You’ve been putting off replacing your worn and torn saddle pad, but the time has come to retire the tired old pad, relegating it perhaps to a new life as a bed for your farm dog. You pick up a copy of the latest horse supply catalog and are immediately confused and overwhelmed by the many different choices of saddle pads now available. You want to purchase the pad best suited for your horse; but it is hard to decide which type of pad is preferable. What material should you choose? What shape? You toss the catalog back onto the table and walk away aggravated and perplexed. It shouldn’t be this hard!
Before making that purchase, it is good to understand the purpose of the saddle pad: to provide your horse comfort and cushioning for the saddle, to prevent dirt, sweat, or other debris to accumulate on your horse’s back, and to remove moisture and heat. The conformation of your horse’s back also comes into play when selecting the best pad.
One general rule to always remember: No saddle pad is going to correct the problems and pain caused by an ill-fitting saddle. Always make sure your saddle properly fits your horse. Some folks will add an extra pad under the saddle, thinking this will make the saddle fit better; however, this only compounds the problem much like wearing an extra sock in an already too-tight shoe. Keep in mind that at first a new pad under an ill-fitting saddle will appear to work well; however, it does not take long for the pressure points to return and cause soreness in your horse’s back.
Saddle pads are constructed from several different materials. The most common saddle pad, and least expensive, is a heavy cloth pad with a fleece bottom. The fleece may be synthetic (man-made) or natural (wool). Fleece pads are superb for wicking away moisture. Both synthetic and wool fleece pads need to be cleaned regularly to keep dirt and sweat from accumulating within the fibers and breaking the material down. Synthetic fleece normally has a longer service life than wool fleece pads.
One step up from the fleece pad is the felt (compressed wool) pad. Felt provides good shock absorption, as well as the moisture wicking ability of the wool. Felt pads keep your horse’s back cool and dry as it has a sponge effect of pulling sweat into the pad. Felt pads clean up a little easier than fleece pads.
In recent years, saddle pad technology has introduced neoprene, foam, and gel saddle pads. These pads can be a little pricey, but they do have some good attributes, such as shock absorption and letting air move easily to cool your horse’s back. Easy cleaning and stability are an added bonus. These pads can be hosed off with water and allowed to dry. Saddles do not slip easily when they rest on these pads. Gel pads provide extra shock absorption for your horse. Sometimes the new technology couples with the old, and you can find neoprene or foam pads with fleece or felt.
The conformation of your horse’s back will define the best shape a saddle pad should have to provide an ideal fit. If your horse has low or mutton-chopped withers, choose a normal saddle pad, one without build-ups or inserts. A round-skirted, contoured pad would best fit a horse with a short back and high withers. If your horse has a short back, choose a round-skirted saddle pad. A high-withered, long-backed horse would be more comfortable with a built-up, contoured or cut-out pad, which are all designed to relieve pressure in the withers area.