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 Research Refresh on the Equine platform (Saddle fit, management and the relationship to asymmetry), 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 a reduced incidence of back pain.
One of the questions I am often asked as a Vet Physio (and absolutely not a saddle fitter) is whether or not to use a saddle pad to improve the fit of a saddle. To answer this question, I spoke to Certified Master Saddler and Saddle Ergonomist Jochen Schleese from Saddlefit 4 Life. And because one person’s view is never enough for us at Onlinepethealth, I also spoke to Maxine Marsden, an orthotist and prosthetist as well as an avid rider and trainer.
The purpose of a saddle pad
The pure and 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 far 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. But in the words of Maxine, ‘Unfortunately we don’t live in an ideal world and sometimes we have to make a plan.’
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 absolutely can, be met by a well-fitting saddle.
But as Jochen shares with us in his podcast and his webinar in the Equine Members Portal (The 8 Myths of Saddle Fitting), many inadequately 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 other 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 of saddle pads.
Let’s look at some of the available and commonly used saddle pads.
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. Jochen explains that riser pads come in many materials and levels of adjustability, including foam, felt, rubber and fabric designs.
Maxine adds: ‘Riser pads are used exclusively as space fillers to correctly balance the saddle. They will not alleviate pressure on pressure-sensitive areas once the saddle is correctly balanced.
‘If the unbalanced saddle was causing pain (which it will), the correct riser pad will obviously help with that.’
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, and can be an interim solution until the saddle fitter comes out to fit the saddle correctly. According to Jochen: ‘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.’
In Maxine’s experience: ‘The “pockets” are sewn into the numnah, into which the filler and shim pads can be inserted. However, these pockets do not allow a seamless transition between front and back. So if you have four pockets, two on each side of the spine, the front pocket will always be separated from the back pocket by a seam. This seam will create a pressure point that – depending on the thickness of the shims – can become quite extreme. For the same reason the shims must be skived down to a very fine edge to avoid a trim line pressure point. The seam lines separating right from left are not as much of an issue if you have adequate spinal clearance.’
3. Gel pads are used to improve shock absorption and to allow a more comfortable fit, and come in quite a few variations. According to Jochen: ‘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 inches wide and 16-17 inches 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.’
Maxine adds: ‘What Jochen says about gel pads I have found to be true. However, I have also found that while a textbook may describe a “perfect” fit, the horse in reality may prefer a fit that shows a slight deviance from the perfect fit, i.e. a gel pad may allow a horse slightly more wiggle room if the particular horse does not want a perfectly stable saddle.
‘That explains it very badly! I’ll give you a human prosthetic example. We are taught the “perfect textbook way” to manufacture and fit a prosthetic socket. However, we always make a test socket. This allows us to make modifications to the test socket based on patient feedback. So while we are taught what is the ideal pressure on any one point of the residual limb, some patients prefer more pressure and a tighter fit while other patients prefer less pressure and a looser fit. None of the patients differ massively from the textbook but their preferences do show moderate variances around the central ideal.
‘The gel pad provides shock absorption, but in doing so it also allows the horse slightly more movement in the back before the horse must work within the saddle’s parameters.’
4. Memory foam saddle pads are marketed 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.
According to Jochen: ‘Memory foam pads increase pressure massively over the horse’s spine and nerve roots if there is not a minimum 4-inch gullet space for the spine along the length of the pad (preferably 6-8 inches in the front and 3-4 inches in the back to accommodate the spine and wither cap).’
5. Thermoplastic Saddle Pads have many factors involved, any one of which may determine how well or even whether the pad works. Thermoplastic pads 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.
According to Jochen: ‘There are three common practices concerning the use of thermoplastic saddle pads. In the first instance, the mould may be made while the horse is standing still. If it hardens to the shape of 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. In the second instance, 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. In the last instance, the pad may not be pre-heated, but simply placed between the saddle and the horse’s back to soften 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.
‘In other words, thermoplastic pads (orthotic pads) are basically counter-intuitive. If you want to protect the back, this is not the best option.’
Maxine expands on this: ‘Most of the points Jochen makes about the thermoplastic are correct, but what he has not clarified is the kind of thermoplastic used. He is describing applications of low-temperature thermoplastic pads. If you left them lying in the sun, most of them will soften and lose their precise shape anyway, and most low-temperature thermoplastics have a lifespan with a maximum five remouldings before they need to be replaced. So this is not a good product to use in this application.
‘However, there would be a significant difference if you used an alternative thermoformable material – either something like memoflex (moderately high temperature) or high-temperature thermoplastics.
‘High temperature thermoplastics can be moulded only once, and need to be created from a negative mould of the horse’s back. This is incredibly time consuming and also not a practical method.
‘If you mould an orthotic or a thermoplastic without any corrective forces in play, all you are doing is taking up space and capturing (at best) or exacerbating the patient’s issues/faults/incorrect biomechanics.
‘Using a thermoplastic moulded saddle pad can be useful when it is moulded correctively, but not in the applications we as riders would most often want to use them.’
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. 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 and Maxine Marsden for collaborating on the writing of this blog, and for sharing your experiences and professional opinions on 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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