These images show the difference in pressure distribution between a horse ridden at the sitting trot wearing no saddle pad (left) vs. a sheepskin saddle pad (right).
Photo: Courtesy Michigan State University
Researchers are learning how different pads stack up for keeping our horses happy and healthy under saddle.
Saddle pads are one of the most fashionable pieces of equipment we put on our horses, but they also serve an important biomechanical purpose. These fabricated foundations can keep our horses comfortable, enabling them to perform better--but only if we've chosen the right ones and paired them with properly fitting saddles.
As scientists have studied saddles and saddle fit, they've discovered how important the underlying pads are. This field of study is still fairly new, and saddle pad researchers are few and far betweem, but The Horse tracked down these scientists to bring you the information they've learned so far and to help you determine how your saddle pad stacks up.
What's the Point?
First and foremost, we need to understand a saddle pad's purpose. With all the emphasis these days on having perfectly fitting saddles, why do we still need pads?
If it's a Western saddle, it needs a pad, period, says Katja Geser-von Peinen, DVM, clinical researcher in the Department of Sports Medicine at the Equine Clinic of Vetsuisse Faculty, in Zurich, Switzerland. Even the best-fitting Western saddles aren't designed to be used without some cushioning.
Secondly, regardless of discipline, a saddle pad can serve to protect your saddle's leather, even if the saddle is a perfect fit. Sweat can break down the soft leather on the underside of the saddle, staining it and making it more likely to tear or break, Geser-von Peinen says.
Further, she says, saddle pads can help distribute pressure that the rider and saddle create, while reducing friction between the saddle and the horse. They can also act as shock absorbers, adds Christian Peham, PhD, DVM, professor in the Movement Science Group at the University of Veterinary Medicine, in Vienna, Austria.
Some pads might even allow horses to "grow into" their saddles, says Anja Kotschwar, DVM, research scientist with the Movement Science Group. "Horses' backs change shape as they grow or develop back muscles through training, but buying a new saddle every time the horse's back evolves is not an affordable option for most riders. Wider saddles leave 'growing room,' and the gaps are fixed with pads." She has discovered that the "fix," though, frequently is a temporary one.
A correctly fitting English saddle might not require any saddle pad. "A perfectly fitting saddle should work as a shock absorber and ensures an optimum pressure distribution," Peham says. In this case all you might need is a lightweight cotton pad to keep your saddle clean from sweat.
The Science Under the Pad
When equitation scientists investigate saddle pads, they're mostly examining how forces impact the horse's back and how pressure distributes across it, explains Hilary M. Clayton, BVMS, PhD, Dipl. ACVSMR, MRCVS, Mary Anne McPhail Dressage Chair in Equine Sports Medicine at Michigan State University. Modern technology has made under-the-saddle force measurement relatively simple; researchers use ultra-thin pressure mats containing hundreds of sensors linked via Bluetooth to computers that calculate pressure in real time. The result is an easy-to-read color-coded video image showing how pressure distribution changes depending on gait and even individual stride.
Maximum overall force is the measurement of the greatest pressure applied to the horse's back. Scientists can divide the measurement area of maximum overall force into thirds, from front to back (longitudinal thirds) and from left to right (transversal thirds). The longitudinal-thirds measurement is particularly helpful for scientists assessing pads, because they know horses are better able to manage force under the front third of the pad than they are under the middle or back third.
Other critical forces to measure are peak pressures, says Peham. A peak pressure might show up as a red spot on a researcher's imaging screen, even if the maximum overall pressure isn't very high, and indicates an area with focused increased pressure. For example, you feel a peak pressure point on the bottom of your foot when you step on a stone while barefoot. The overall pressure across your foot might not be very different from the previous step, but that one part of your foot feels a high peak force (and it probably hurts).
Some researchers also monitor heat distribution under the saddle pad. Keeping horses' overall skin temperature cooler and avoiding hot spots are important criteria for maintaining comfort, says Manuela Wulf, BSc, a researcher at the Graf Lehndorff Institute for Equine Science, in Neustadt, who works under the direction of Christine Aurich, PhD. Wulf measures heart rate in her saddle pad investigations to determine horses' overall comfort and stress levels under different pads.
Behavior is another factor researchers might examine during saddle pad studies. Tail swishing, ear pinning, and even bucking can indicate discomfort. Some researchers want to know if horses' behavior differs significantly based on pad type.
The Top Materials
With all this data it should be easy to determine what the best saddle pad material is, right? Unfortunately, scientists say answers are not cut and dried. As they're finding out, the "best" material can vary significantly depending on the saddle, the horse, and even the gait, says Peham. And Clayton points out that since greater pad thicknesses can "dampen" the rider's cues from the saddle, ideal material also can hinge on horse and rider combination.
Even so, research results do show a few trends and reveal which materials seem to have beneficial or detrimental effects.
Regarding materials, Peham's research team gives the top prize to reindeer fur. In 2010 his team, led by Kotschwar, completed a comparative study on saddle pad materials under well-fitting saddles. They found that reindeer fur absorbed shock and distributed pressure slightly better than gel, foam, or leather when the horse was ridden at the walk and sitting trot.
Kotschwar also gave reindeer fur rave reviews at the trot in a 2009 study of pads under saddles that were too wide for the horses. However, in that study, gel proved just as useful at the trot, and gel and foam were superior to reindeer fur at the walk.
Sheepskin is another good material, says Clayton. Like reindeer fur, it's a natural fiber, which is "good for evening out minor irregularities in pressure beneath a saddle that fits reasonably well," she says. It is also easy to wash and more accessible than reindeer fur, says Geser-von Peinen.
Leather pads seemed to increase the maximum force these extra-wide saddles applied, Kotschwar explains, as compared to saddles without a pad. And despite positive results for gel at the walk and trot, Geser-von Peinen says the gel pads she tested increased discomfort when horses performed at higher speeds such as the canter and gallop.
Good saddles distribute pressure evenly across the horse's back, and good saddle pads can help where saddles fail, but no saddle or pad can correct the basic problem of pressure applied where it shouldn't be. The No. 1 force-free area, say our experts, is the spine. And there should be no pressure whatsoever on the sensitive wither zone--not even from a saddle pad.
"Anatomical" pads that are shaped to tent high over the withers help prevent pressure in this area, says Geser-von Peinen. They're especially useful for horses with naturally high withers. However, she says, the high-cut pads won't do any good if the saddle itself is putting pressure on the withers. And no saddle pad can prevent the pressure across the spine caused by treeless saddles, she adds.
High-cut anatomical pads on high--withered horses can also prevent bunching and wrinkling of the pad, Geser-von Peinen says. If you don't have a high-cut pad, you can try to pull up the pad in the saddle's gullet to free the withers. But if that causes the pad to wrinkle, it can create other uncomfortable pressure spots.
Wulf's study results also suggest that freeing the trapezius muscle, which attaches the neck and midback vertebrae to the shoulder blade, from pressure can benefit the horse's movement and comfort. In her research, she investigated a pressure-resistant dressage saddle pad with an oval-shaped cut-out area over the trapezius muscle. She found that it distributed both heat and pressure better than other pads, and that the horses wearing it had lower heart rates than those sporting no pad at all.
However, this could be "treating the symptoms and not the problem," says Geser-von Peinen. A saddle that puts too much pressure on the trapezius muscle is an ill-fitting saddle, she says. Better to fix the fit than to cut up the pad.
In addition to having a professional saddle fitter evaluate the saddle and pad combination on your horse, you can regularly monitor how the set is affecting your horse's back.
Post-ride, "search for dry spots, as well as wet spots, and watch the surface of the horse's coat to see if it's more compressed in some areas than in others," says Peham. These signs can indicate uneven pressure distribution. Geser-von Peinen's 2010 research on dry spots revealed that they are clear indicators of pressure-related pain and are precursors to saddle sores.
Clayton also recommends checking for signs of tenderness or lost or ruffled hair, which can signify poor fit. Another sign could be the horse's behavior while you're tacking him up. If he acts resentful, that could be a red flag. If he seems content, this could be reassuring. "Horses that are happy to have the saddle put on and that don't have any signs of back pain or saddle pressure are likely to have an appropriate saddle fit and pad combination," she says.
Be sure to keep your saddle pad relatively clean, says Geser-von Peinen. Built-up dirt, sweat, and hair could cause uncomfortable friction for the horse. Brush off the underside regularly with a stiff grooming brush, and check the pad surface for hard spots. Wash cotton pads in the washing machine with normal detergent. Sheepskin pads can go in the machine, too, but they require special wool detergents, she says. Regular detergents could destroy the natural chemicals in the sheepskin that make it effective in distributing pressure.
Also, check your saddle pad from time to time for wear and tear. If it's compacted down in places from use or worn thin, it's time to get a new one.
Saddle pads work as pressure and heat distributors under saddles and can also reduce friction. Researchers have shown that reindeer fur and sheepskin are the pad materials of choice for all disciplines. Keep the withers free from rubbing, and make sure folds and wrinkles don't form under the saddle. As researchers continue making saddle pad use discoveries, we the riders can heed their advice to keep our horses happy and healthy under saddle.
About the Author
Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.