A look through the choices of saddle pads can leave you with your head spinning. Open cell, closed cell, foam, gel, cotton, sheepskin, the varieties are endless.  So what makes a good saddle pad and which one should you choose?

Why do we use saddle pads at all?

The primary purpose of a saddle pad is to provide comfort for the horse when he is ridden. It acts as a buffer between the hard saddle and the skin and muscles of your horse’s back. Saddle pads also act to wick moisture and heat from the surface of the skin. This can help prevent slipping of the saddle and potentially manage muscle fatigue due to heat. And of course, a saddle pad helps to keep sweat and dirt off your very expensive saddle!

What about saddle fit?

A pad can help correct minor saddle fitting problems by filling in spaces where the saddle doesn’t contact properly, but a saddle pad should never be a substitute for proper saddle fit. Many studies have been conducted to assess saddle fit. These have shown that pressure areas or patterns from the saddle increase in severity with increases in speed, weight, and instability of the rider, or ill fit of the saddle. A saddle pad should ideally help to alleviate pressure areas, or at least not make then worse.

What about all the different materials? What is best for my horse?

A recent study by Kotschwar, et al. out of the Movement Science Group Vienna, clinical Department for Companion Animals and Horses, University of Veterinary Medicine, Austria, independently evaluated different types of saddle pads. In their study, horses were ridden at the walk and sitting trot on a treadmill while wearing a dressage saddle and four different saddle pads. Additionally, they were tested with no saddle pad as a control. The four types of saddle pads were gel, leather, foam, and reindeer fur. Yes, reindeer fur! They used a pressure pad under each of the saddle pads, as well as the saddle alone, to collect data on pressure distribution. They also collected data on what they called maximum overall force (MOF). A decrease in MOF indicated improved saddle fit, whereas an increase in MOF indicated worsened saddle fit. Only the reindeer fur pad decreased the MOF and the pressure distribution! None of the other pad worsened any of the pressure measurements.

Another study looking at different types of Western saddle pads found that none of them did any harm, but none were significantly better than others. It did find that more expensive pads tend to hold up better. (They tested each pad for 200 hours of riding).

What does all this mean?

Unless you can get your hands on a reindeer fur saddle pad, the studies suggest that most of the popular styles available today will do the job. Which one you chose can be based on your budget, amount of expected use, fashion sense, and ease of care.

Registered 2011 by Equestrian Collections
Author: Sallie S. Hyman, VMD, DACVIM, CVA

Information in this article is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for evaluation by an equine professional. In particular, all horse owners should seek advice and treatment from a licensed veterinarian, such as TEVA, for their horses' medical care.

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