Saddle pads are almost too important to be called an accessory. Pads combine with the saddle to create the riding experience for both horse and rider.
The purpose of the saddle pad is to:
- Reduce pressure on the horse’s back
- Remove water and cool the back
- Prevent the saddle from slipping and rocking
- Protect the saddle from dirt, sweat, and horse hair
Check out the wide selection of Saddle Pads and Blankets in the Tack Shop or at State Line Tack.
The better a saddle fits, the less important the saddle pad is. A good indication of a poorly fitting saddle is a rider on an endless quest for the perfect saddle pad. You know these folks. They have over 20 pads in their collection and are always ready to tell you about their latest discovery.
While pads can help correct some minor saddle fitting problems such as adjusting a saddle to fit a number of horses of the same physical type, they can’t make a poorly built or fitting saddle fit your horse.
There has been an explosion of new products in the saddle pad market. There are so many choices available today that it can make your head spin. New technologies and synthetic materials adapted from other industries such as medicine and space have fed this explosion. One other important contributing factor is the increase in the number of inexpensive manufactured saddles being sold today. Poorly fitting saddles have sent many a rider on the fruitless quest for the perfect saddle pad.
Start with a well fitting saddle and your saddle pad choice will be a breeze. There are many great pads on the market today.
Saddle pad materials fall into two main categories – natural fibers and synthetic materials.
Saddle pads were traditionally made of natural fibers. Today you’ll find pads and blankets made of wool, mohair, cotton, and blends of these materials. Wool, mohair and wool/mohair blends are considered the superior natural fibers for pads. They “breathe” well by absorbing moisture and wicking it away, conform well to the horse’s back, and are very durable. The best are woven tight and are very dense.
Wool blankets have been excellent saddle pads for many, many years. The traditional Navajo blankets are the top of the line in wool saddle blankets. They’re 100% wool, very soft, durable, absorbent, and beautiful. They use heavy textured yarn running both ways of the weaving to create a very strong material. An authentic Navajo blanket is pricey and hard to find. Be aware that there are many, many Navajo knock-offs on the market. These knock-offs may or may not be 100% wool, but they aren’t constructed with the same yarn quality or weaving methods. Nowadays, just about any wool blanket with an Indian pattern is marketed as a “Navajo.” Price is usually a good indicator of quality. A $15 “Navajo” blanket is far from authentic.
Saddle blankets are traditionally doubled to create enough cushioning to stand on their own. Some folks prefer to use a blanket on top of a pad. If you choose this style, you should use a thinner pad such as a blanket liner to ensure that you haven’t created too much bulk. Some blankets are sold as single layer and can usually be placed over a regular pad without problems.
The synthetic materials include nylon, rayon, rubber, and plastic. Some of these pads, particularly the ones using materials developed in the medical industry, are very good at cushioning, cooling, and absorbing moisture. They’re designs incorporate technologies that improve performance and comfort.
Neoprene (a rubber material) pads have become popular of late. While they do a great job of stopping slippage and providing cushioning, they create quite a bit of heat and don’t absorb moisture very well.
A properly fitting pad will extend at least one inch beyond the saddle on all sides. This means that you should choose a pad that is at least 2 inches longer than the length of your saddle and 2 inches wider than the width of the underside of the skirts. A smaller pad won’t provide enough protection and can result in sores. A pad that's too big can cause problems, too by creating excess heat and bulk.
Before each use, inspect your pad for burs, twigs, hay or other annoying things that will drive your horse crazy rubbing on his back while you ride. Think about walking around with a stone in your shoe all day.
In between use, a pad needs to air out and dry completely. The best solution is to have a bar (saddle pad bar or fence) that you can hang the pad on. The worse thing you can do is to place the pad with the horse-side (sweaty side) down on top of your saddle. This impedes drying and also transfers the moisture to your saddle. That’s just icky. If you have no other option, lay the pad with the horse-side up on your saddle.
A pad needs to be cleaned regularly. Dirt, hair, sweat and other crud builds up quickly on a pad and becomes an irritant to your horse.
Some Additional Tips
- Different riding activities call for different types of pads. A roper needs maximum shock absorption. A cutter, who won’t be riding for long periods, needs only a thin blanket so that close contact is maintained. A barrel racer needs a rounded pad that’s very light. An endurance or pleasure rider needs a lighter, highly breathable pad that helps distribute the rider’s weight evenly. Like saddles, different uses require different saddle pads.
- Many riders mistakenly believe that the thicker the pad the better. This is a common mistake. Too much bulk under the saddle makes the saddle unstable and interferes with your contact with the horse. It also increases the amount of heat generated and the chance that you’ll have a fold or bunched up area that will cause discomfort and a sore.
- Wear leathers are small strips of leather sewn onto the edge of the pads to protect against wear from the rubbing of the stirrup leathers. These are a nice addition, but shouldn’t be too thick or they’ll interfere with contact with your horse.
- ”Self-conforming” is a current buzzword in saddle pads. Many pads now have gels and liquids inserted to cushion and conform the pad to the horse’s back. While there are some great new technology pads out there, the concept is definitely not new. Wool and mohair are great self-conforming materials and they've been around for ages.
- Some pads have a “cut-away” design, where the pad has a cut out for the withers. This is an especially nice option for high-withered horses that might find a full pad rubbing on the withers uncomfortable.
The bottom line remains that the better your saddle fits, the less important the saddle pad will be. Start with a good fitting saddle, add a quality pad, and you’ll have a great outfit.