Girth Galls and Saddle Sores

Saddle sore and scars on a horse's back.
Saddle sore and scars on a horse's back. Image Credit::Bob Langrish /Dorling Kindersley /Getty Images

Girth Galls and Saddle Sores:

Girth galls and saddle sores can occur for a number of reasons. Most are minor, but left untreated can cause damage, scaring and discomfort. Here's how to identify, treat and prevent girth galls and saddle sores.

Other Names for of Girth Galls and Saddle Sores:

Girth Galls, Saddle Sores, Blisters, Girth Sores, Pressure Sores, Saddle Galls, Harness Sores, Harness Galls

Causes of Girth Galls and Saddle Sores:

Girth galls, saddle sores and sores that occur under 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 leads to saddle sores. Occasionally, a foreign object like a burr, grass haw or wood chip may become lodged between tack and horse, causing chaffing. Some horses with very sensitive skin are prone to saddle and girth sores and require extra care.

Symptoms of Girth Galls and Saddle Sores:

Saddle soars and girth galls may appear as slight rubs where just the hair is missing, or 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 any where the girth or cinch lies. Very severe saddle sores can form deep 'holes' that can become infected. Left untreated, permanent damage and scaring 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.

Treatment of Girth Galls and Saddle Sores:

On an open sore, sponge the sore and area around it with saline solution and cover it with an soothing ointment or cream. Many people like creams or lotions with calendula or aloe vera. Purple gentian spray may also be used. After finding tiny dime sized sores on Trillium, I applied a zinc oxide paste that I keep in my first aid kit. You may choose to use something with an antibiotic in it. The main goal is to keep the area clean and the skin in good condition. Diaper or zinc oxide cream can also help 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.)

Prevention of Girth Galls and Saddle Sores:

Keep your tack clean. A build up of sweat and grit may irritate a horse's skin causing 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 rubbing or pinching, so check the condition of your tack .

Grooming is very important to prevent sores. Trillium 'pecks' at her chest area to bite at flies, covering the area between her front legs with saliva and chewed hay bits. I have to clean this area carefully so there is no chance the dirt will cause a sore. Because the dirt is so encrusted I 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. If your saddle constantly rubs back and forth as you ride, it could indicate a poorly fitting saddle. A 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 covercan prevent chaffing as well.

Preventing Sores and Galls on 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 salt water 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 that don't fit well sit better, but it's a bit like wearing thick socks in badly fitting shoes: the pad may relieve the problem in the short term, but the saddle just doesn't fit and needs to be replaced or re-stuffed if it's an English saddle.