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Open any equine catalog and there are numerous pages of saddle pads and blankets, each one offering benefits to the horse and rider. How do you choose?
Saddle pads and blankets used to come in only a few varieties. There were fleece types, wool or synthetic, quilted cotton, or the woven blanket type. The main purpose for a pad or blanket was to keep the saddle clean. Now the choices can be mind boggling.
When deciding on a saddle pad, your first consideration should be your specific needs.
• Are you trying to change or correct the fit of your saddle?
• Does your horse have sore spots or back problems you are trying to address?
• Does your saddle slip?
• Are you looking for a specific design or look?
• What are the needs of the specific discipline you’re involved in?
• Saddle Fit
Saddle fit can only be ‘corrected’ with a pad if the tree is too wide or the horse has uneven muscling. If the tree is too narrow, a new saddle is in order. Adding more padding to a too narrow tree is like trying to correct a pair of shoes that are too small by adding another pair of socks – it only serves to make them tighter.
• Back Problems
Often a sore back is a direct effect of a poorly fitting saddle. Have a qualified saddle fitter check your saddle so you know exactly how it fits your horse. If saddle fit is not the issue, make sure you are balanced on the horse. An imbalanced rider can put stress on the horse’s back. Have your horse checked for lameness. Compensation from lameness can show up in the back as the horse tries to move in a way that is easier for the lame leg or joint. Pads should be contoured to the body and the curves of the back (topline); many pads are flat across the top. This places great pressure on the withers and along the top of the spine adding to back soreness.
• Slippery Saddle
Horses with low or mutton withers can have problems carrying a saddle as the saddle wants to slide off one side or the other. Low withers can also contribute to a saddle sliding too far forward.
Dressage or hunter disciplines require a white or conservative colored saddle pad if they are used. In Western disciplines, there are no rules about color or pattern of the saddle pad or blanket.
A pad used by an endurance rider is going to be much different than one used by a dressage rider. Each discipline, saddle type, and rider may have individual needs that should be addressed.
MATERIALS AND TECHNOLOGY
Historically, materials used for saddles and pads were animal skins, woven or felted animal hair, and woven blankets. Natural sheep fleece has been used to pad saddles for years. Fleece allows air to be trapped, cooling the horse’s back by giving sweat the opportunity to evaporate. The air pockets prevent compression, providing shock absorption and cushioning.
Synthetic fleece has since replaced the natural materials. According to Len Brown, original inventor of the OrthoFlex saddle, polyester fleece is a good substitute because it reduces weight and increases the effect of “wicking away” or allowing moisture to evaporate, which increases cooling of the back. Mr. Brown studied patent history and pers onally tested materials by riding thousands of miles on 27 different breeds of horses before settling on polyester fleece as a base material for his The CorrecTor line of saddle pads. The CorrecTor can correct the fit of a poorly fitting saddle and add the benefit of creating a larger area of weight distribution at the front of the saddle to allow the horse’s back to move as nature intended. The horse’s back is now free to move with a very passive protection from the front and rear shields that are built into the pad. The saddle is automatically being positioned and the weight distributed evenly through leverage of the shield’s extension in front of the tree.
Other manufacturers have gone space age, trying different forms of foam to provide shock absorption. These products have limitations – memory foam completely compresses under the weight of saddle and rider and then does not offer any protection to the back. Gel pads are plastic bladders filled with gel material; the plastic holds heat and the gel moves freely in the large opening and will dissipate under pressure, leaving nothing but the plastic for padding. Neoprene, used to make wet suits for diving, keeps the diver dry while holding in body heat – so on the horse it does not allow for cooling. Neoprene was popular because it was easy to clean, kept the saddle from slipping, and offered some shock absorption.
The ThinLine Company has taken the foam technology to another level, creating a material that offers better shock absorption than neoprene, is non-slip, but is also breathable. The material is very thin so it doesn’t alter a good fitting saddle, but can be modified with shims to correct a badly fitting saddle. ThinLine pads offer the ability to distribute weight evenly without “bottoming out” or compressing. The material is not to be used directly against the horse’s skin, but on top of or inside a regular pad.
ThinLine recently teamed up with Back on Track equine products company. Back on Track manufactures products made in Sweden out of a fabric that has ceramic powder melted into it that becomes imbedded in the material. The resulting fabric reflects body heat as an infrared wave, a form of energy that has a documented pain-relieving effect. This reflected heat can reduce inflammation, ease muscle tension, increase blood circulation and hasten the healing process. Back on Track also manufactures its own line of therapeutic pads and other horse products.
The companies mentioned are only a few of the many options available. When searching for a therapeutic saddle pad, first identify your specific needs, then use it to compare against what each pad offers. Make sure the pads have actually been tested and used on horses. Some of the research cited by different manufacturers states that testing was done in laboratories. A laboratory setting is very different than actual riding conditions and contours of a horse’s back in action. The material needs to be breathable to allow for cooling and have shock absorbing properties to protect the back. Make sure the pad’s design fits your type of saddle. Some companies make pads only for Dressage or hunt type saddles. Choose your pad wisely – your horse will thank you for it.
Theresa Gagnon is a Certified Veterinary Technician and Licensed Massage Therapist. She is the Director of Animal Programs at the Bancroft School of Massage Therapy in Worcester, MA, and a partner with Jodi Clark in Mending Fences Equine Wellness.Theresa’s specialties include craniosacral fascial therapy for animals, rehabilitative massage and modalities, and gait analysis. She can be reached at the school www.HorseAndDogMassage.com , or through www.MendingFencesEquine.com . Email email@example.com
Top right: Magnetic UnderPad from Equine Magnetic Therapy, www.equinemagnetic.com
Middle left and bottom right: CorrecTor pads