Is Your Saddle Pad Up to Snuff?
Some people may not think too much about what they put beneath their saddle. Others, however, are quite picky about the color, design, or brand of their saddle pad. But when it comes to this crucial piece of tack, we should all be most concerned with function. A good saddle pad should protect your horse’s back from rubbing or chaffing, it should be somewhat breathable and wick sweat (especially in warmer climates), and it should help to evenly distribute the weight of the saddle and rider.
Of course, no pad can make up for a poor saddle fit, and having a saddle that fits your horse well should be your top priority. With that said, there are some things to know about saddle pads which can help you choose the right one for your horse.
Saddle Pad Materials
The main materials used in modern saddle pads include:
Foam (either closed cell/neoprene or open cell/polyurethane): While foam pads may be cushy and provide adequate compression, they aren’t so great at wicking sweat, and they often trap heat. They can also be slippery. Neoprene pads provide good compression and have a tacky surface to keep them from sliding, but most do not dissipate heat well either (with the exception of waffle-patterned neoprene, which encourages airflow).
Felt (needled, pressed industrial, or synthetic): Felt is a very durable saddle pad material and is usually great for providing compression. It wicks sweat well and dissipates heat, but it doesn’t breathe as well as some other materials like fleece.
Fleece: Fleece is used as the base for many woven, decorative pads. Synthetic fleece is cheaper and more durable than genuine wool fleece, and it doesn’t tend to mat or compact as quickly. However, genuine wool fleece is more cushioning. Both are breathable and dissipate heat well. The downside to fleece pads is that they don’t tend to last as long as pads made from some other materials. However, washing and fluffing your fleece pads can help to extend their life.
Gel pads: The downfall of gel pads is that they tend to work well for a while, but then get “squashed” in certain areas. Ultimately, they may not provide enough compression. Gel pads can also trap heat and aren’t good at wicking sweat.
Cotton (used for some English pads): Quilted cotton pads are commonly used for English riding. These pads don’t provide much in the way of protection, but they do wick sweat and are easy to wash and maintain.
Saddle Pad Shape
Western saddle pads come in a variety of shapes, and the best shape for your horse will depend on his conformation.
Straight: This is the most common type of saddle pad and has no contouring or extra padding. Straight pads work best for horses with normal backs and withers.
Contoured: These pads are designed to fit a horse’s back a little better and are good for horses with high withers, or short or long backs. They can alleviate pressure on the withers to improve comfort and fit of the saddle.
Round : These are typically designed to go with round-skirted saddles and can also be good for smaller horses or horses with short backs.
Sway-back: This pad is designed with an elevated area for withers and thicker padding in the center for horses with sway backs.
Wither Relief/Cutback : This pad is made specifically for high-withered horses as it gives added protection in the wither area. Many feature a cut-out in the wither area.
The thickness of your pad should depend upon your horse’s back conformation as well. You definitely want a pad which will displace the pressure of the saddle, but round-backed horses may need a thinner pad in order to keep the saddle in place and prevent it from moving around or rubbing. Choosing a pad that is at least 1/2 inch thick is advisable, though.
As you can see, there is definitely no one-size-fits-all saddle pad. What works for one horse may not work for another. You will need to consider your horse, your riding discipline, and the level of work your horse does in order to determine which saddle pad is the best option for you.
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