University of Vermont AAHS


Why a Loose Cinch Is Not an Inherent Risk

Jan Dawson
President, AAHS

  [reproduced from Winter 2002 Caution:Horses]

Horsemen know that cinches loosen for many reasons. All cinches will become looser on some horses after riding a few minutes. Some cinches will become looser on some horses. Some horses are masterful in their ability to thwart a horseman's effort to get the cinch tight. Does this mean that a loose cinch is an "inherent risk" of riding a horse? No, and there are several reasons why not. 

First, and most obvious, a saddle is not an inherent part of horseback riding. Horseback riding originated without saddles and can still be done in that manner. With the addition of the saddle we have human intervention and we must contemplate the skill with which the saddle is placed on the horse. No question would be raised as to whether the risk were inherent if the saddle were put on backwards, a foot too far back, over the withers, fastened with a back cinch only, or the girth were tied on with twine. Why then excuse equal incompetence with the procedure for tightening the cinch or girth? 

Second, as far back as the 1950's most horsemen seemed to know that one needed to check the cinch or girth AGAIN after several minutes of riding. I heard this from my grandfather, several cavalry instructors, at summer camps and from people running trail rides who would always stop the ride and check all the cinches. It was common knowledge that if one did not do this one might have a loose saddle. 

It was also common knowledge that there were ways to prevent the loose saddle. And if one's saddle became loose and slipped it was often a source of great amusement because everyone knew that someone had made a mistake. The slipping saddle was never viewed as an unavoidable consequence. 

Third, dude string horses, horses for hire, camp horses and horses that have had many novice owners include among their numbers some savvy individuals. These horses raise bloating to avoid the tightening cinch to an art form. As kids we were taught to tighten cinches and girths in stages, to tighten from the off side and to check the cinch several times on the ride. We all also usually knew which horses were these clever individuals but the procedure was drilled into us.  

Fourth, the shape of the horse must be recognized and taken into consideration. The shape of the horse will affect the fit of the saddle, critical to maintaining correct placement on a horse's back. It will also affect the accuracy of the cinch or girth check if this is performed in the most common manner. 

When the check is made by placing fingers under the cinch just above the horse's elbow, the feel will be affected by the shape of the horse's barrel. A round horse will allow the fingers to feel a tight cinch while on a slab-sided horse the cinch will feel loose even when the horse is nearly cut in half with pressure. 

If the cinch is checked under the belly of the horse the reading will be accurate and this is where the cinch needs to be tight. The old savvy horses are probably not looking for this either. One finger under the cinch or girth shows that it is too tight, three is too loose. The fingers should be placed from back to front so that when removed the hair will be pulled back the same way.

All of these things are routinely done by competent horsemen and have been for decades. To say that a loose cinch or turning saddle cannot be avoided because it is an inherent risk of riding a horse is to say that whoever has the responsibility for putting the saddle on the horse need not be competent to check for fit, or to tighten the cinch correctly. It is to say that incompetent, untrained staff is also an inherent risk of riding a horse and that argument is probably not going to fly. 

It also says that once the ride has left the barn whatever happens, happens, even though we KNOW that many of those cinches will need to be tightened a second and even a third time to make them safe. This makes that slipping saddle accident foreseeable in many cases due to lack of proper procedure and training. Even scarier is that most wranglers even know which horses will have loose cinches or girths if they have been with the program a while. 

To be on the safe side in litigation a recommended policy would include the following minimum criteria: 

1. Have a saddle fitted to each horse. Not that each horse has to have his own saddle but that saddles are marked for which horses they fit and which and how many pads go with the saddles and horses. Especially round horses will need a three-prong breast collar to keep the saddle from turning but such a horse should not be used for an unbalanced novice, especially a large one, under any circumstances. 

2. Allow adequate time to saddle horses so that cinches can be tightened in stages. This may add five to ten minutes tops and may add nothing if the wrangler simply rearranges the chores around this process. It will greatly reduce the number of "bloaters" in the string and lessen the chance of loosened cinches and girths. 

3. Note which horses are "bloaters" or are "cinchy" and need special attention. Add a procedure to work on improving them for their own comfort and for customers' safety. 

4. Absolutely check cinches and girths 10 to 15 minutes into EACH ride and lesson and do it carefully. Horses that resist this procedure on the trail should not be used or should be ridden in by a Wrangler prior to going out. THIS PROCESS SHOULD BE REPEATED EVERY TIME THE HORSE GOES OUT REGARDLESS OF WHETHER HIS CINCH OR GIRTH HAS BEEN LOOSENED. 

Check the cinch three times, once before the rider gets on, once right after due to saddle compression, especially with saddles constructed of man-made materials, and finally again 10 or 15 minutes into the ride ... and as many times after that as you need to feel comfortable. 

5. Make sure that you have this covered in your procedure manual (which you need to have) so that you will not omit thoroughly training any staff member. Staff members learn many tasks and they should be taught how to put a saddle on so it will stay in place throughout the ride or lesson. 

6. Remember that failure to train staff or learn and teach proper procedure for doing things, especially things on which someone else's safety depends, are not inherent risks of riding a horse.

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