like creams or lotions with calendula or aloe vera. I have found that zinc oxide also works well. You may want to choose something with an antibiotic in it. The main goal is to keep the area clean and the skin in good condition. However, whether the sore is open or closed, no equipment should be placed over the area until it is healed. It will be painful for your horse to wear anything over an area that is sore!
Saddlers generally use mixed or pure chemically tanned leather on saddles and girths, but never on bridles, as this would cause the skin/hair on the horse’s head to flake. Therefore, for bridles, natural (vegetable) tanned leather is preferred. The tanning solution is made out of bark from the oak trees.
The reason for the industry to use chrome, mix-, or chemical tanning is so the sweat won’t penetrate into the girth. Unfortunately, most riders do not properly clean their tack after each use, which leads to replacement of tack more often would be necessary with proper care.
Taking proper care of your equipment, and thereby extending its lifespan, is very important for both your horse and your pocketbook. There are many products on the market to help you take care of your saddle and tack – and regular cleaning and maintenance is just as important as regularly cleaning yourself. It’s all about safety and keeping your investment working.
I recommended that you use only oil that is manufactured for use on leather - use baby oil on babies and olive oil in salads, because that’s where they belong.
If you use any type of soap (glycerine or otherwise), make sure you rinse it off completely. Soap will eventually eat through the leather just as sweat will, so you’re better off just using water if you have nothing else. The main goal is to get the sweat off the leather tack. (Think of washing your hands. You rinse the soap off completely and then apply a conditioning hand lotion).
Beeswax cream for saddles works very well as a moisturizing conditioner. We recommend to use oil very sparingly on your saddle and tack, and only on those parts of the saddle or tack that don’t touch you. In some English saddles, excessive use of oil on the seat will actually soak through the laminated layers of the trees (most English saddles are still made using Beachwood) and loosen the glue to the extent that your tree may be compromised to the point of breakage. We recommend a very light oiling only once when your saddle is new and thereafter to stay with a beeswax conditioning cream to keep the leather supple and looking new.
Since improper saddle fit is a key possible culprit in causing not only girth galls, but also saddle sores and other skin irritations – make sure to have tack fit checked at least annually to ensure everything is working together as it should. There are saddle fitters who regularly come to the mid-south who will be able to help you evaluate correct fit of your saddle.
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