Saddle fitting is a multifactorial and highly dynamic part of our equestrian industry, one that is often poorly performed by non-qualified and improperly trained fitters. In a recent Research Refresh on the Equine platform, we saw that saddles fitted more than once annually correlated with horses that had more symmetrical back musculature, and riders who were more balanced and had reduced back pain.

One of the questions I often face as a non-saddle fitter is whether or not to use a saddle pad to improve the fit of a saddle. So let’s explore this question, with some advice from Certified Master Saddler and Saddle Ergonomist Jochen Schleese from Saddlefit 4 Life.

The purpose of a saddle pad

The simple purpose of a saddle pad is to protect the leather of the saddle from the sweat and hair of the horse. But of course, in true human style, we have made things more complicated than they need to be.

In a saddle that fits well, the saddle pad need only fulfil the above function, and in that case a thin cotton saddle pad shaped to the contours of the horse’s back is perfect. No more is needed.  When we require our saddle pads to meet additional needs or goals, we might be asking them to:

1. distribute pressure more evenly from saddle and rider to horse
2. reduce friction between horse and saddle
3. absorb shock
4. improve the balance of a saddle

These are all goals that should, and can, be met by a well-fitting saddle.
But, as always, the clients will use what they choose to use, and many non-qualified saddle salespersons will sell a saddle to a rider that bridges, pinches the shoulder, isn’t balanced, or that the horse can ‘grow into’. And in some situations, riders will have many horses and a limited number of saddles, using one saddle for various horses and improving the fit with a riser pad, a sheepskin with fillers, gel pads, and various other variations.
Let’s look at some of these.

Various saddle pads

1. Riser pads can be used to lift the saddle in the front, or in the back, as long as the pad material gradually thins towards the front end or the back end. If the pad does not gradually thin, they can twist or break the tree of the saddle. Riser pads come in many materials and levels of adjustability, including foam, felt, rubber and fabric designs.

2. Filler/shim pads are sheepskin or similar pads with usually four, sometimes six pockets that allow you to place an insert or shim into the pockets to raise the saddle in specific areas, so that you can adjust the balance of the saddle from front to back or side to side. This can be used to compensate for a horse that is asymmetrical or is growing and developing, as well as for an interim solution until the saddle fitter comes out to fit the saddle correctly. They don’t work at all unless the saddle pad is actually attached (Velcroed) to the saddle. If not properly attached, the shim/filler pad will move around between the horse’s back and the saddle, causing problems – similar to when an orthotic moves around in a shoe, causing issues when humans walk and land on the edges of the orthotic.

3. Gel pads are used to improve shock absorption and to allow a more comfortable fit, and come in quite a few variations. The material was originally developed to protect chronic care patients from bedsores. These work if the gel pad is separated on the left and right side, leaving an area for the spine, and if the pad is no more than 3-4” wide and 16-17” long. If it is in one solid piece it will massively increase the heat on the horse’s back and pull tight over the horse’s spine and wither area (like an elastic band around your finger).

4. Memory foam saddle pads can be used to improve the pressure distribution under a saddle, as the foam will be thinner under areas where the saddle makes closer contact with the back, and thicker under areas where it is further away, improving comfort for the horse and distributing the rider’s weight more evenly across the saddle support area. Memory foam pads increase pressure massively over the horse’s spine and nerve roots if there is not a minimum 4” gullet space for the spine along the length of the pad (preferably 6-8” in the front and 3-4” in the back to accommodate the spine and wither cap).

5. There are three common practices concerning the use of thermoplastic saddle pads. They are created to mould the contact surface between the saddle and the horse according to each individual horse-rider-saddle team (like orthotics for shoes), but can be remoulded as the horse develops and changes.

  • The mould may be made while the horse is standing still. If it hardens to the horse’s back before movement, it will remain smooth and even – but won’t work dynamically because the horse’s three-dimensional back changes during riding.
  • The plastic may be pre-heated prior to the ride and will then harden during riding. The advantage is that the average back shape from the various gaits will determine the shape of the pad; however, the average pressure point will also harden into the pad.
  • The pad may not be pre-heated, but simply placed between the saddle and the horse’s back to softens up during riding. It hardens only after the ride. The problem here is that during riding it actually has no benefit to either horse or rider, since it hardens into its shape only after the fact. (That would be like a pair of mushy orthotics that do nothing while you’re walking and only harden when you take them out of your shoes.)

In other words, thermoplastic pads (orthotic pads) are basically counter-intuitive. Orthotics in shoes work for humans to support the foot if the surface they’re used on (the street) is flat and doesn’t change. The purpose is to protect the foot/leg/back. The underside of the thermoplastic pad (orthotic) is on the horse’s back, which changes constantly during riding. If you want to protect the back, this is not the best option.

How to choose

The most important points to consider when choosing a saddle pad are whether or not it is correctly shaped to prevent any pressure on the spine, whether it narrows the gullet of the saddle and thereby restricts space and motion, whether it decreases the tree width, which will restrict the shoulder by increasing the pressure in that area, and whether or not it fits your horse-saddle-rider team.

Far more important, in the end, is to ensure that your saddle fits properly so that all that is really needed is a thin, wither-relief cotton pad to keep the sweat off the leather. Any corrective saddle pad should in essence be used only if absolutely necessary to avoid potential damage to the horse’s back, spine, and wither cap.

Thank you to Jochen Schleese for collaborating on the writing of this blog, and sharing your experience and professional opinion in this subject.

For more resources on the subject of saddlery:

Podcast Ep 96 The Secrets of the Saddlery industry, with Jochen Schleese.
THE 8 MYTHS OF SADDLE FITTING with Jochen Schleese, Vet Rehab Summit 2019 in the Equine Members Portal.
And of course, the Saddlefit 4 life Academy.

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