Girth galls -- open sores that form just behind a horse's elbow -- may look like minor wounds, but they can be enormously painful to a saddled horse. Imagine walking a mile with an emerging blister on your heel and no sock or bandage to protect the raw flesh, and you get the idea.
Galls are created when the girth pinches and rubs loose folds of skin. They typically occur under one or more of the following conditions:
- The horse's conformation -- usually an upright shoulder, "mutton" withers and a wide torso -- causes the girth to stay very close behind the elbows no matter where the saddle is initially placed.
- A recent tack change or a new saddle may position the girth differently, causing irritation.
- The horse is not well conditioned for his current work, leaving the skin vulnerable to damage.
- A dirty, stiff or ill-fitting girth concentrates friction on the sensitive, mobile skin behind the elbows. Treat girth galls with careful cleaning and application of a thick, protective ointment, such as Ichthammol or Desitin. Then, stop riding the horse (or ride him bareback) until the sore heals completely, which can take as long as three weeks.
Continued girthing will worsen the damage and, no doubt, the horse's attitude about being ridden. If you must ride the horse before the gall is completely healed, armor the sore with a thick layer of ointment, and use a fleece cover over a soft girth. A protective fleece girth cover may work well as a preventive strategy, but it has to be cleaned often to maintain its cushioning properties.
Gall-prone horses may do better in neoprene, string or the hourglass-shaped "balding" girths that produce less friction behind the elbows.
After cinching up whatever model works with your horse's shape and fitness level, lift and stretch each of his forearms forward to settle the girth in the least galling location. If galls persist or recur, consider a change of saddle.
This story first appeared in EQUUS 304, February 2003.
For more information, see "It's A Cinch," EQUUS 147.