Bareback Riding Makes A Comeback

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Anybody who rides bareback can tell you that the secret of a comfortable ride is picking the right horse — one not too fat but not too bony, enough withers so he has a little shape but not too high or we’ll be forced back into a saddle. The second consideration is his gaits. That beautiful airy trot we so prize in the show ring is out of bounds for bareback riding. We’ll take a doggy jog, thank you, and a smooth transition into an easy canter.

Once we have the horse, we’ll opt for using a bareback pad. When we were kids, we didn’t mind riding without a pad. But we’ve discovered that a good pad makes the ride more enjoyable.

Bareback pads run the gamut from the simple to the ones that are nearly treeless saddles and priced that way, too. Since we’ll likely only ride bareback for short periods or when it’s too hot to tack up, we limited our search to pads under $100. We found several that we wouldn’t mind keeping on hand in our tack room, and our testers gave them a workout.

No Stirrups, Please
Before we can ride, we have to mount, which for some of our testers could be better described as ”scrambling on board,” since we don’t want stirrups with bareback pads. We don’t think that using stirrups on bareback pads is safe, since pads are likely to move from side to side.

So, unless you’re very tall, very athletic, have a high mounting block or a short horse, getting on your animal can be a challenge. It will involve some aspect of swinging your leg across your horse’s back and scooting into position, which can cause the pad to move around. Therefore, our first requirement is a pad that stays put.

Our next consideration is girthing up. The girth should be comfortable for the horse and easy for us to tighten. There were two girth styles on the pads we tried, and we had a definite preference for what we’re calling the ”belt-buckle type.” The billets have preset holes into which the tongue of the buckle slips. It’s secure, easy to use, and the excess tucks into a keeper, just like a belt would. The disadvantage is that the holes are several inches apart, so you can’t easily make the minor girth adjustments that you would with a normal saddle girth.

The saw-tooth-style buckles (think of the straps inside your suitcase) require threading the cinch webbing through them. Our testers didn’t find them as easy to close or adjust, though they have an advantage in that they don’t require cinching up to a preset hole.

We looked at the comfort for the horse, preferring girths that had a little padding or were made of cotton over those that were unprotected nylon webbing.

From the Top Down
We discovered that ”comfortable” is a matter of personal opinion when it comes to a horse’s gaits and to bareback pads. We want a pad that offers some cushion, but still allows the rider to feel the horse’s movements. Too plush isn’t an advantage, but neither is too stiff. We want the pad to give us a sense of security as if the seat had a little traction. One tester asked herself, ”How would I feel up here if my horse made a sudden move'” Ironically, while we’d like to stay put on the horse’s back, we also have to be able to move around, especially when wiggling ourselves onboard.

At first, we assumed that the handhold at the ”pommel” of each of the pads was for hanging the pad from a hook, since it was unlikely that we’d hold it while we’re riding. While that’s true, we didn’t generally hang the pads, but instead treated them as you would a saddle pad, putting them upside down over a saddle rack to air out after a ride. But we found that once we’d clambered aboard, we needed that handhold to help us reposition the saddle. We’d make a little hop, so to speak, with our seat, and scoot the pad into the right spot.

The Pads

Best Friend English Style Bareback Pad $64.95
The contoured shape of this pad fit our high-withered horses as well as the flatter-withered horses. It gave us enough cushion without interfering with our feel of the horse. We liked the non-slip neoprene underside, and the breathable suede on top gave us a sense of being able to stick to the pad without feeling sticky.

The pad barely moved as we mounted, and it was easy to reposition once we were on the horse’s back. We especially liked the girth, which is cushioned with the same neoprene as the pad. We liked that a girth extender is available. Use one and you gain seven inches. Use one on each end and you have 14 additional inches, so this pad fit a wide variety of horses. This pad is available in horse and pony size. A Western-style pad with side pockets and a water bottle is available for $79.95.

Cashel Cushion Bareback Pad $91.95
This pad is straightforward — a single piece of 3/4-inch Cashel foam with a pommel loop and girth attached. No seams to catch on your jeans. Cleaning it was a breeze — just hose it off and let it drip dry. We liked the padded girth with buckles on each end, and the D-rings for attaching a breastcollar. The pad offered good cushion, and we were easily able to feel the horse’s movements. But we preferred the feel of fabric over the feel of the foam. It wasn’t as easy to reposition as some of the other pads, which probably also made it less likely to slip on the horse.

We made the mistake of storing it under something with a buckle, which left a permanent buckle impression in the foam, though that didn’t affect the pad’s function. Black only.

Dover Bareback Pad #8B-19326 $57.60
This pad is the traditional fluffy pad that comes to mind when we think ”bareback pad.” It is a double thickness of plush Coolback fleece, with a detachable Coolback fleece-covered girth. The girth buckles on both ends, giving it lots of adjustability.

Because of its softness, it bunched up a bit as we mounted, but we were able to reposition it easily enough using the web handhold. It stayed put while our testers rode, and it offered good cushion. Somehow we can’t resist saying that if you were buying a pad for a little girl, this would be your first choice. It has that fluffy ”my horse will love this” feel, as opposed to the higher-tech products. In green, black or navy. Horse size.

Dover Suede Bareback Pad #8B-19257 $69.90
We give this pad high marks for comfort and good looks. It provided enough cushion without bulk, and the suede offered the right amount of grip. The girth is a single web of sturdy cotton, and though we don’t prefer the saw-tooth buckle, this buckle is a good quality and sewn onto the webbing. It held securely and wasn’t hard to adjust. In chocolate, hunter or black.

Herculon Southwest Bareback Pad Smith Brothers #M8-19158 $69.95
This sharp-looking pad has a Southwestern design top and a 5/8-inch orthopedic black felt underside. It offered plenty of cushion, but without being plush. It comes with adjustable Ralide stirrups, which we promptly remove d. Our pad had a nylon web-style strap girth, with a substantial saw-tooth-style buckle. We found it more difficult to tighten than other pads we tested. Available in sage or purple.

Kensington Bareback Pad $49.95
The heavy-duty black polyester fleece on this pad was really pretty, especially when contrasted with the plaid cover on the fleece-lined girth. It is one smart-looking outfit, and its 1-inch-thick foam center makes it really plush. We found it was cushy, almost too cushy, in fact. It was a little harder to feel the horse’s movements than on some of the other pads, but it would be ideal for a horse whose back needed a bit of padding. It didn’t fit our higher-withered horses as well as the contoured pads did, but it fit the others just fine. We liked its removable, sturdy, padded girth with belt-style buckles for good adjustability. A Western-style pad with pockets is available for $79.99.

Libertyville Southwest Bareback Pad #14-0015 $41.50
This pad has an attractive Herculon fabric top in a Southwest pattern and a Kodel fleece underside. Our testers who wanted to feel their horse’s movements found it a bit too thick, but it offered plenty of cushion. We found that we had to cut the stirrup straps to remove them, after removing the stirrups. The finish on the saw-tooth-style buckle corroded slightly a couple of weeks after we had the pad, but that didn’t compromise the buckle. This pad fit our normal-withered horses fine. It was a little harder to girth up than some of the other pads.

Toklat Non-slip Bareback Pad #42-608 $82.99
This shaped pad looks smart and fit all of our test horses well, even those with higher withers. It was easy to handle and put on the horse, and it stayed put when we mounted. The underside is made of a breathable, anti-bacterial, non-slip material, with fleece at the spine area. The top fabric has a Southwest tapestry look, and it had enough texture that it wasn’t slippery. We thought it was just the right amount of cushion without bulk and felt secure on the pad. We liked that the girth has a Coolback cover with belt-style buckles. Available in 20 Southwestern patterns in horse, Arab and pony sizes. Girth extenders available.

Bottom Line
The Toklat non-slip pad is an excellent choice, but we prefered the girthing arrangement of the less-expensive Best Friend Bareback Pad ($64.95). Between the girth and the difference in price, we decided to put the Best Friend pad into the winner’s circle. Dover’s Suede Bareback Pad ($69.90) comes in second. If you’re on a tight budget, you won’t go wrong with the Kensington ($49.99).