Not long ago a saddle blanket was something you put under your saddle to keep the sheepskin lining of the saddle clean. Today that thin blanket has been waived in favor of thick pads designed to cushion the horse’s back rather than just keep the hair and sweat at bay. Fleece, felt, foam and fiber fill — even air — are now used to raise the bars of the saddle off the horse’s back.
Peek under the Navajo today and you will probably find cushioning of some kind. Many pads are now made from high-tech materials that not only relieve pressure but also provide a way for air to flow over, under and around the horse’s back to keep it cooler.
In addition, most of the newer pads are designed with the sides being separate units joined along the spine with a strip of leather or other material. The idea is not only to allow the sides of the pad to move independently as the horse moves and bends, but also to provide an open channel down the center of the saddle to keep pressure off the horse’s spine and allow air to flow through.
The recent ideas in saddle pad design don’t stop there. Pads are now available with built-in shims that fill in where the rubber doesn’t meet the road, so to speak.
Horses’ backs change and, with some exceptions, the bars of western saddles are rigid and inflexible. As a horse is worked his back muscles up and changes shape. We change, too, and might not sit on the horse’s back exactly the same way. Saddle-pad technology can meet those challenges.
Foam padding material can rise and fall to meet the slight changes in pressure making our horses more comfortable. We know it’s working right when, after a workout, the horse’s back is evenly wet with no dry spots. Dry spots are telltale signs that there was so much pressure on that spot that the sweat glands were cut off. Those dry spots, if left to show up ride after ride, may turn into patches of white hair. When you see white hair (most often just below and behind the withers) you know things have gone way too far.
We looked at western saddle pads designed to correct problems in saddle tree size or shape, or to fill in low spots in the horse’s back. Some utilized foam that compressed under pressure points and expanded where the saddle didn’t touch to fill in the gap. We looked at square pads with straight toplines, contour shaped pads with cutbacks at the withers, vented surfaces and stylish coverings. All play into what we look at when we pick out a pad, but for our horse with the not-so-perfect profile, padding is paramount.
Having that little extra thickness where there is a hollow or a tad more padding where the bars press down a little too much can make the difference between a happy horse and one that fidgets and jigs because his back is hurting.
When you need some all-over padding to fill in low spots and generally cushion the ride the Cashel PF Rider pads and the Toklat Cool Back did a good job. Both helped with a lot of minor fit problems and seemed to make our horses comfortable.
The SMx Air Ride OrthoSport from Professional’s Choice, Cavallo’s Total Comfort System pads and the Ricotti pad from Toklat all have shims built in. And you’d never know they were there if you weren’t the one to saddle the horse.
The Ricotti 40-6522G, was a hard-working, thick-felt pad that provided a stable platform while the built-in shims filled in more serious depressions behind the shoulders. We liked that the shims were beveled and gently tapered off — and they really did the trick filling in behind the shoulders.
The Professional’s Choice pads are fancy and look like Navajo show pads, but there are stitched-in shims behind the shoulders that helped the prominent-withered horse. And we felt the soft, wool underside was more comfortable for the horse.
The four Cavallo pads were each designed to resolve a specific problem. Saddles that tip forward, rock back or don’t contact the horse’s back in the center can be made to work with a specialty pad designed to correct those specific issues. And they are amazingly thin. We loved these pads, for their light weight and easy care, too.
The Cavallo Therapeutic pads are really great if your horse’s back issues aren’t too extreme. These pads are the most innovative one we looked at. While many manufacturers use up to an inch of foam or felt to fill out irregularities in the horse’s back, Cavallo uses materials that take up half as much space.
Such high-tech help can come with a high price, but you can get thick padding without thinning out your wallet. Schneiders Original Pro Pad provides a full inch of felt wrapped in a tough Herulon covering and with wear leathers for less than $40. The Tekno-Dri Contoured Support pad, also from Schneiders, provides an inch of moisture reducing padding all over, with a full two inches under the bars for $79.95.
If a thick foam pad, or a shimmed pad isn’t enough or if you have another pad you love and want to continue to use, there are small shims available that can be placed on top of your saddlepad and help fill in the low spots. Two can be used together in extreme situations. But if you do opt for additional shims, be careful not to shim so much that the saddle tilts backward and the back of the bars dig down into the horse in the kidney area.
A pad that is built up with shims, or adding shims alone, can often help with a saddle that is a little too wide for the horse. But adding padding is not the answer for a saddle that is too tight. No amount of pads or shims can make a truly ill-fitting saddle work.
Most of the therapeutic saddle pads we tried were not overly corrective per se. The pads provided a lot help for small problems of fit and, overall, they did an excellent job providing back relief to our test horses, which is what a good pad should do.
Although the Toklat Ricotti pad’s attractive, thick felt design tempted us, we prefer the light weight, close contact and easy care of the Cavallo line of pads. We also like that each of the four pads we tried was designed to correct a specific problem, which should help a variety of sore-backed horses.
For a Best Buy, we have to give the nod to Cashel PF Rider, which rapidly became a favorite.