Product Review: StretchTec shoulder relief girth by Total Saddle Fit

A product test in the challenging environment of Australia's Blue Mountains! Australian-based Style My Ride blog editor Jill reviews the new StretchTec girth, designed to revolutionise saddle fit and comfort.

As horse owners, we are constantly aware of the effect that physical discomfort can have on a horse’s performance. Gastric ulcers, a poorly fitted saddle, musculoskeletal problems and other medical issues can cause annoyance or even pain. Attempts by the horse to communicate the problem are often dismissed as bad behaviour, but fortunately attitudes in the equestrian world are changing.

Fitting a saddle to a horse used to be a fairly basic skill. As long as the saddle didn’t sit directly on the horse’s spine, it was probably OK. However, in recent times, professional saddle fitters are now advising horse owners that finding the right saddle can be a complicated business. After all, the horse is expected to carry weights of 60kg or more on a complex system of muscles, bones and nerves that never evolved to be weight-bearing. Saddles are designed to distribute weight as evenly as possible along the horse’s back, but this design only works if the saddle fits correctly.

As a pony-mad teenager in Western Australia, I was lucky enough to be instructed by a variety of trainers. Some were BHS-qualified (a prestigious UK qualification), some had impressive high-level competitive experience and others had simply chosen to spend their time teaching small children how to post on placid, tolerant school ponies. We were all taught the basics of saddle fitting: make sure the hair under the saddle is smooth and flat, check that the saddle is not pressing down on the horse’s back and remove any dirt or grass seeds in the saddle or girth area (this last task was particularly difficult in winter, when dealing with hairy ponies who lived full-time in 50 acres of bushland with no rugs). Above all, we were cautioned not to let the saddle slide back too far, as this would irritate or hurt the horse and cause him or her to buck. If the horse was built uphill causing the saddle to slide back, we used breastplates to secure the saddle so it didn’t slip. I lived in fear of letting my saddle slip a few inches backwards as I believed this would cause my mild-mannered horse to turn into a fire breathing dragon and launch me into the stratosphere.

I was taught by trainers who had competed from Pony Club to Olympic level and not one of them ever told me something that now seems self-evident – make sure your saddle doesn’t interfere with the movement of your horse’s shoulders. A horse with weight pressing down uncomfortably on the shoulders will most likely be reluctant to move forward freely and unable to lift the neck and shoulders and engage the hindquarters properly, making true collection very difficult or impossible.

As we begin to understand more about horse physiology, some companies are offering improved tack design to complement this new information. The Shoulder Relief Girth from Total Saddle Fit aims to change the position and angle of the billets to prevent shoulder interference and allow more movement at the elbow. By reducing the saddle’s tendency to be pulled forward into the shoulders, the Shoulder Relief Girth also reduces unwanted saddle movement. The new StretchTec version of this girth allows for chest expansion, offering less respiratory restriction and even girth contact on the horse's chest while in work. This sounds like an amazing piece of tack, but how does it perform for the everyday horse and rider? Style My Ride decided to find out.

The horse I used for this trial is a 7 year old Standardbred mare. Standardbreds are gaited horses, bred for harness racing. They are usually big movers when walking and trotting, using their shoulders to trot or pace with considerable speed.