When it comes to saddle pads, we’ve come a long way from the original basic choices of quilted cotton, felt, wool or sheepskin. Today you’ll often find these materials, in combination with high-tech materials, some even claiming to have come from a NASA design. Ironically, though, we find natural sheepskin remains the gold standard in saddle-pad materials.
Thickness, too, has moved from nothing more than the thin pad of days gone by — which was used only to protect a saddle from sweat — to pricey gel- and foam-filled pads that claim to help protect a horse’s back from imperfect saddle fit and/or long periods of hard work under saddle. But thick isn’t always better when it comes to saddle pads.
The problem is, serious saddle-fit problems need to be addressed through your saddle’s design with the hands-on help of a saddle-fit expert. A pad can only do so much to alleviate pressure, and adding more heft under the saddle is a lot like wearing a thicker sock to protect your foot from a too-small shoe. We’ve seen riders turn their horses into something out of The Princess and The Pea. They struggle, trying to protect their horses with mountains of pads, but never remove the actual pain-causing pea.
Saddle Pads And Shock Absorption
Generally speaking, we want a saddle pad that provides shock absorption with minimum bulk. Ask yourself what you’re trying to accomplish when you consider a particular therapeutic, orthopedic or cushioning saddle pad. A minor saddle-fit issue, such as a saddle that sits a bit downhill, might be helped with a wedge pad. A gel pad might help a jumping horse absorb the shock of a rider landing after a jump, but no pad is going to free up a horse’s back for better movement.
Look at your horse’s conformation. Horses with prominent (high) withers may be prone to soreness or pressure points if a pad has too much padding in that area or isn’t designed to stay up, off of the withers.
High-withered horses may benefit from one of three designs: 1) An ”open spine” design, which is a swatch of stiff and/or stretchy material that either holds the pad off the withers or moves with the withers as the horse and saddle move, such as found on the Cavallo pads, or 2) A cutout design, which removes any area of friction or pressure from the withers area, again found on Cavallo pads, or 3) A raised design, which is a V-shaped piece of fabric at the front and top of the pad that is provides more room for prominent withers. The Schneiders’ Dura-Tech V-Free pad and the Lettia Collection pads from Union Hill have this design.
Materials And Weight
You may also want to think about the level of work you want the horse to do and the climate where you live. Some therapeutic materials, like gels, can be warming and can increase heat to the horse’s back. If you note an unusual amount of sweat or the horse’s back feels incredibly warm when you remove the pad, you may want to consider another material.
Other materials, such as sheepskin and CoolMax, possess excellent wicking properties and actually make the horse cooler, which is ideal. The contrast between gel-based pads and those with CoolMax became clear during our trials.
Ironically, the very problem a therapeutic pad is designed to help — getting a good fit — can also be a problem it causes. The best therapeutic material in the world won’t work properly if you’re creating an odd pressure point at the spot because it wasn’t designed with your type of saddle in mind. The actual seat size of your saddle is unlikely to make a huge difference when choosing a pad, unless it’s a 19” seat or larger or a pony size. It’s the shape of your saddle that you need to consider.
For example, if you’re using a jumping saddle, choose a pad for a close-contact jumping saddle. If you’re riding dressage, get a pad that says ”dressage,” so it has longer flaps. Similarly, many cross-country jumping saddles are made longer and roomier in the seat and cantle than those designed for show jumping. This is to accommodate the additional mobility required for riders jumping up and down banks and other terrain, and a jumping-sized therapeutic pad may be too short from front to back for this type of saddle. These saddles need either dressage or all-purpose pads.
In addition to design, the material used to add shock absorption can be thick enough to adversely affect the fit of your saddle. A pad like the one-inch-thick Cashel Cushion may be more than you need, while the company’s ??” size might be right.
If you’re in the market for a pad, and you know your saddle fits well, be cautious about putting large, bulky padding material under your saddle. Less is better when it comes to saddle pads, and if your saddle fits well, you shouldn’t need shock-absorbing material for most schooling sessions or short trail rides.
In fact, the extra cushioning you might want for longer rides and heavy work can come from simple non-therapeutic pads. Union Hill’s Lettia Collection, Toklat’s Medallion pad or Schneiders’ economical waffle pad offer good protection without increasing bulk.
We chose horses that represented a wide variety of work levels and body types. Horses ranged from three-year-olds in the first few months of riding to FEI-level event horses in heavy training. They also ranged in size from 15 to 18 hands, and in type from high-withered Thoroughbreds to barrel-shaped draft crosses.
All the horses were schooled on the flat and over fences, as well as being ridden out on the trail. Some of the horses had a history of back issues.
We evaluated the pads on breathability, wear and tear, ease of use, and each pad’s cushioning/therapeutic attributes. Breathability was judged by how warm and wet the horse’s back was after a ride. We also weighed the pad’s looks, materials and cost.
Pads were hung to dry daily, sometimes having been hosed fi rst. Most of the pads were washed at least once according to manufacturer’s specifications, which included using any specific products provided by the manufacturers. The Cashel cushions were not machine washed. They were only hosed and hung dry.
The Mattes pads come with their MELP washing solution, which works great on the sheepskin. However, if we used a little too much we needed to run an extra rinse cycle.
When it comes to washing a saddle pad, you’ll find you’ll do better in a washing machine without a central agitator. We put the pads through the dryer test as well, though in several cases you are explicitly told not to put them in the dryer.
In general, the pads held up pretty well with once-a-week washing. We did note that keepers made of waxed nylon tended to warp after exposure to a dryer, so we caution you on all pads that machine washing may be fine, but you’ll lengthen a pad’s useful life if you avoid the dryer. The easiest pads to wash and dry were the Union Hill pads and the Schneiders’ V-Tech.
If you’re simply looking for extra protection from a saddle pad, the Union Hill Lettia pads are tough to beat. At $49.95, they’re well priced, beautiful and durable. Choose the Pro if you want a thinner pad, as the CoolMax regular is thicker. They left our horses’ backs cool and comfortable and looked nice under the saddle as well. However, they’re not therapeutic pads designed to help minor saddle-fit problems.
For help adjusting and correcting minor saddle-fit issues, our favorite pad is the $195.50 EA Mattes Sheepskin pad with shims. The flexibility of fit offered by this pad’s configuration is unparalleled, and its thick natural sheepskin provides excellent wicking properties and alleviation of pressure points.
The $89.95 Professional Choice Orthopedic pad is a close runner-up, especially at less than half the price of our winner. It provided excellent shock absorption and good wicking properties. Although it’s a bit stiff, it’s lightweight under the saddle.
It provides good space for the withers, and its orthopedic design prevents any undo pressure under the saddle. Additionally, this pad stayed put and didn’t shift or alter its performance during a ride.
For therapeutic benefits, the $59.95 JPC Henri De Rivel pad earns Best Buy. Although we’d like to see its design tweaked just a bit, it was a top performer. The pad features a thick foam section built into the under-saddle area and features a mesh vent halfway down the spine of the pad. It’s a great pad and rather spiffy looking, too.
If you try this pad, be sure the foam section fits properly under your saddle, so the open mesh panel is in the correct spot under your saddle. For longer saddles, like dressage and cross-country saddles, the foam and mesh inserts didn’t always fit properly. We understand from the manufacturer that some of these fit issues will be addressed for the 2008 model.