With such a dizzying array of shapes, materials, colours and patterns, it’s sometimes hard to know where to start when choosing a saddle pad.
It’s important to first know what a saddle pad is supposed to do and what it shouldn’t be used for. The primary functions are to absorb sweat from the horse’s back and to protect the saddle’s underside from dirt and sweat, which break down leather over time. Pads can also help distribute pressure from the weight of both rider and saddle, absorb shock, wick away moisture, dissipate heat and protect the horse’s delicate back from friction.
A saddle pad should not be used to permanently correct poor saddle fit. No pad in the world, no matter how expensive or high-tech, is going to help that. And, according to B.C.’s Meredith Dean, of Trading Post Feed and Tack, thicker isn’t necessarily better either. “A lot of people think their saddle doesn’t fit, so they put on a thick pad. That might be creating more of a problem. I see that often,” said Dean, who has helped many people fit their English and western saddles in three decades of owning and operating the Trading Post, which is located just south of Nanaimo.
She uses the popular comparison of thick socks – they don’t make loose shoes fit better, but increase the likelihood of sore feet and blisters. Bulky saddle pads can create pressure points, destabilize the saddle and hinder horse-and-rider contact. “If your saddle fits really well, you want a thin pad because you don’t want to change the fit,” said Dean.
A well-fitted saddle pad should:
• Never place pressure on the spine or withers.
• Match the contours of the horse’s back and saddle with about five centimetres (two inches) of pad extending beyond the saddle edges.
• Not alter the pressure distribution or balance of the rider or saddle.
• Not extend past the horse’s 18th rib (the section of the back with no anatomical support), or forward onto the shoulders.
Slapping just any old pad on the horse’s back won’t do either. It must be the correct shape and size for the riding discipline, saddle and seat size. Here’s a breakdown of pad types suitable for both English and western saddles and activities.
English Saddle Pads
Square pads – Rectangular, but usually curved in front to follow the shape of a saddle’s knee rolls.
Shaped pads – Cut to follow the lines of a particular type of saddle, i.e. close contact/jumping, all-purpose, dressage.
Dressage pads – Rectangular, but longer at sides than an all-purpose square pad to accommodate the saddle’s longer flaps.
Half-pads – Fit under the saddle, but don’t extend down, allowing the rider more leg contact on the horse.
Baby pads – Lightweight to protect a thicker full or half-pad from sweat and dirt, although they can be used on their own. Easier to wash than bulkier pads.
Western Saddle Pads
Blanket/cloth – Thin, long woven pieces of fabric folded in half for padding at it’s most basic.
Trail/pleasure riding pads – Mainly square shaped, but sometimes contoured. Breathability, moisture wicking and pressure distribution are key for longer hours in the saddle.
Barrel racing pads –
Lightweight and rounded at the back to follow shape of barrel saddle skirts, allowing improved movement and increased speed.
Roping pads – Often thick for shock absorption to counteract repeated jerking and pulling on the saddle.
Reining pads – Generally cut to accommodate a reining saddle’s butterfly skirt cut that offers close leg contact.
Liners – Used underneath pads for extra protection and cleanliness.
Although not meant to be a long-term solution, correction pads can provide a temporary saddle fit fix for situations such as a horse’s change in weight or fitness. Shims, for example, are thin pads that come in several shapes, sizes and materials (including foam, gel, felt). They’re placed under the saddle or in pockets on the pad itself to fill in small gaps, particularly, but not limited to, the shoulder area.
Wedge pads and risers raise either the cantle or pommel on an English saddle to balance the saddle correctly. Western built-ups provide the same function at the wither area, while bridge pads help fill in gaps between the saddle and the horse’s back.
A saddle pad can come in a wide range of materials from traditional fibres to state-of-the-art synthetics engineered originally for industrial purposes. Some consist of an outer material mainly for appearance and another on the bottom or embedded within for comfort and function. Prices range from $10 to hundreds of dollars depending on the pad’s construction.
Natural Fibres (derived from plant or animal sources – single fibres or blends)
Cotton – Often combined with polyester fibres and/or quilted over polyfill stuffing, cotton is lightweight, highly absorbent, washable and inexpensive.
Wool/Sheepskin – Used under saddles for centuries, both materials have excellent moisture-wicking abilities – able to absorb up to six times their weight in liquid. They are also breathable, good at dissipating heat, grip and conform well to the back. However, they can become matted and compacted more quickly than other materials and, due to their thickness, can interfere with saddle fit.
Felt – Made of fabrics combined and pressed together (traditionally wool, but may now be synthetic and/or natural), felt is great at drawing sweat from the horse and heat dissipation. It’s also a good shock absorber.
Synthetics (man-made materials used either on their own or combined with natural fibres)
Fleece – Made from polyester, fleece is long-lasting, easy to wash and less expensive than wool. Soft, it also moulds well to the horse’s back. Its main drawback is that fleece’s shock-absorption qualities aren’t as good as wool.
Neoprene – A grippy, waterproof rubber, neoprene is form-fitting and durable, a good shock absorber and easy to clean. It’s not suitable for long rides because it doesn’t breathe or absorb moisture. Neoprene waffle-weave or honeycomb patterns on the pad’s bottom are supposed to aid in cooling, but some people claim once the saddle and rider are up, hair and skin fill in the gaps, rendering it ineffective.
Gel – The main attributes of gel pads are shock absorption, longevity and non-slip qualities. It’s expensive, heavy, holds heat and doesn’t breathe or wick moisture.
Foams – Open-cell foam is flexible, lightweight and offers excellent cushioning. When pressure is placed on the pad, air is pushed out of tiny air pockets (cells), returning when pressure is released. It’s also porous and absorbs water. Closed-cell foam is dense, moulds to the horse’s back and has good grip and shock absorption. Unlike open-cell foam, air in the cells doesn’t escape, so pads maintain their shape during use. Memory foam (think mattresses and pillows) absorbs impact while shaping to the horse’s back. It returns to its original shape after use. Foams aren’t particularly breathable or good at wicking moisture. They also hold heat and compress over time.
More than Just a Saddle Pad?
Numerous pads purport to offer therapeutic benefits to enhance our horses’ performance, comfort and health. However, “There’s no standard in the industry when they say therapeutic pads,” said Meredith Dean. “It could be just about anything.”
While some people claim traditional materials like wool possess the ultimate in therapeutic qualities, numerous patented and exclusive pad technologies have been developed over the years. Many synthetic fabrics – neoprene, gel, foams – also fall under the definition of therapeutic. In addition, there are other technologies to consider.
Air cell pads – Thick air chambers allow for air circulation with little bulk.
Antimicrobial – Fabrics are treated with chemical agents to destroy and inhibit bacteria and fungus, while helping cut down odours and fabric deterioration.
Ceramic nano-particles – Embedded in fabrics, ceramic powders are designed to reflect the body’s infrared thermal heat back to the horse to increase circulation and promote healing.
Magnets – Magnetic fields are reported to stimulate circulation and alleviate pain and stiffness.
The scientific jury is still out on the validity of the functions of magnets or ceramics.