Your saddle pad is meant to give the horse’s back comfort and protection. But with so many choices out there, how do you know which one is best?
The modern saddle pad comes in a variety of colors and materials. That sometimes makes it difficult for people to choose the right option for their particular horse. Many people simply select the pad that looks prettiest on their horses — but saddle pads are much more than just a fashion accessory!
The function of a saddle pad
Saddle pads are used to provide cushioning under the saddle, thus distributing and lessening impact between the spines of horse and rider. A successful saddle pad makes equitation possible by keeping the saddle properly positioned beneath the rider.
Navajo pads act like panels and cooling pads for Western saddles and they are made in various materials and thicknesses. Shim pads should only be used as interim solutions until the saddle – Western or English — can be fitted properly. For English saddles the saddle pad is meant to absorb moisture and dirt and protects the saddle from the horse’s sweat. The panel on an English saddle is the interface between horse and rider and needs to be smooth and firm, while remaining as thin as possible to help the rider communicate with the horse.
While in general the saddle pad for an English saddle should be used to protect the saddle, some horses need the extra protection for their back. However, often the force and pressure can actually be increased by the use of a saddle pad that is too thick. Thick pads elevate the saddle above the horse’s back and create a lengthened lever to apply force against his spine. When impact absorption is combined with a thin adherent pad, it creates the ultimate in what you need in a saddle pad. Putting an extra pad on a saddle that is already too tight is akin to putting on an extra pair of socks to make a small pair of shoes more comfortable – it simply doesn’t work!
Saddle pad materials
Pads made of natural products are best and do more to absorb and wick moisture, keeping it away from the horse’s skin. Sheepskin and wool offer shock absorption and wicking but can be expensive, hard to maintain and have a habit of compressing over time. Cotton is a serviceable moisture-absorbing product and is easy to clean, but offers no protection in shock absorption or saddle fit.
Shock absorbers such as gel, thick foams, air and neoprene each carry their own drawbacks. Gel moves away from pressure points, is hot and heavy, and because of its thickness tends to move the rider. Foams and neoprene tend to compress rapidly; while they may feel good in the hand, when you add a rider’s weight the cushion bottoms out or creates a rebound effect. Air is the biggest culprit, causing excessive rebound and lack of communication with the horse, but it does distribute pressure well. Neoprene on the other hand retains heat and bacteria and breaks down rapidly.
There are a few high tech foams (i.e. ThinLine) on the market that are extremely thin, provide maximum shock absorption, breathe (providing a cooling effect), and are treated with antibacterial agents. These foams have an extremely long lifespan, but do not wick moisture. When sewn onto moisture wicking materials, these high tech foams (against the saddle) combined with natural materials (such as felt, cotton or sheepskin) on the horse, provide everything essential in a saddle pad with no drawbacks.
Saddle pads for the developing horse
On round horses, lateral stability is important for the horse’s back health and the rider’s security. If you don’t get an appropriately shaped tree on a round-backed horse, you need a special pad to stop the saddle from slipping around. These saddle-pads can ‘stick’ to the coat of the horse and they are not the ideal for the long run. The goal is to get the tree fitted properly for any type of horse, so no special pads are needed.
Growth in young horses is unpredictable, and a developing back can be protected while keeping the saddle balanced with a pad that uses the appropriate shims. This can help avoid having to change the flocking in the saddle every few months. While you should have your saddle properly refitted once or twice a year, shims can sometimes be a useful tool to help with fitting, especially with young horses or when riding more than one horse in a saddle. This should only be an interim solution until a saddle fitter can properly adjust the saddle. As with your saddle pad selection, the materials used for shims are critical. Rolled up towels are never a good choice!
The right saddle pad for you and your horse
How can you tell if a saddle pad is right for you and your horse? Consider your care requirements — can you wash a saddle pad every day? Can you afford to have several good saddle pads, or should you work with a half pad so you can use it on top of a thin saddle pad?
The right saddle pad should provide closeness to your horse, offer shock absorbency and weight distribution, and absorb excess moisture while retaining airflow. Closeness and fit provide the necessary components for comfort and protection of your horse’s back. A proper saddle pad can make a big difference in the health of your horse’s back, as well as in your riding experience.
A bit about shims
Most saddle pad shims are created from available saddle pad products: lightweight foams (which compress and bottom out, leaving you with virtually no shimming once weight is applied); gels, which move and generate heat; and neoprene, which retains heat, moisture and bacteria and has no ability to distribute weight. Air pocket shims are easy to over- or under-inflate and provide a high rebound effect. Wool works well, but compresses after use and is difficult to make stay in place in a saddle pad.
A shim needs to have several key characteristics: it must distribute weight, be beveled to ensure there are no pressure points, and be non-slip. It must not compress — once the saddle fitter has fitted the shims correctly, they must stay at the same thickness and in the same place.
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