SADDLE PAD HISTORY, FITTING, MATERIALS AND CARE
The saddle pad is a main component of every rider’s tack collection. There are so many materials, cuts and colors to choose from. There are just as many opinions and theories as to what pad to use when, to pad or not to pad, to only use a single pad or sheepskin, etc. A brief history of the saddle pads origins, how a pad should fit, the materials used in present day saddle pads, points to consider when choosing a saddle pad and its care can shed some light into this mainstay of tack.
DEFINITION & HISTORY
The saddle pad is a piece of material that is placed between the saddle and horse that functions as a means of cushioning, protection of the horse’s back, a barrier for dirt and sweat absorption. The saddle pad was the predecessor to the saddle panel on the modern, treed saddle. This simple pad was attached to the horse with straps or ropes and served as a means of cushion and protection on the horse’s back for the rider. As designs evolved, these pads became a more permanent part of the saddle in the form of panels. These panels are meant to provide the necessary padding needed between horse and rider.
The most traditional material used as a saddle pad is sheepskin with the hide still attached. The main advantage of sheepskin is that it is a resilient material with natural moisture wicking properties. A disadvantage to using sheepskin is that it is not easy to clean and difficult to dry. Other traditional materials include cotton, linen, felt and animal hair. More modern pads use a plethora of contemporary materials in their pad construction: memory foam, concussive foam (e.g., ProLite and Thinline), neoprene, and honeycomb thermoplastic (e.g., Supracor).
Saddle pads can be called by several different names: pad, blanket, cloth and numnah. (For simplicity sake, I will use the term “pad” for this article.) There are slight differences between each of these terms.
“Blanket” refers to a square or rectangular pad made of wool or cotton that is usually folded a certain way and is generally used under a military saddle, pack saddle or Western saddle. The term “blanket” refers to the time when it was used during the day’s march for the saddle and horse and as warmth for the sleeping soldier at night. The advantage of folding a blanket versus using a single layer pad was that it could be made thicker to make up for the body condition horses lost on a march. Thus, the saddle could be kept from dropping onto the withers and spine of the horses as they got skinner.
A “cloth” refers to a lighter weight material that is usually elaborated decorated and placed over the top of a pad. Cloths are generally found in the racing world and in medieval times such as jousting. Saddlecloths origins can be traced back to ancient time and were even found in frozen ancient Scythians tombs in the High Altai Mountains.
A “pad” is constructed of layers of foam or felt encased in another material such as cotton. A “numnah” is a British term that means “saddle pad”. The word “numnah” derives from the Urdu word “numdah” meaning “blanket between saddle and horse”. It is also thought that the numnah has its origins in India or Russia.
Just as saddles have their fundamental fitting criteria, pads do too. It is just as important that the saddle pad fit as the saddle itself. Here is a checklist of important saddle pad fitting points:
- Make sure that the pad can be pulled high up into the gullet of the saddle to ensure it does not rub or press down on the withers. This action should be done before girthing the saddle.
- Any seams should be well outside the perimeter of the saddle. If there is a seam along the spine of the pad, make sure that there aren’t any hard edges that could rub on the spine. Seams are of special concern if the pad is shorter than the length of the saddle (which it shouldn’t be). Seams under the cantle of the panel can rub on the horse’s back causing pressure and sores.
- There should be at least an inch of pad exposed around the perimeter of the saddle. Functionally, this keeps seams out from underneath the saddle. Aesthetically, it makes for a nice, finished look to a horse and rider’s turnout.
- If a saddle pads has fleece rolls on the front and back, the saddle should not sit on top of either one but down inside the space between these rolls. When a saddle sits on top of these rolls, there is the potential it could cause pressure and disrupt the saddle’s fit.
- All pads – no matter the material, cut, discipline, English or Western – should have the same shape as the horse’s topline. That is, the spine of the pad should not be straight but cut to follow the natural curve of the withers. Pressure testing has shown that straight cut pads put a lot more pressure over the top of the withers versus pads with the wither shape cut.
Saddle pads are not just limited to traditional cotton and sheepskin any more. Highly sophisticated materials used in hospital settings, airlines and other non-equestrian applications are being made into saddle pads. Their basic functions in these non-equestrian settings lend themselves well to equestrian applications. The materials described below are what I feel are the standard materials used in most saddle pads on the market today.
Starting with the most traditional material, sheepskin, this material disperses heat, naturally breathes, and eliminates friction and bounce. These same properties are not found in synthetic fleece or fleece bonded to fabric. Only sheepskin still attached to its hide encompasses all these features. Some brands of high quality sheepskin pad products are Mattes, Fleeceworks and HorseDream.
Felt has extraordinary wicking properties, superior thermal insulating properties, is highly absorbent, wear resistant and is a renewable and environmentally friendly resource. Most Western saddle pads are made up of single layers of felt up to 1”+ thick or combined with other materials such as shock absorbing foam and cotton top layers for aesthetics. English saddle pads with felt cores are not as common but can absorb some minimal shock and sweat and add a dense layer between horse and saddle.
Open celled, honeycombed foams that can absorb shock, and disperse pressure and heat laterally across its surface are becoming more commonplace in the rider’s every day use. Pressure testing has proven that these foams placed between the saddle and horse’s back help to reduce pressure points in many equestrian activities. Brands such as Thinline and ProLite make many shapes and fits for both English and Western riders.
A newer material used in saddle pads that is sweeping the equestrian world is ceramic infused polyester fiber fabric. When heated, the ceramic particles radiate heat back to the body. Back on Track is a familiar brand using this textile technology and is great for any horse and rider. This pad has also been combined with a Thinline for the ultimate in thermal retention, shock absorption and pressure point elimination.
Memory foam is also a newer type material that is in high demand right now. This light weight yet dense material helps to improve saddle fit by filling in areas that gap and compressing down to nearly nothing in areas that are more snug, to help evenly distribute pressure of the saddle. This material boasts maximum breath-ability and moisture wicking properties. Superior shock absorption can help eliminate back soreness as well. A popular brand that offers these pads is called Ogilvy.
CHOOSING A SADDLE PAD
With so many choices, how can you pick the right pad? The variables are provided by you, your horse, your chosen discipline, the amount of time spent in the saddle, and your type of saddle. We have all been told (myself included!) that if the saddle fits, you should only need one thin pad just to keep dirt and sweat off the saddle’s panel. While there is mostly truth to this statement, this isn’t always the case. Both science and experience has shown that there are horses that prefer a denser pad, fluffier pad or need some type of correction pad between themselves and the saddle. In all cases, the saddle needs to fit properly as pads are not meant to fix saddle fitting problems on a long term basis.
Here are some points to consider when choosing a pad:
- What type of riding do I do? If you fox hunt, run three day events, show jump, competitive trail ride or are an advanced dressage rider, you will putting more stress, shock and pressure on your horse’s back than a more recreational rider. Pads that absorb impact and shock, disperse pressure points and heat laterally across their surface maybe a good choice for these activities. These pads are also good for lesson horses who have many different riders with different ability levels on them, beginner riders who haven’t mastered their balance and stability, riders learning to sit the trot or have back problems of their own. The brand names ProLite and Thinline are pads that use foams with all of these properties. If you ride occasionally for short periods of time and don’t have strenuous workouts, a basic felt core pad or sheepskin backed pad may suffice.
- Listen to your horse. I have often worked with horses who do not like having just a thin, foam centered pad between the saddle and rider. Depending on the materials the saddle’s panel is constructed with, the rider’s ability to stay balanced and stable, and the activity the horse is asked to perform, a denser, shock absorbing pad may be needed. If a change of pad maybe needed, I suggest borrowing a pad from someone first to try before committing to buy. I have seen remarkable changes in horses’ movement and attitude with just the change of the pad! Even the most stoic horse will react to a positive change in comfort. Since you are the most acquainted with your horse, you will know if changing the pad made a difference or not.
- Follow fitting principles, not trends. Yes, if the saddle fits, a regular, thin pad should be OK. However, putting more pads or thicker pads underneath a well fitting saddle isn’t necessarily the best thing for your horse’s comfort. The analogy that is most often used to demonstrate this principle is that if you are wearing a well fitting pair of shoes, you aren’t going to wear multiple pairs of socks to make the shoes more comfortable. This is especially true of “close contact” saddles whose panels are very thin (usually a single thickness or multiple thicknesses of foam) and need multiple pads to support them thus negating the sought after close contact feel! Always have the saddle’s fit checked by a knowledgeable, reputable saddle fitter. They should examine the saddle’s fit directly on the horse’s back first without the pads and then with the pads. It should also be noted that just because So-And-So Professional Rider is endorsing or riding in a specific brand of saddle pad doesn’t necessarily mean that pad is right for your horse or your riding. Discuss your padding concerns, needs and thoughts with your saddle fitter who can help sort out what pads are best for you and your horse.
- MATERIAL COMPRESSION! This is probably the most important consideration of all! Whatever pad you are considering using, pinch it between your pointer finger and thumb to get an idea of what that material will compress to once it is sandwiched between a girthed up saddle and the horse’s back and then a rider’s weight is added. It may appear to be an 1” thick but once you pinch it, it may squish down to no more than a ¼”! I often find this to be especially true of fluffy synthetic fleece pads popular in the HJ world, the square, straight cut poly pads used by three day eventers and the thin, foam core pads favored by dressage riders. Do not be fooled by outward appearances. This ‘compression test’ is especially crucial when dealing with high, thin withered horses. Thick appearing pads often do not stay that way! On the other hand, wide, round withered horses do not need to have thick pads between the saddle and their backs. Thicker pads will only contribute to possible side-to-side rolling the saddle may already be experiencing.
Making sure that your saddle pad receives the same maintenance and care as the rest of your tack will ensure that it performs to expectation and lasts a long time. Here are some guidelines to follow for daily care and longevity:
- Follow the manufacturer’s cleaning and care instructions. The specific maintenance your pad will need should be described by the manufacturer and included with the pad when purchased. If you are purchasing the pad second hand, these instructions will not be included. Contact the manufacturer or look up the manufacturer or brand distributor on the internet to find care instructions.
- With natural materials such as wool, cotton, linen, and felt, make sure the use the mildest, fragrance free detergent possible. Using the mildest soap possible reduces the possibility of allergic skin reactions on the horse’s back. Front loading washing machines are able to get more soap and water out of heavy items such as saddle pads better than traditional agitator tub machines.
- Real sheepskin still has leather hide attached to it. This leather can dry out and crack if not maintained. If you use the sheepskin directly against the horse’s skin, be sure to brush or rake up the sheerling (the fluffy part) with your fingers to help it dry out quicker. Remember that the salt in the sweat absorbed by the sheerling can penetrate into the leather hide part which can cause it to dry out and crack. These pads should either be hand or machine washed periodically to remove the salt and dirt from the sheerling. Do NOT dry a hide backed sheepskin pad in a dryer or near a heat source! This WILL shrink the entire pad and make the hide backing weak possibly resulting in cracking. Always air-dry these pads!
- Regular pads constructed of cotton, felt and foam need to washed on a somewhat frequent basis. Washing a pad every day can cause the pad to fall apart and a pad that is never washed can get hard and unhygienic. If you ride frequently, the pad should be washed more often. At the very least, rotate the pads when washing is needed.
- Wet saddle pads should not be stored on top of saddles or underneath them as this keeps moisture trapped against the leather causing the leather to become hard and can contribute to mold growth.
“Horses & Saddlery”, Major G. Tylden, 1965 J.A. Allen
“The Allen Illustrated Guide to Saddlery”, Hilary Vernon, 2004 J.A. Allen
“The Illustrated Guide to Horse Tack”, Susan McBane, 1992 Storey Publishing
“The Essential Book of Horse Tack and Equipment”, Susan McBane, 2000 David & Charles
Back on Track: www.backontrack.com/how-it-works-13.htm