Deconstructing the Saddle Pad

Pads are made in a variety of materials for many functions; how do they impact your horse?

In the not too distant past most riders did not use saddle pads. And when they did they employed basic cotton or wool pads to simply help keep sweat and dirt off the underside of their saddles. As time has gone by, things in the saddle pad sphere have gotten more sophisticated … and more complicated.

Regardless of your riding style, take a look in any tack catalog and you’ll find pages upon pages of saddle pads in a wide variety of colors, shapes, styles, sizes, and purposes. And some of them cost several hundreds of dollars—­especially therapeutic pads that manufacturers claim will help solve saddle fit and assuage back pain. There are now so many choices it can be challenging to decide what to buy. 

So do you need to spend upward of $100 for a saddle pad, or will a simple, less expensive version do the trick?

Deconstructing the Saddle Pad

Types of English Saddle Pads

English pads can be divided among disciplines such as hunter/jumper, dressage, and saddle seat. Still, even without splitting English pads by discipline, there are many types available, and that’s not even considering ones called therapeutic. For example, you can use square pads, shaped pads, contoured high-wither pads, and half-pads, which all come in a variety of materials.

Debra Powell, PhD, PAS, assistant professor of equine studies at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, in Terre Haute, Indiana, says inexpensive pads are often made of polyester or nylon, but they are less comfortable for the horse than natural fibers, and they lack the ability to wick moisture and heat away from the horse’s back.

Natural fibers typically include cotton or sheepskin (and sometimes reindeer fur). Powell says these fibers are strong, with a natural crimp (which makes them soft and springy, while adding to their bulk) and resiliency. They allow air to become trapped between fibers and, thus, dissipate loads and reduce pressure points. They can trap more than 30% of the pad’s weight in moisture and keep it away from the horse’s body, she says. The air-trapping ability also keeps the horse’s back warm in cold weather and near body temperature in hot weather.

Deconstructing the Saddle Pad: Felt Pad

Types of Western Saddle Pads

Western saddle pads are not quite as diverse as their English counterparts. First, you have the Navajo blanket, which is basically a long piece of thickly woven fabric folded in half. These traditional saddle pads come in many colorful patterns and might have fringed or tasseled edges. They are easy to clean, as you can toss most in the washing machine and dryer or hang them to dry. The downside to Navajo blankets is that on some horses they might slide out from under the saddle. They can also bunch, possibly causing sores, and, because they are made of a woven fabric, can pick up burrs and seedheads.

A slight variation on the traditional Western blanket is a woven pad. These look like woven blankets that are already folded, and there might be padding between the top and bottom layers. Some pads might have either natural or synthetic fleece on the underside. If the center is made of foam, it can trap heat, so a breathable type of foam or wool is preferable.

Similar in shape to woven pads, felt pads are another common choice. They are made of compressed wool, which absorbs sweat and dissipates heat. Like their English cousins, Western saddle pads come in standard and contoured shapes.

Deconstructing the Saddle Pad

What Type of Pad Is Best?

When it comes to English saddles, “you don’t need a pad,” asserts Sue Dyson, MA, VetMD, PhD, DEO, FRCVS, head of Clinical Orthopaedics and the Animal Health Trust’s Centre for Equine Studies, in Newmarket, U.K. Instead, she subscribes to the long-standing idea that “a well-fitting saddle should not need a saddle pad. A thin, soft pad may help to absorb sweat, but other than that there is absolutely no requirement for a pad.”

It is true that sweat can break down the soft saddle leather and, unless you are meticulous about cleaning and conditioning your tack, it could eventually cause it to crack or break.

Dyson recommends that riders who insist on using a pad beneath an English saddle choose one that’s thin, fits the saddle without seams under the panels of the saddle, has loops that fit the billets (to which the girth is attached), is of suitable length relative to the girth if using a short girth (to keep the elastic and girth material seam from rubbing the skin or to avoid bunching), and does not get pulled down onto the dorsal midline.

In contrast, Western saddles are not constructed to be used without cushioning, so you’ll definitely need some type of pad to protect the horse’s back.

How Can Saddle Pads Help?

Regardless of riding style, a saddle adjusted by a knowledgeable, experienced saddle fitter is paramount. The saddle fitter can also make recommendations for a saddle pad based on the shape of the horse’s back and the specific saddle.

Dyson and Powell agree that if the saddle fits well—that is, if there’s no pressure over the spine and there’s even pressure distribution everywhere else—a thin pad made of a natural fiber is all you need. For a less than ideally fitted saddle that’s not going to be used long-term, Dyson says a well-fitted pad could be seen as a short-term fix. She suggests finding one made of natural fibers such as cotton or sheepskin.

“A wool sheepskin pad under the saddle of a show jumper may ameliorate slightly the pressures sustained under the front of the saddle on landing,” she says. Powell agrees, emphasizing that the wool must retain its loft to be effective.

Can They Do Harm?

If the saddle doesn’t fit well, a saddle pad is not going to fix the issue. If the tree is too narrow the front and back of the panels apply pressure to each side behind the withers and to the midback, respectively; this is called bridging. Powell says adding padding of any kind will only make this worse. Conversely, if a saddle is too wide, extra padding might help stabilize it, but the saddle and padding must be clear of the withers.

“A pad, by filling the gullet and narrowing the distance between the panels and tree points (see the photo below), can actually increase pressures under the saddle,” says Dyson. “Pads can slip down and create pressure on the dorsal midline.”

The spine and withers should be clear of any pressure, including that from a saddle pad.

Deconstructing the Saddle Pad: Therapeutic Pads

Therapeutic Pads

There are many saddle pads on the market dubbed therapeutic. Manufacturers claim these are able to reduce pressure points, warm back muscles, and even improve saddle fit. They can range in price from $60 to upward of $300, and they are made from a variety of materials, including sheepskin, closed-cell foam, open-cell foam, memory foam, and gel foam. Powell says the various types of foam differ in their abilities to absorb impact and return to their original shapes rapidly enough to be an effective cushion. Gel is a gelatinlike and semisolid substance that she describes as resilient.

“It is effective at dispersing the impact energy, but how quickly it can rebound is based on the type of gel used, so it may not have the appropriate rebound characteristics needed to be effective,” says Powell.

In other words, if the saddle and rider load the gel pad long enough (around 30 minutes, she says), it flattens to the point that it no longer redistributes pressure or provides a cushion. Gel also tends to hold heat, thus making the horse’s back hotter. In addition, Dyson says there is little scientific evidence for gel pads’ therapeutic value. “Nothing has proven shock-absorptive capacity,” she says.

Many therapeutic pads have openings for shims on both sides in the front and the back. These smaller pieces of foam help fill in where the horse’s muscles are lacking. In theory they help fill the gaps beneath the saddle, causing it to sit more balanced. But Dyson believes shims “create edges adjacent to which will be focal pressure points,” and, therefore, could do more harm than good.

Western saddle pads made of neoprene are popular for their shock-­absorbing quality. Because the material is sticky, it is less likely to slip or bunch. On the downside, it might trap heat, which could make it uncomfortable for a horse in hot weather or working hard. On the plus side, they are very easy to clean, usually requiring only a quick rinse with a hose. In addition to neoprene, Western pads can have a gel, wool, or foam core and/or include slots for shims. They might be contoured and have a cut-away to prevent the pad from binding against the horse’s withers. Some are rounded at the rear of the pad to better fit short-backed horses.

Take-Home Message

Regardless of your riding style and preference, your first priority should be for saddle fit. Following that, our sources say a basic pad made of natural fibers is your best choice.

Many other types, sizes, and shapes can serve a purpose in certain situations, but remember they are short-term solutions. Proper tack fit always comes first.