Girth galls and saddle sores can occur for a number of reasons. Most are minor, but if left untreated, they can cause injury, scarring, and discomfort. Here's how to identify, treat, and prevent girth galls and saddle sores.
Girth Galls, Saddle Sores, Blisters, Girth Sores, Pressure Sores, Saddle Galls, Harness Sores, Harness Galls
Girth galls, saddle sores, and sores that occur under a driving harness are caused by friction. They are similar to a blister that forms from wearing ill-fitting shoes. The sores can be caused by tack that is dirty with a build-up of grime and sweat that grinds the dirt into the horse's skin. Tack that is too tight or stiff and inflexible may cause chaffing that can lead to saddle sores. Occasionally, a foreign object like a burr, grass awn, or wood chip may become lodged between tack and horse, and cause chaffing. Some horses with sensitive skin are prone to saddle and girth sores and require extra care.
Saddle soars and girth galls may appear as slight rubs where just the hair is missing, or as very inflamed, open, blister-like wounds. The hair may not be rubbed off and the gall or sore may show as a swollen lump under the skin—somewhat like an unbroken blister on your foot. The lump can be tiny, or quite large. Girth galls commonly form just behind the elbow of the horse in the girth area, but can occur anywhere the girth or cinch lies. Very severe saddle sores can form deep 'holes' that can become infected. If left untreated, permanent damage and scarring to the skin and underlying muscle can occur. Saddle sores can form anywhere the saddle sits, although they most commonly form underneath the cantle area, or directly under the pommel area, near the loins and withers.
On 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. Purple gentian spray may also be used. Please consult your veterinarian for the most appropriate recommendation for your horse. The main goal is to keep the area clean and the skin in good condition. Diaper or zinc oxide cream can also help to heal and soothe.
Galls or sores that appear as a swelling under the skin can be left. Whether open or closed, no equipment should be placed over the area until it is healed. It will be uncomfortable for your horse to wear a girth, harness, or saddle over an area that is already sore. (Your horse may express its discomfort by behaving badly.)
Keep your tack clean. A build-up of sweat and grit may irritate a horse's skin and cause a sore. If you're trail riding, twigs, burrs, seeds, or other foreign objects can get caught between the horse and its tack. Leather and string girths or cinches can become stiff with age and cause uneven rubbing or pinching, so check the condition of your tack regularly.
Grooming is very important to prevent sores. For example, if your horse 'pecks' at their chest area to bite at flies, they may cover the area between their front legs with saliva and chewed hay bits. You have to clean this area carefully so there is no chance the dirt will buildup and potentially cause a sore. As dirt can become encrusted, use water and a sponge to wash the area before tacking up and put on a spritz of grooming spray to make the job easier next time.
Make sure your tack fits your horse. If your saddle constantly rubs back and forth as you ride, it could indicate a poorly fitting saddle. A too narrow or too wide girth or cinch could cause problems too.
Many people think it's a good thing to do up cinches, girths, and surcingles on harnesses really tight. This could cause pinching. You should be able to slip your hand between the girth and your horse. If your saddle pad or blanket bunches or shifts, try a different shape or material. Often a shifting pad or blanket indicates a poorly fitting saddle. A soft girth or cinch cover can prevent chaffing as well.
Prevention for Horses With Sensitive Skin
Sometimes, despite all efforts to prevent girth galls and saddle sores, you may find you can't seem to prevent them. This happens with horses that have particularly sensitive and thin skin. Often Thoroughbreds and other fine coated horses will have this problem. Just like you break in a new pair of stiff running shoes that are causing blisters on your feet, you will have to let your horse get used to its tack. Some people suggest washing the blister prone areas with saltwater to toughen up the skin. Another strategy is to increase the time the horse is ridden or driven gradually, so the skin has a chance to toughen up.
Fleecy girth or cinch covers can be purchased to put a soft barrier between horse and tack. Pads can help saddles sit better, but it's a bit like wearing thick socks in new shoes: the pad may relieve the problem in the short term. However, it's important for the saddle to fit the specific horse, or it may need to be re-stuffed if it's an English saddle.
Saddle Sores in Horses. Merck Veterinary Manual
Behavior Problems in Horses. Merck Veterinary Manual
UC Davis-led Study Investigates Distribution of Warmblood Fragile Foal Syndrome Allele in Multiple Breeds. UC Davis Veterinary Medicine