Saddle pads are the workhorses of any tack trunk. They must work well under your saddle and be easy to keep clean. They can’t cause your saddle fit to change. And, we don’t want to work at it: The simpler the pad, the better.
We want a pad with contouring at the withers, as it’s less likely to cause rubs and is easy to vent up into the pommel. Thickness — better yet, thinness — is important, too. We want to use one pad at a time, and we don’t want to adjust girths and breastplates just because of a saddle pad.
We don’t want our pads to slip, since sliding pads can cause sores and look sloppy. At worst, they can be dangerous if the saddle slips in the middle of a jump, going down a steep grade or up a hill. However, a non-slip pad isn’t an answer to bad saddle fit, which is likely at the root of a serious saddle-slip problem.
While we tried several synthetic-material pads and had no problems, overall, natural fibers tend to be our favorites, with cotton leading the way. Cotton is a durable, soft, breathable fabric. When brushed, it produces more softness and cushioning.
However, sheepskin and wool felt are also excellent choices. Both have moisture-wicking properties and are highly breathable. The drawback to these materials is that they can be tough to clean.
We like to throw our saddle pads in the washer (see sidebar) and the dryer. While most of the pads in our trial could be machine-washed, few could be machine-dried.
All saddle pads need a “vent,” which is simply what happens when you push the pad up under the pommel of your saddle. A pad that is cut to fit up under the pommel by itself is often called a contoured pad. Many manufacturers now do this routinely, but we think they all should. A pad that becomes taut under the saddle gullet will put pressure on the horse’s spine and make him uncomfortable.
A properly placed pad is lifted up into the gullet of the saddle under the cantle and pommel after you place the saddle. You should be able to place three fingers between the withers area of the pad and the horse. We like a pad that is contoured to the entire line of the horse’s back as well.
We love pads like the Lettia CQ quilted pad, the Horseware Ireland Handy Pad and Wither Relief Quilted pad, which basically do this for you. Because of the way they’re cut, even a beginner will be inclined to place the pad properly.
Be careful of pads that are too short in the back or not long enough to properly protect the saddle flaps. You don’t want the edge of the saddle pad sitting under the pommel, where it could form a pressure point or rub the horse. Your pad should present a neat look, with an even amount of pad in front of and behind the saddle.
Sizes And Colors
Not surprisingly, different disciplines have different pad preferences. We tested square all-purpose pads, which should suit all disciplines but, predictably, we found our jumper riders complained of too much pad behind their legs, while our dressage riders felt short-changed when a pad did not fit under their saddles with room to spare. Dressage riders also preferred thicker pads.
Most square pads come in all-purpose and dressage sizes — a true jumper pad (often called grand prix) is shaped to the saddle and isn’t square. Sizes vary among brands but standard sizes are around 25” x 42” for dressage and 26” x 37” for all-purpose.
You’ll want to measure your saddle, especially the length of the flaps, to ensure you get the right size. Too large is overbearing. Too small won’t get the job done. Several of these pads came in varying sizes and in all-purpose or dressage styles. Check with your retailer when you make your purchase to ensure you have the right pad for your saddle. Several pads are also available in custom sizes, too. 5 Star gives you the option of custom cuts and thicknesses. Other companies that accept custom-size orders include Wilkers, JMS Sheepskin, and Penn Herbal.
Some saddle pads come with straps to thread your girth through and billet straps that have a hook-and-loop fastener, like Velcro, at the end. These fasten around a billet strap and keep the pad from slipping.
We noted a wide variance of where billets and girth straps are set on the pads, especially the less-expensive pads. The placement you need varies with the type of saddle you use, but we noted the most problems with dressage-type saddles. You’ll be wise to check that the strap placements are where you want them before you get the pad dirty.
If you don’t like the straps, take a sharp pair of scissors and cut as close to the stitching as you can without nicking the pad. It’s easy to make a spanking-new saddle pad look raggedy if you’re careless, so be careful. However, it’s also sloppy to have dangling billet straps showing from under your saddle.
Many pads come in white, and we agree that white saddle pads look great. They look sharp on any color horse, making a darker horse look darker and a gray look bright, and they make saddles stand out as well as a rider’s shining boot and a horse’s chrome. To keep white pads brand-new looking, you may need to use a few drops of bluing in the wash. Too much bleach will lead to yellowing. Actually, the best thing to do is to keep one white pad for shows.
Most pads can go in the laundry. You may not need to wash your pad every time you ride, especially in cool weather when it’s not likely to get soaked with sweat. If the pad isn’t filthy, and if your horse is free of any infections that could be carried on a pad, use it again. This prolongs the life of your pad.
Most of our trial saddle pads were white, but we did have a number of darker colors, too. Darker colors are a good choice for schooling, as they show less dirt. Dark greens, dark blues and black are popular colors, but we also enjoyed purple and some lighter colors. You just need to look more closely at a colored pad to determine if it’s time for a wash. We especially appreciated Thornhill’s General Purpose pad. It had a dark color on top and white underneath, next to the horse. You’ll find that most of the pads in our trial are available in a number of colors and many come with piping choices, too.
Monogramming is fun, but it adds $10 to $15 to the cost. You can often get that done when you purchase the pad or contact an embroidery shop. A monogram can help ensure your pad doesn’t get mixed up with someone else’s at a busy barn. If you board your horse and don’t monogram your pads, you can also mark your pads with permanent laundry-resistant ink.
You may want pads in different materials because they perform different functions. Waffle knits, although they are thick, are good summertime pads because they soak up sweat. We found Dover’s and Union Hill’s are both excellent choices.
Felt is soft, but it’s not overly absorbent and may not be your first choice for a hot summer day, since you get a slick and slimy feeling from your horse’s back once you peel it off.
We divided our field-trial pads into two charts, everyday pads and special ones. The everyday pads are the ones you need a pile of, the ones you reach for daily and use without thinking. The special pads typically have extra padding for a sore or thin horse or long rides. They’re good for horses with problems.
We looked for comfort and ease of use/care first in these pads. We want cushioning. Horses with sensitive backs need special attention, but all horses must be protected from pressure points. Durability was the next big issue, as was the pad’s ability to accommodate a wide variety of horses. We didn’t want pads that slipped or bunched, although we didn’t look for pads to correct saddle fit problems. Finally, we looked for pads that seemed to breathe well or at least didn’t cause hot spots.
We tried only square all-purpose saddle pads, but most of these pads are also available in a number of other sizes, shapes and also contoured styles. In addition, although we don’t list colors in our charts, you are likely to find most of these pads in a variety of colors and pipings. Thornhill has 13 different colors.
Our favorite pad was the Union Hill Lettia Collection CQ pad. It performed well with contouring that worked on all different shapes of horse and had a soft underside. This pad has a perfect triangular vent area that fits nicely under the pommel of different saddles. It is generously and evenly sized, so that both dressage and jumper riders found it looked nice under their saddles. Its quilting has a luxurious feel, and it’s also a fancy pad. Its attractive cording gives it a distinctive look and is a nice change from piping. It retails for $44.99.
A close runner-up is Thornhill’s Diamond Event pad, which drapes well and has a nice, hefty feel without bulk. It retails for $36.95.
Our dressage-rider purists were most impressed by the Griffin NuuMed pads, giving a big thumbs-up to the Pro Pad Plus for $75.
Best Buy was a tough call with Dover’s Rider’s International Contoured Pad, Schneider’s Dura-Tech All-Purpose and the Horseware Ireland Rambo pad neck-and-neck. If you need a lot of inexpensive, durable pads, your horses and your wallet will be pleased with the Schneider’s pad.
For a few dollars more, you can get more cushioning without giving up on durability in the Rambo pad. But our overall Best Buy is the Dover International Contoured, which gives us a traditional look with nice withers contouring and comfort.