Photo: The Horse Staff

Like an ill-fitting pair of shoes that makes your feet sore—or creates a blister on your little toe—a saddle can create a sore on your horse's back if it doesn't fit right. A girth sore might show up the first time you ride your horse in the spring. This could seem strange because you used that same cinch all last summer and it didn't cause a problem. However, your horse is soft and fat after his layoff and his skin is more tender. The girth rubbing on tender skin (with a layer of fat underneath it) was like you suddenly doing a lot of hand work without gloves; unless the skin on your hands has a chance to toughen up gradually, you will get blisters and raw spots.

Sore Story

The first sign of trouble might be a dry spot when you take the saddle off (the extra pressure in a small area has inhibited circulation and the horse was unable to sweat) or ruffled hair. The pressure or rubbing might break off some hair, leaving a rough-looking area at that spot. The hair might be standing up rather than lying smoothly. If you keep riding that horse with problem tack, he will develop a sore.

A sore starts as inflammation of the skin, and you should be able to feel it before you can actually see it. If you run your hand over the horse's back, you might find a raised, hot, or swollen area. If you continue to use the horse, this lump is subjected to more rubbing (since it protrudes upward), making the condition worse.

Too much pressure in one area can kill skin cells due to lack of proper circulation; blood is pressed out of that spot. A sore results if enough cells die. The affected skin sloughs off. The tissue death is called pressure necrosis. Sometimes there is no broken skin, but the new hair comes in white, creating a permanent mark. An old open sore that heals might also have hair grow in white.

Causes

The tack we use on our horses often causes saddle and girth sores. If a cinch or saddle pad is dirty or has a rough spot, or a saddle doesn't fit right, the end result is usually a sore on the horse. Some sores are caused by the way we ride. A rider out of balance with his horse can create as many problems as an unbalanced pair of saddle bags; the uneven weight distribution puts more pressure on one side of the saddle than the other.

Saddle and girth sores are common in horses which are ridden hard, or ridden with poorly fitting tack, or ridden with tack that moves around too much or puts pressure on certain areas. Barney Fleming, DVM, past president of the American Endurance Ride Conference (AERC), and ride veterinarian has seen a lot of horses which have gone a lot of miles.

"The cause of a sore is fairly obvious—uneven pressure or localized pressure," he said. "It doesn't take very far down a trail, or very long during a competition, to create skin damage that eventually becomes a sore. A piece of latigo or a saddle string under the saddle can within minutes create an area that will make an actual sore if that pressure continues."

Most sores are caused by pressure or chafing. "Pressure damages the skin and the body's reaction to that is swelling," he adds. "This compounds the problem if you don't take care of it. Common things that cause pressure sores are fanny packs, saddle bags, attachments to the saddle, etc., that create uneven pressure or are rubbing back and forth. Another common cause is a wrinkle in a pad or dirt under the pad."

Types of Sores

A "sitfast" is a plug of dead tissue caused by pressure necrosis. This is a hard skin lesion similar to a corn on a human toe (from an ill-fitting shoe). The dead spot might be just in the skin, or could extend deeper (cone-shaped) into subcutaneous tissues, with the largest part protruding slightly above the skin surface. A sitfast can be caused by an ill-fitting saddle, one too small for the weight of the rider (saddle bars too short, pressing into the horse's back at the loins), or one with uneven weight distribution. The latter problem can occur when a rider sits crooked or slops around in the saddle, sits too far back, or carries baggage that is unevenly distributed—like a rifle scabbard or one saddle bag heavier than the other. The plug of dead tissue irritates the surrounding areas when a saddle is used. It might have to be surgically removed by your veterinarian.

A saddle gall is bruising under the skin caused by too much rubbing and pressure, and it is quite painful to the horse. Wet skin (either from sweat or tacking up a wet horse) can adhere to the saddle pad or cinch and move with it, rupturing some of the tissues in the skin or beneath it, allowing serum to leak into surrounding tissues. The area might be raw, or swollen, when you unsaddle.

Heat rash can be caused by a dirty or non-porous saddle pad, or be an allergic reaction to the pad's synthetic material or a laundry detergent used to wash the pad. Over time, repeated heat rashes can lead to sores. Some horses have very sensitive backs, and they might have problems with certain kinds of pads or blankets. Heat rash can usually be prevented by using a thick, clean, porous pad that lets air through. A pad that allows air under the saddle (or a girth that "breathes") keeps the skin cooler via sweat evaporation.

Heather Smith Thomas

Lumps in the saddle lining or something as simple as fir needles or sagebrush leaves that brush off in front of your saddle and work their way under the pad can inhibit blood flow to the areas of skin underneath them. A good inspection of tack is important before you use it, and you should make sure the horse's back and pad are clean before and during a ride.

"If the fleece lining of a saddle is worn off, this may expose screws or brads, or a joint of leather (overlap that's a little thicker than the rest), etc.," explains Fleming. "The reason for the fleece covering is to protect the horse's back.

"A lot of people have trouble with different types of pads, and some people swear by certain kinds as best," he continues. "Saddle fit is most important. There are many different remedies for correcting saddle fit."

Some people use treeless saddles. "I'm not sure that this eliminates saddle fit problems, but it does help if you have to use the same saddle on more than one horse (with different shaped backs)," says Fleming. "I am not recommending treeless saddles; I'm just saying they conform a lot easier to different backs.

"There are also some sophisticated scientific fitting methods, such as an electronic sheet you can put on the horse's back," he says. "You put the saddle on top of that and have the rider ride around the ring, and it records the difference in pressure on a computer. You can see exactly where the pressure points are, and the uneven places."

Sores are common when a soft horse is ridden too long or hard the first time or two after a layoff. Extra fat might allow the saddle to roll around too much, or create too much movement in the soft skin behind the elbow at the girth. Conversely, a thin horse can develop a sore if he doesn't have enough flesh on his bones to provide some natural padding. A horse which changes shape during riding season (starting out fat and ending up thinner as he gets in better shape) can develop sores if the saddle no longer fits the way it did when he was fatter. A horse with low withers might develop sores because the saddle must be cinched tighter (creating more pressure) to keep it from turning or moving forward. A saddle too long for the horse's back might "bridge," putting too much pressure at withers and loin rather than evenly distributing weight over the back.

The most common locations for sores are on either side of the withers (caused by a saddle tree that is too narrow or wide for the horse or that pitches forward), at the top of the withers (from a tree too wide, sitting too low on the withers), or over the loins (from too much weight in one spot, too long of a saddle, or bridging). Sores can occur if the saddle moves too much (going forward on a horse with low withers, if it moves backward and forward when going up or down hills) or if it is not adjusted properly. A saddle that moves to one side on a round-backed, low-withered horse will make the rider crooked, putting uneven weight on the horse's back.

The way you ride can make a difference in whether the horse gets a saddle sore. If a rider is only a passenger and not moving with the horse properly, there is more risk for a tack gall, sore back, or saddle sore due to weight in the wrong place. On a long ride, the biggest factor might be a tired rider rather than the length of time the saddle is on the horse.

"Keep in mind that if you, the rider, are hurting, you'll transfer that to the horse; you won't be riding properly," says Fleming. "The horse is extremely sensitive to balance. You can sit on the horse and turn your head one inch, and the horse feels it."

If you have a sore leg and put more weight on the other side, or are just riding more stiffly than usual, you can make the horse sore because of the uneven weight distribution or your inability to move "with" the horse.

"Whether or not you actually create an open wound-type sore depends on how badly you are riding and how long you are doing it," says Fleming.

Treating a Sore

"A common mistake in treating a saddle sore or trying to prevent or control one is to add padding," says Fleming. "If a horse starts to get a sore, many people put on two pads. You need to do exactly the opposite. You want to cut away wherever the problem is, and get rid of that pressure.

"Whatever is causing that pressure can only be eliminated if you put some space between the sore spot and what's been rubbing the horse. When I find a sore on an endurance horse, I send the rider off to find a sharp knife to cut a hole in that pad! The rider may be a little upset, cutting up a $60 pad, but it helps the horse."

"Medication-wise, just about anything can be used on a saddle or girth sore," he says. "I'm a big believer in putting something on a girth sore that's soothing and lubricating. You want to keep it soft, and it doesn't matter what you use; even petroleum jelly works well. It doesn't have to be medicated if it's not an open wound. Neosporin or some other kind of antibiotic ointment can be used if the skin is broken. Bacteria can be opportunistic and make it worse. Petroleum jelly can be used, even on an open sore; I'd rather see a rider use that than nothing."

Once a sore starts, it can be hard to heal unless you quit riding the horse (to give the raw area a chance to keep from being irritated) and unless you can adjust the tack so it doesn't rub. If a sore is repeatedly rubbed or constantly re-injured by the same ill-fitting saddle, it might develop thick scar tissue. If you must keep riding the horse, change saddles or cinches, or adjust it so it doesn't rub. If you can't change saddles, try a pad that distributes pressure better, or cut a hole in the pad (larger than the sore) to take the pressure off that area.

Regarding swelling, he says it's best to let that take care of itself, especially if you don't use the horse again until it goes down. "Sometimes swelling will move, and people will wonder why. It's just gravity; the body has produced some fluid to protect the area, and it just gravitates to a lower spot. This is part of the process of the swelling going away."

Old-time horsemen often used ice on a really bad gall, especially over the backbone. "Ice won't hurt it, but I'm not sure that it will really change anything," says Fleming.

Whether or not you can continue using the horse will depend on how bad the sore is, and whether you can eliminate what's rubbing or pressing on that area. "If you can move the girth or change it, you may be able to keep riding," he says. "If you discover you have a buckle that is poking the horse, and can move it, you can probably keep riding."

Prevention

"One thing most horse people do already, which is just common sense, is to thoroughly groom the horse prior to tacking up," says Fleming. "A tiny amount of dirt that you can't even see with the naked eye may change the contour of the horse's back. If you put pressure on that, it can make a sore."

It's like the princess and the pea; no matter how much padding you put over that tiny lump, the horse will still feel it—and the extra pressure can accentuate its effect.

After getting the horse's back (and girth area) as clean as possible, take care in the way you tack up the horse. Put the pad and saddle on ahead of normal position and slide them back into place, going with the lay of the hair. Never pull a pad or saddle forward; this ruffles the hair. If it's cinched up tight and ridden in this position, it might create irritation that could lead to a sore. When readjusting your saddle out on the trail, lift it up and put it more forward of its normal position, sliding it back into place—to avoid rubbing the hair (and sweaty dirt, if there is any on the horse's back from his exertions) the wrong way.

Regarding girth sores, there are many good girth materials today that we didn't have in earlier years, such as neoprene. "We got by with rope/string girths for a long time, just because they have some give and conform to the horse, but some of the newer materials are better. Obviously, an old leather strap pulled up tight will put some unusual pressures on the girth area, particularly at the elbow. The elbow hits the girth or cinch at every stride."

For proper girth fit, make sure that the girth is long enough so the buckle doesn't come into contact with the elbow.

The elbow doesn't touch the girth when the horse is standing, so you don't always think about it, but when the forearm moves back and forth, the elbow comes in contact with the cinch.

If a sore is caused by the cinch ring or buckle, adjust it to contact the horse in a different place, and pad it. If the sore is in the soft, movable tissue behind the elbow, use a softer material or a neoprene girth that creates less friction. The best way to avoid girth sores is to use a non-abrasive cinch that fits the horse, and toughen the girth skin gradually—with short, easy rides—after any extensive layoff. Sometimes a horse's conformation makes more problems in fitting a girth or cinch because of the elbow's relationship to the girth area.

"This is one reason some people make saddles with center girths or a girth that's movable," says Fleming. That way the cinch can be moved away from the elbow on certain horses. Rigging that sits too far forward can rub the skin behind the elbows. "On an endurance ride when I see a problem developing, I may stop the rider and tell him or her to figure out a way to move that girth back two inches and eliminate the constant contact and rubbing."

However, if the horse's girth line (narrowest part of the chest) is close to the elbow, moving the girth back will not help as the girth will naturally slide forward into the narrowest spot.

If an old sore is thickened or contains scar tissue, care must be taken to avoid putting any extra pressure on it. If it's a girth sore, you can pad or move the girth so there's less abrasion on it.

"If it's a saddle sore, you take the pressure off it," says Fleming. "There will always be more pressure there because it's thicker now. I wouldn't stop using the horse just because he has scars; the body has done a lot to protect itself. You just need to keep from adding pressure to the thick spot."

Tack Hygiene

Clean tack is always important—not only in preventing sores, but also in minimizing the risk of passing a fungus or some other contagious skin problem from one horse to another. "Cleanliness is much less irritating than dirt. God made dirt, and dirt don't hurt, except when there's an open wound, to use the old saying," he says. "On any activity that has any length of duration, such as a trail ride or a long round of competition, inspection of tack is crucial. The good riders, the conscientious people that I see, spend as much time dealing with tack at a rest period as they do with food. They will pull off the tack, inspect it and the horse, look and feel and adjust."

Materials that can be wiped clean are best, rather than something you must wash and dry. Neoprene girths often work wonders for horses with tender skin; they produce less friction and rubbing, and can be rinsed off after (or even during) a ride and be wiped clean and dry immediately.

Take-Home Message

As with most problems, it's always better to prevent saddle and girth sores than have to treat and deal with them. While they can certainly pop up quickly and unexpectedly, there are things you can do to minimize the risk. And if your horse does end up getting a sore, take care of it quickly by removing pressure and applying some sort of lubricating or antibiotic ointment.