A Complete Buying Guide

There are literally thousands of options available when it comes to making most purchases today. We are overwhelmed with advertising hype from every corner of the media, all claiming to know what we want or need before we know it ourselves. Buying just the right saddle pad for you and your horse is no exception to the many choice rule, but the fact remains that not all saddle pads are created equal.

Our A Complete Buying Guide is designed to ease the purchase decision for first-time saddle pad buyers, right alongside the veteran rider, by arming you with solid and proven facts about all aspects of saddle pad construction. We hope A Complete Buying Guide offers sufficient information, to allow for a better understanding of your horse's needs and to take the guess work out of your purchase decision.

Regardless of your choice, it will always be necessary to monitor your horse's response to the saddle and saddle pad.

Purpose of Saddle Pad

A saddle pad should:

  • reduce moisture and cool the horse's back;

  • reduce pressure on the horse's back;

  • prevent the saddle from slipping and rocking; and

  • protect the saddle from dirt, sweat and horse hair.

Saddle Pad Selection: The Basics

It goes without saying that the saddle pad must provide comfort to the horse. More importantly, the saddle pad must have two particular attributes; namely:

  • breathability, and

  • a means for controlling moisture or sweat.

If the saddle pad does not "breathe," heat will increase under the saddle and moisture evaporation will be less effective. At the same time, moisture must be absorbed and allowed to evaporate (this process is called "wicking"). It is also important to note that the efficiency of the pad can be maintained with regular cleaning. Consequently, "ease of care" is another important feature when considering the purchase of a saddle pad.

Most Important: The Saddle Fit

It is generally understood that a saddle pad cannot completely correct the problems created by a poor fitting saddle. A Complete Buying Guide will not address the issues surrounding the selection of a saddle but will present a few thoughts on relationship of pads and saddles, below:

  • it is less likely a saddle pad will cause any problems if the saddle fits correctly;

  • a saddle pad should cushion rather than change the saddle's balance or cause additional pressure;

  • it is not unusual for a horse to move better with your use of a new saddle pad but if the saddle is a poor fit, the pressure points will return in a few days or weeks;

  • a poor fitting saddle alters blood flow in the horse's back, increasing muscle tension and inhibiting spine flexibility;

  • a horse will not develop muscling where there is a pressure point;

  • red flags: white spots, heat spots, hair loss or uneven sweat patterns.

How Do You Ride?

The use or type of riding you will do should also be part of the selection process. Fortunately, today manufacturers offer saddle pads designed specifically for particular uses. There are all-purpose/show pads, barrel racer pads, bareback, farm and ranch and contour/performance saddle pads for special needs which might involve injury, high or low withers, etc.

For example:

  • a cutter who will not be riding for long periods, needs a relatively thin saddle pad to maintain close contact;

  • a roper needs maximum shock absorption;

  • a barrel racer needs a rounded pad that is very tight, and

  • for pleasure or endurance riders, a light, very breathable pad that distributes the rider's weight evenly is the preferred choice.

Should the Shape or Type of Construction Be Considered?

  • Straight Saddle Pad: The straight saddle pad is usually found in sizes 36"x34" or 38"x34" and is better suited for horses with flat backs and normal or rounded withers.

  • Round Saddle Pad: The round saddle pad is most often used on horses with short backs or with saddles that have rounded skirts.

  • Performance or Contour Saddle Pad: Performance or contour pads are designed for horses with prominent withers and have a slight dip in their back. The main purpose of this design is to relieve pressure from the withers.

  • Swayback Saddle Pad: As the name implies, the pad is designed for a horse with a swayback along with prominent withers that create a dip in the back. The swayback saddle pad is sometimes used to reduce the pressure coming from the corners of the saddle tree and redistribute or spread the pressure across the three bars if the tree.

  • Cutout Saddle Pad: The cutout saddle pad has a section "cutout" in the front of the pad to eliminate any pressure on the withers.

How Much Padding Do I Need?

Again, your horse's physical features and the saddle fit determine the amount of padding required. A few points to consider:

  • a thin pad underneath a poor fitting saddle will maintain or increase the pain;

  • additional padding may not be the answer, either. Additional padding may press up into the gullet, narrowing it which actually increases pressure rather than decreasing it;

  • an overly thick pad can put direct pressure on the horse's spine and the nerves that run along the spine;

  • thick pads also lead to rocking which causes the rider to cinch tighter which will result in other physical problems;

  • sometimes a thick pad can be used to fit a saddle which is too wide but this same pad under a narrow saddle will cause problems;

  • thicker saddle pads can be helpful for older or out of condition horses that lack muscling; the padding will create "artificial" muscle. As the horse's body shape changes, it will be necessary to increase or decrease the padding keeping in mind that muscle will not develop at pressure points;

  • a horse with low withers and good muscling does not need a thick pad;

  • horses with high withers need a thicker pad which will allow the saddle to sit level;

  • again, knowing your horse's health, age or physical condition and saddle fit will make the decision about pad thickness much easier.

Saddle Pad Size

  • a proper fitting saddle pad will extend 1" beyond the saddle on all sides. In other words, the saddle pad must be 2" longer than the length of the saddle and 2" wider than the underside of the skirts.

Materials

There are two classes of material used in saddle pads: synthetic and natural. A few of the more common synthetic materials used include gels, textile fabrics, neoprene and closed cell foam. Natural materials include wool; fleece, felt and leather (wear leathers). While synthetics have glamorous sounding names and focus on comfort, these materials were never originally designed for the manufacture of saddle pads. As you review the materials list below, keep in mind the two basic attributes of a good saddle pad: breathability and moisture control (Wicking).Further, synthetics will not absorb moisture, cotton will absorb moisture equal to its own weight and wool three times its own weight. Synthetic materials will also trap heat.

  • Wool: (blankets) New Zealand is the wool of choice of the better brands because the material is durable and holds color well. Merino wool is also of high quality but extremely expensive. Be careful of non-brands that advertise" wool." Too often the “wool” is a coarser grade from India or Mexico which is not as colorfast nor durable nor subject to quality control as New Zealand wool production.

  • Mohair: (blanket) this material is made from the hair of the Angora goat; a fine fabric but often expensive. A mohair blanket typically weighs twice that of a New Zealand wool blanket. Usually manufacturers blend a small percentage of wool with the mohair.

  • Felt: Felt or compressed wool is found in most saddle pads because of its ability to absorb moisture and provide cushioning for both horse and rider. There are 15 grades of felt. Most saddle pad manufacturers use F15 but studies show F11 is more efficient (wicking) because if its virgin wool content (98% for F11 vs., 55% for F15).

  • Fleece: Fleece bottoms are found on many pads Fleece provides cushioning, does not trap heat and wicks away moisture. However, looks can be deceiving. First of all, the term "fleece" is used to describe material which is synthetic, part wool and synthetic or pure wool. Secondly, the USDA defines wool with a scale of 16 grades with wool possessing a thinness shaft at the top and thicker shaft wool at the bottom. Thinner shafted wool wicks moisture more efficiently. Wool fleece is sometimes described as inexpensive but the higher grades are costly, particularly if they have been "super washed" to eliminate matting and to allow easier cleaning.

  • Merino wool: Merino wool is considered the finest wool and many saddle pad companies advertise the fact their pads have "Merino wool fleece." The term "Merino wool" is used somewhat loosely in the textile industry which means a saddle pad might be made with pure Merino wool fleece or a wool fleece that has all the technical attributes of Merino wool but did not necessarily come from the Merino breed.

  • Top-grain leather: This term is used quite often in marketing saddle pads (refers to wear leathers).The term means that the split layer has been separated away making it thinner and more pliable than full- grain leather. In addition (again in contrast to full- grain) the surface has been sanded to remove imperfections and a finish coat applied which reduces breathability. Top-grain leather has a greater resistance to stains than full-grain leather provided the surface is not broken. Full-grain leather is used to make leather furniture and shoes.

  • Warp: The term refers to the group of strings through which yarn is woven. Wool is sometimes used as warp but the strongest saddle pad will be woven with synthetic warp

  • Canvas: Canvas or "suck" is a cotton fabric used most often with farm or ranch pads, the material are durable and water repellent. A quality pad should be made from 8 oz. or 10 oz. duck. If the material "bleeds" (loses its color) the dye or dying process was of poor quality.

  • Cotton/synthetics: Cotton, synthetic or a blend of cotton and synthetic material are used to produce the blanket portion of saddle pads, these materials go under many different names. Mayatex, for example, markets "Kashmilon," which is a washable synthetic yarn. While these materials are colorful and easy to maintain, they do not have the wicking ability of wool. Still, the quality of the pad can only be determine by considering its other components such as whether felt and/or fleece has been used.

  • Neoprene: Cellular rubber is another name for this closed cell material. The material is elastic and easy to maintain. Neoprene tends to send pressure points through to the horses' back but can be supportive under a heavy addle The waffle bottom on some pads is promoted as helping the pad to breathe. This feature may or may not be true depending on whether there is horse hair, skin or fat layers accumulated in the holes. Neoprene may become sticky or slick and this feature is promoted as preventing saddle slippage. But this could also cause the horse's hair and skin to be constantly pulled and stretched creating frictional heat resulting in sores. The material does not wick but if the material is combined with felt or possibly fleece, the pad's effectiveness would be improved.

  • Open cell or Polyurethane Foam Pads: If used as filler, the compression protection of this material is poor. Open cell foams will bottom out but will not interfere with saddle fit. As with neoprene, above, the accumulation of hair, skin or fat layers will reduce air flow and stickiness or slickness might lead to sores. As mentioned above, combining this material with, say, felt will improve its performance since the material, by itself, will not wick.

  • Gel: There is little debate about the ability of this material to lessen the impact from sharp blows. Not all gels are the same; some are produced in molds and others are rolled out in sheets. While some gels are better than others they all suffer from the fact they trap heat and do not wick moisture. However, when used judiciously with a wool blanket, felt and or fleece, the negative aspects can be reduced. The use of this material will increase the pad's cost.

Final Tips

  • One way to test the strength and resiliency of your saddle pad is to squeeze the pad; if you do not feel your fingers, the new pad should have enough thickness.

  • Another suggestion is to hold the pad to your mouth and blow --- if you feel your breath, this is a good indication your saddle pad "breathes."

  • Is your saddle pad fleece real or fake? Pull a fiber from the fleece and hold it in a flame. If it melts, it's synthetic but if it crinkles or smolders, it is a good sign you have the real thing.

One last suggestion when you are in the market for a saddle pad; do not rush the purchase. Take your time making your selection. Gather as much practical information as possible from as many sources as you feel necessary, rather than letting a colorful appearance alone make the decision for you.

Your horse will thank you by giving it's best every time you saddle up, so enjoy the ride!