• Small vacuums are handy to remove dust and horsehair.
• Machine washing doesn't work for all pads and blankets, so check the label.
• Wash off the sweat because salt crystals can be especially damaging to fibers.
• Avoid heat and sunlight when drying pads and blankets, especially those with leather trim.
Your horse's comfort when you ride is important, so the money you spent on that saddle pad and blanket was worth the cost. If you take care of the pad or blanket, you'll make your investment last. You'll also keep that pad and blanket in shape so they can do their job - provide protection and comfort for your horse, help spread pressure and prevent friction and rubbing that might create a sore.
Most pads and blankets are easy maintenance. Many can be machine-washed and -dried, washed at a do-it-yourself carwash with water under pressure or just rinsed with a garden hose. The pad will likely have come with care instructions. If not, a quick call to the manufacturer or their website may give you the information you need.
English pads are easiest to clean. Many are cotton quilted or fleece and are either machine washable or washable by hand. If you do wash the pad in a machine, use cool water and don't use a heat cycle in your dryer to avoid the corners of the pad shrinking and curling up.
English fleece pads can often be machine-washed on gentle cycle and tumble dried on low heat. Most English quilted pads are also machine-washable and safe to dry in your dryer. However, some English quilted pads are made of materials designed to wick away moisture, and the manufacturer recommends line drying.
Janet Nittman of Dover Saddlery said that generally the English pads offered by Dover can be washed in a front-load washing machine in cold water or by hand using mild soap. Do not bleach or dry-clean them. Either hang them to dry or use the air-fluff cycle in your dryer.
Many English pads today have a gel insert, which you can remove and then wash the outer covering.
Storing Your Pad or Blanket
After use, a pad or blanket dries quickest if you lay it out flat. It's best for short-term storage of fleece, wool and felt to drape the pad or blanket over the saddle (on your saddle rack) after it's dry or hang it on a pad rack in the tack room.
Never leave a saddle pad or blanket hanging on a fence rail in the sun. After it's dry, put it away because ultraviolet rays can damage natural fibers and synthetic materials. Too much sun can shrink wear leathers on a pad or the leather side of a sheepskin pad, or they could become stiff or crack.
For long-term storage, pads or blankets should be in a cool, dry environment to avoid mildew or mold. If the pad is completely dry and is not made of leather, you can put it in a tight plastic bag to protect it. If there is any dampness, however, plastic will seal in the moisture and create ideal conditions for mold. In a humid climate, a dehumidifer in your tack room may help. If it's to be stored for a while, put mothballs with a wool pad or blanket.
Don't store anything on top of your pad because that may press down the fibers or make pressure marks on a foam pad. You should fold a pad or blanket in half, the way it naturally bends over the horse; never fold it backward. Just like a piece of paper that gets folded back and forth many times, this weakens the fibers and the center part of the pad will become thin and worn at the crease. Always store pads and blankets up off the floor so mice won't get at them.
Foam and synthetic slick pads should never be left outside in the sun because the UV rays can damage the material. They'll hold up best if folded their natural way and put in a place by themselves in your tack room. If you store them on a saddle stand under your saddle, the stand will often leave pressure indentations.
Western Synthetic Fleece Pads
It's tempting to simply shake a Western pad to remove the dirt, dried sweat and horsehair, but it's best to follow up by vacuuming or brushing. You should brush off dried salt from sweat and dirt every time you ride because a buildup will wear on the fibers.
You can also machine-wash these pads on gentle cycle and tumble dry them on low heat. Another option is to pressure wash these pads (at a carwash or with a portable power washer for engines). In that case, you won't need soap because the water under pressure lifts out dirt and hair.
Water won't hurt most pads (even if they have wear leathers) as long as they are allowed to dry properly afterward. If the fleece pad has a fabric top and felt interior, do not machine-wash or pressure-wash it. Simply brush it off, hose it with water to rinse away dirt on the exterior and hang it on the fence to dry.
While wool blankets can be kept fairly clean after daily use just by snapping them against a fence, door, pipe or other solid surface, follow up by brushing with a medium to stiff horse brush to remove any hair or dander left on the surface. Don't use anything as harsh as a metal currycomb because that may tear the fibers.
Toklat recommends brushing and hosing its Western woven wool blankets and Navajo blankets, rather than washing them. For Toklat wool pads (the Western woven pads or Navajo pads), the fleece portion can be brushed and hosed, and the pad hung to dry (never machine-washed).
Mayatex recommends hand-washing its blankets periodically. A blanket you use regularly can be washed in a tub of cold water every 60 to 90 days. (Do not machine wash.) For thorough cleaning, let it soak in cold water for at least an hour. Mayatex does not recommend using soap because a blanket can retain soap after washing. Soap residue may seep throughout the porous wool each time it becomes soaked with sweat, which can irritate your horse's back.
After soaking a blanket, gently wring it while still in the water. Then lift it out and wring again to remove as much water as possible. In that way, when you hang it you won't create a pull on the fibers. Some manufacturers recommend hanging a wet blanket over a rail, while others recommend drying it flat, like you would a wool sweater.
Brush the damp blanket (whether it's hanging or spread out) with a soft to medium horse brush, then turn it over and brush the other side. Let it air dry completely in the shade so that sunlight doesn't damage the fibers.
Wool Felt Pads
A wool felt pad can be vacuumed between washings to keep it cleaner and reduce the amount of washings needed. You can also use a rubber grooming mitt to curry the felt. Vacuuming or brushing also helps fluff up the fibers.
Toklat wool felt Western pads can be hosed and hung to dry. Dover and Smith Brothers' Western wool pads can be washed by scrubbing the dirty spots with a cloth or sponge, using lukewarm water and a mild liquid wool-washing soap. Rinse all the soap off with clean water and allow the pad to air dry.
An Equipedic Western pad has two layers of wool felt sandwiched around a layer of light foam to help conform the pad to the horse's shape. Richard Sacks of Equipedic said that the inserts can be removed and the felt pad itself can be washed in a washing machine (gentle cycle, six to 10 minutes) in cold water with a liquid soap that you'd use for wool, such as Woolite, a leather therapy laundry detergent, EQ solution or Soil Release.
You can hose off the foam insert to clean off any sweat that might have come through the felt, then press it down on a flat surface like a tabletop to squeeze the water out and dry it. Sacks advises that you curry the felt portion regularly (as you would with any wool or felt pad), using a rubber mitt like you'd use on your horse.
Many endurance riders have found that Pert shampoo works well on these pads, since this shampoo rinses out easily. Some people use power washers, with or without soap, but these pads are designed to be machine-washed so you don't have to take it to a carwash.
A word of caution when machine-washing fleece and wool pads and blankets: The twisting action of a washing machine can be hard on them, so don't machine-wash them often. If you use soap, it may take several rinses to eliminate residue. That extra agitation time tears out fibers and shortens the life of the pad or blanket. Washings can also be hard on your machine if you end up with horsehair buildup in the water pump.
Pad liners, usually made of wool, sit between your horse and a blanket or pad. You can hose liners off or put them in a washing machine. But don't use hot water or the wool may shrink.
When a pad liner becomes really dirty, use a good all-purpose cleaner, such as EasyAll, which is similar to foam sprays designed for carpets and works the same way. You can spray the cleaner onto the pad liner, pad or blanket, and it goes deep into the fibers and lifts out the dirt. Then you just hose it off.
With any pad, blanket or liner, you need to judge how often to wash it thoroughly. It's easy to see how much dust and dirt have accumulated, but be aware of the salt from your horse's sweat. The salt crystals can damage the fibers of any pad or blanket.
One way to save wear and tear on your blankets - as well as your horse - is to take care in how you use the blanket. It doesn't matter whether you use a light cotton pad under an English saddle, a Western felt pad or a liner under a saddle blanket. The basics of fitting the pad are the same.
1. Put the pad on the horse slightly ahead of where it belongs.
2. Slowly slide it back until it settles into the correct position on the horse's back. That will smooth the horse's hairs, which will help minimize any irritation.
3. "Peak" the front of the pad slightly, so that it tents up. Softer pads may not literally tent, but relaxing the front of the pad will make the next step easier.
4. Put the saddle on the horse, settling it into position. Lift the front of the pad and push it up into the pommel or swell of the saddle.
Creating a little ease in the front of the pad will allow the horse's shoulders more freedom of movement, and will create less wear on the pad. The pad will make its way down onto the horse's back when the horse is worked. If, on the other hand, you saddle the horse with the pad already snug, the pad gets tightened even further, creating pressure on the withers and restricting the horse's ease of movement.
A sheepskin pad is a hide with the wool still on. The leather side goes next to the saddle and the fleece next to the horse. The quality and durability of a sheepskin pad depends on how it was tanned, and many sheepskin pads being sold now are washable, even in a washing machine. Check with the manufacturer or instructions that came with the pad to see if applying a leather conditioner to help keep the leather side of a sheepskin supple is recommended.
Don't use strong detergents when washing sheepskin because they can damage the leather and wool fibers. Instead, use a mild hair shampoo, such as Pert.
Be sure to always dry a sheepskin pad without heat, preferably on your dryer's lowest setting of air fluff. Better still, hang it, which can take a couple of days.
Real sheepskin pads rarely need washing. That's because the wool is springy and generally traps the sweat and dirt near the ends of the fleece fibers, away from the skin. Use a pet brush or poodle brush (with a few rows of teeth) to lift and brush out material such as hair, hay, burrs and seeds. Be especially vigilant in the spring because the horse will shed extra hair on the pad.
There are many synthetic pads on the market, including those of synthetic "rubber," smooth Neoprene pads and slick-surface pads. You can clean most of these pads just by hosing them off, but check the manufacturer's instructions. Some recommend that you merely wipe the pad down.
A pad made of Neoprene or PVC foam should be cleaned after every ride because the salt from your horse's sweat eats at the foam or rubber-like material and the grit wears it down. Excessive salt and sweat on a pad's underside or excessive exposure to sun on the topside can cause a pad to disintegrate and crack down the middle.
Once clean, a synthetic pad can be left to drip dry, which will take much less time than a fleece or wool pad/blanket.
Pad manufacturers recommend wiping the leather trim on pads and blankets clean with a damp cloth and applying a good leather conditioner afterward. Avoid heat, especially in a dryer, with any pad that has leather.
You can wash or hose off the leather along with the pad, as long as you recondition the leather. Lightly oil the wear leathers, like you would your saddle, so they won't become too dry, shrink or curl.
The things that damage leather most are the same things that can damage the pad itself - too much exposure to sun and the salt, hair and dirt buildup coming through from the underside.
Let's face it, if you and your horse are out enjoying the trails or working hard in the arena, dirt and sweat are inevitable. But their effect on your saddle pads and blankets are easily minimized.
For more information about all kinds or saddle pads go to www.saddlefitter.com