If you’re looking for a bargain dressage girth to fit long billets, you aren’t going to end up with leather, but you can get a good-looking, safe, serviceable girth. We’ve seen a lot of $3,000 saddles held onto horses with $50 girths.
We set out to survey a representative sample of budget dressage girths to see if they could get the job done while saving money for something else, such as lessons.
Budget girths generally come in two forms, fleece or some sort of synthetic material (usually neoprene) that resembles leather. With the versatility of synthetics, we found that the designs and features can be more varied in budget girths than with many leather choices. You can pretty well find a girth to address any issue and not spend a lot to do it.
The first thing we want in a girth is safety — no wear spots or slipping. We want the horse to be comfortable, with no rubs or pinching and no restriction of motion. We want the girth to be easy to buckle without a lot of stretch in the elastic that might allow the saddle to turn. We want the girth to be easy to clean and decent to look at.
Even before you decide the style of girth, you need to know the length. It should end well above the elbow, at or below the edges of the saddle pad, so that the buckles don’t add bulk under the rider’s leg. A dressage girth for long billets is roughly 20 inches shorter than a comparable girth for the short billets on a jumping saddle. The length is measured from the ends of the buckles.
The label length is not the same thing as overall length, which is not indicated on the package or in the catalogs. You have to eyeball that for yourself. Most dressage girths have padding behind the buckles and often keepers above the buckles. This padding can be flush with the ends of the buckles or extend well beyond them. If the billets on your saddle hang down under the outer flap of the saddle, you won’t have any problem with the overall length of the girth other than possible bulk under the leg.
However, if your billets are attached to the outer flap, you may have the correct size (buckle to buckle) but the girth still won’t fit your saddle if it jams up against the bottom of the flap. We ran into this problem with several of the girths in this survey. If you measure your horse’s belly, you then need to decide whether you should allow for extra length beyond the ends of the buckles, depending on your type of saddle and where you want the girth to end.
Buying a girth at a tack store may be the easiest, as you can measure everything at the store yourself. Pictures in catalogs can be deceptive, as all the girths appear to be the same overall length, because they’ve been adjusted to line up for the photo. But girths with the length of 28 inches at the buckles might have an overall length of up to 37 inches at the ends.
The elastic at each end of the girth can have as much as 2 inches of give (4 inches overall), and that can increase with use over time. You may want to factor in wiggle room for this if the elastic is stretchy. The stretchiness of the elastic is something else you’ll want to ”test” at the tack shop. (More about this below.)
If you want a contoured girth, you can measure behind your horse’s elbows where the contour should be placed and check this for yourself at the tack shop. If it still doesn’t quite give the clearance you want, then a girth purchased locally is easier to return or exchange.
Another thing to check is the tightness of the keepers, particularly those above the buckles, which were usually two nylon loops in these models, as opposed to a slit found in leather girths. We found these keepers to be particularly tight on some of the girths.
Keepers above the buckles aren’t really necessary and can make buckling harder if the space is tighter than the width of the billet leather. Keepers below the buckles are important to keep the ends of the billets from flapping. (Safety consideration: When girth ends aren’t in the lower keepers, it’s a signal that the girth needs tightening.)
If your horse has sensitive skin, you might as well just start with a fleece girth to begin with. You have choices of cotton and synthetic fleece, often with wicking material such as CoolMax next to the skin and reinforced with nylon. There can be lots of padding, including gel. The fleece girths in our trial generally produced less sweat than the synthetic leather ones. Fleece girths can be thrown in the washer along with your saddle pads and generally air dry quickly, no longer than overnight.
One of our test horses tended to have girth sores and normally hated to have his girth fastened. He did much better with the fleece girth in our trial than he had before with his old girth.
We have seen some contour fleece girths in higher price ranges, but if you want a budget contour girth you’ll probably need to turn to a synthetic leather-like material. In addition to curved shapes, these generally have good designs in their overall use of elastic and nylon reinforcement. They also tend to produce more sweat than either fleece or leather, but we didn’t feel this increased the discomfort of the horse or caused skin problems.
We also applaud the cleanliness of fleece and synthetic girths, which can be soaked in soap and water or run through the washing machine pretty much as often as you want. We ran a wet sponge over the synthetic girths or dipped them in a bucket. This easy road to cleanliness is one area where we prefer these girths over leather.
The biggest concern with any girth is safety, and paramount is whether the girth will allow the saddle to slip. This is always a concern with any girth that has elastic, as did all the girths in this survey except the cord girth. Elastic is easier to buckle, but too much give will allow slippage, and wear over time adds to the stretch factor. Most economy girths come with two layers of heavy-duty elastic at the ends, while some more-expensive girths have three layers. The firmest elastic was found on the Wintec girth.
If your horse’s conformation tends to allow slipping, especially a lack of prominent withers, or your horse is tall and you are short, you’ll want to consider a contour girth as well as particularly stiff elastic at the buckles. You also might want to add a non-slip pad under the saddle pad (such as the Nunn Finer No-Slip pad, www.bitofbritain.com, 888-442-5015). The Professional’s Choice girth in this trial has a good non-slip surface. You may also want to consider having a saddle-fit specialist a look at your horse, a process that can be expensive and lengthy if you need to special order the saddle (see upcoming article).
One horse described by his owner as ”cold-backed” had some slippage while mounting with a fleece girth in our trial, but that girth worked fine on another horse that also had slippage problems with her saddle.
All the girths in our trial performed well. We were particularly pleased with the Wintec Chafeless at $47.80 with its contour shape and firm elastic that kept the saddle securely in place. It has an elastic insert mid-way that equalizes pressure along the length of the girth. It also didn’t extend too far past the buckles, so it went from saddle to saddle easily. It was easy to clean and always looked as good as new.
If you’re looking for a fleece girth, you should start with the Lettia CoolMax Girth at $39.99. The padding is thick, the edges are particularly soft, and the elastic is firm. Our clear best buy is the classic Centaur Trevira cord girth, which gets the job done just fine for only $18.70.