More often than not your padding isn’t functioning quite like you think it is. In fact, it may be contributing to a condition called bridging, a very common situation with western saddle fit today. If your saddle fits well, you’ll require only a simple saddle pad. In fact, if you add too much bulk with saddle padding you can cause the saddle not to fit and create pressure points.
THE CAUSE OF BRIDEGING
A major cause of sore backs in horses is that the saddle is bridging their backs. Like a bridge spanning a gully, a gap forms between the saddle and the horse’s back just behind the withers. Because the bars are not spread out enough to allow the saddle to sit on the back, pressure is put on the shoulders and back of the saddle from the weight being carried on four small points on both sides of the withers and the loins. Traditional Western saddles are often too tight due to substantial padding. Given that the padding used today is thicker and many horses are wider, the resulting effect is often trees that are not wide enough to avoid bridging. Horses experiencing this will be reluctant to extend their gaits and the pressure will cause pain, tissue damage and associated white hairs.
HOW TO DETECT BRIDGING
So how do you detect bridging in your saddle fit, and how can it
be fixed or improved? One way is to use a thin flexible spatula and probe under your saddle between the saddle pad and your saddle. Slide the spatula side to side and wiggle up and down to see if you can feel a void area where there seems to be no contact or weight of the saddle. Sweat patterns can sometimes give you an indication where your saddle is in contact with your horse’s back, but cannot always be relied on because of humidity, condition of pad before use, or damaged sebaceous glands in an area due to compromised blood flow from heavy pressure associated with bad fit. To use the sweat pattern method, remove the saddle and padding shortly after you first observe sweat on the horse; otherwise, areas without contact may also sweat with time, making sweat pattern interpretation complex.
SADDLE PAD INFLUENCE
The influence that saddle pads have on saddle pressure is poorly understood. Consider that a saddle pad 1” thick, sitting over a horse’s front shoulders under a saddle with front bars at a 45 degree angle, adds 3 inches to the overall width of the horse and pad. And, the 1-inch pad raises the saddle 1.5 inches. The result of this increase in width is twofold. First, the position of the tree is changed from where it would normally sit without the saddle pad. When the saddle is ultimately put on the horse, it rests on one and often two thicknesses of padding. This is why fitting a bare tree directly on a horse to select the tree build doesn’t work well. Second, the pad raises the saddle more in front than in back due to differing angles of the saddle tree. When padding lifts the front more than the rear it in fact lifts it off the horse’s back in the middle. This occurs if the saddle tree is too narrow or the padding is too thick (over ¾ to 1 inch for an average decent fitting western saddle).
SELECTING A PAD
Your saddle pad should help keep the horse’s back cool and dissipate heat. The pad that rests directly on the horse should have a lot of air between the fibers. For this reason I prefer a fleece material composed of crinkled fibers. While many feel that wool felt breathes better than other materials, thermography tests done with a laser temperature gun showed that fleece on both synthetic and natural fibers out-performed felt. The fleece, which has more loft due to the convoluted shape of the fibers, lets the air wick away the moisture and heat much better than the straight tight fibers of felt. Tightly woven fabrics or felt tend not to provide as much air “buffer.” In addition, they can more easily become sealed or “clogged” with the grime and sweat that working horses produce. It is important to clean this grime and accumulated salt, dirt and dead skin cells off the surface of the pad often. This will also help minimize the hair shearing that can occur over the loins of horses with big trots or gaits and associated lateral movement when rubbing against an abrasive dirty pad surface. Another factor to consider in pad selection is how well it fits your horse. Is it sculpture cut to fit your horse back, or is it flat and wrinkled over the top line? Does it tend to fit tightly over the withers? If so, this can cause swelling and discomfort and tissue damage just like poor saddle fit. Saddle pads are now being made with a curved topline that better fits without folds or pinching. Some are made of thinner high-tech materials as pad makers and pad purchasers are learning that thicker is often not necessarily better