While some purists will always prefer nothing but a wool Navajo blanket under their Western saddles, there are innovative saddle pads on the market that could shake the classic blanket’s century of domination.
Modern technology today has lifted the saddle pad to higher levels. Puffed-up pads of felt, foam, rubber and gel now put a buffer where bars meet back. And all of this added padding might not only be more comfortable for the horse’s backbone — the riders seat bones can benefit as well. In addition, people whose horses have back problems — or who want to try and prevent them — have other materials to choose from that might help alleviate some of those problems.
We used these pads on the trail, in the ring and in the rigors of the roping pen. While every pad had its pros and cons, its fans and critics, there were some that generally pleased everyone.
Trials And Tribulations
Two things seem to stand out in our testing: First, riders want a saddle pad that doesn’t slip and, second, most prefer a single pad that they can toss on, cinch up and go. Only the team ropers were willing to spend the extra time it took to properly layer and align two or three blankets and pads.
Most of the pads we tried used felt in one place or another. Many were varying thicknesses of 100 percent wool felt. Some had rubber sandwiched between layers of felt, some had other materials sandwiched around a layer of felt. Some were lined with neoprene, others with wool. Most were cut out in the cinch and leg area — a must, we found, if you want any degree of close contact with a thick saddle pad — and most came with wear leathers, another must if you want the pad to last any length of time.
Many of the pads were made from thick felt that didn’t compress. This kept the saddle raised well above the withers and off the shoulders — an important consideration with a heavy Western saddle — so there was no chance of the saddle rubbing withers, scraping hair or pinching shoulder muscles.
A popular innovation was a separation down the topline that allowed the two sides of the pad to move slightly independently of each other. This style of pad usually has a strip of leather sewn down along the center to hold the two sides together, which has the added benefit of creating an open channel along the spine where heat can escape. Many pads coupled this design with a cutout over the withers — a helpful style if you have a horse with high withers.
Most of our riders liked the thick felt pads, but the ropers liked them best for their ability to cushion without compressing and their ability to absorb shock. With a felt pad, we feel wear leathers are a necessity. And, while felt does breathe, some venting along the top line is a plus. So is a contour or opening over the withers.
Many manufacturers offer felt pads in different thicknesses, so if you’re thinking felt, consider how much padding you need and what type of riding you do, especially if you’re out for long hours. Thicker pads are good for young horses in training and cow horses that experience a lot of saddle pressure. Thinner felt pads are nice for a little extra padding and to get a grip under a blanket.
Speaking of grip, what’s on the underside of the pad is important. We liked the pads that had a felt bottom as they gripped the horse’s back and didn’t slip, plus they wicked away sweat to help keep the back drier.
Some were lined with the rubbery-type material used in running shoes or with closed cell foam. The ones that had a smooth bottom made the horse’s back wet — which is OK as long as it is wet evenly all over with no dry spots — but we found the ones that had a waffle pattern on the bottom allowed some air to circulate under the pad and tended to keep the horse’s back drier and cooler.
After using a pad on each horse, we pulled it off and immediately looked at the sweat marks on the horse’s body. Depending on the type of pad, the horse’s back where the pad sat should be evenly wet with no dry spots, or evenly dry with no wet spots. An even mark is the key to telling if a pad fits right and is distributing weight and pressure evenly.
We found several stars in the array of pads we tried, and overall this was a tough group of pads. The felt stars were the Cowboys Choice Ultrapad 31CCCG and Classic Equine’s ContourFlex CCF100.
We found wool stars in the Mayatex Durango and Mayatex Trailblazer 1381. The Reinsman’s Tacky Too Contour Square Skirt 24647T and Classic Equine SensorFlex CSWFP were combo stars, using a number of materials to produce a superior pad.
The standout for innovation was easily The Butterfly Pad, while sore backs will find soothing protection with the Action Product’s gel pad and Cashel Cushion pad.
But in our judgment, the best pads in the pile were the Reinsman Tacky Too Contour Square Skirt — for its great looks, good padding and ease of use and care — and the Mayatex Durango double Navajo for deep lofty cushion and its timeless good looks.
The Best Buy is the $34.95 Schneiders Original ProPad Square 00132. It competed well with blankets costing considerably more. Overall, we found this an incredible pad for the money.