Sunday, February 24, 2013

Let's Talk Saddle Pads

With the vast selection of saddle pads on the market, how does one even go about choosing the best fit for their saddle? As we know, there’s a pad claiming to fix every fitting issue. Lift pads, correction pads, gel pads, pads that claim to eliminate all pressure points caused by an ill fitting saddle and so on. As a saddle fitter, I see a lot of riders recognizing the obvious fitting issues and choosing a pad that claims to fix that issue; however, what often ends up happening is in trying to fix that obvious issue, we create more problems with our well intentioned pad choices. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- There are several things to keep in mind when on your search for the “perfect” pad. First, we must take into consideration that a saddle pad can make an ok fitting saddle a great fitting saddle - or it can make it a very poor fitting saddle that will cause a great deal of soreness. The margin of error is typically quite small. For example, the difference between a baby pad (a quilted english pad without filling) and quilted pad (with filling) can mean the difference between a good fit and poor fit. Secondly, when correction pads are used they will change the balance point of the saddle and this can prevent the rider from “connecting” with the horse’s center of balance resulting in an imbalanced seat and incorrect biomechanics of both horse and rider. Riders generally recognize when a saddle tips forward or tips back - but often the problem stems from not fully understanding why. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- There are several important factors to keep in mind when searching for the correct pad. One rule about fitting, in general, is that static (when the horse is standing still) fitting is only a guide. The actual test of the fit comes in motion. A lot of biomechanical issues and/or rider imbalances can cause a saddle that looks like a great match statically, not to be a match at all in motion. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- English Saddles Riser pads: Riser pads are either built up in the front to lift the pommel or built up in the back to lift up the cantle. These pads cause a multitude of problems, and I never find a situation where they actually do more good than harm. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Built up shoulder pads: Pads with a built up area over the shoulders are designed to lift the saddle up. A common issue with muscle atrophy around the scapula is caused when the saddle settles in the hollows hence restricting movement. Consequently, adding additional padding in this area alone also results in uneven weight distribution and balance issues. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Correction/Shim pads: Correction pads do have their place. However, there are certain types of correction pads with pockets for shims that do not work. A correction pad MUST have 3 pockets on each side for shims. If you build up the front or rear of the saddle alone, it will bridge and negatively affect the overall balance. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Contour Pads: English pads should be contoured to provide proper wither relief. This seemingly minor detail makes a significant difference in fit. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Pad thickness: Big squishy, fluffy pads do not equal more support for the horse’s back. As previously mentioned, there is a fine line when it comes to padding. So many people keep adding pads until the saddle sits even to their eye. However, if the saddle cannot accommodate the extra thickness of a pad, it will result in severely uneven pressure points. If extra padding is necessary for a “special needs” back, then the saddle fitter should fit the saddle to that that pad to ensure proper balance and weight distribution. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Gel pads: Some horses do favor gel pads but their construction is imperative. If they are not cut out over the withers, they tend to pull down over the withers causing undue wither pressure. The thickness of them needs to be taken into consideration as well to ensure that it is not too thick for the fit of your saddle. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Western Saddles Material: The material that is against the horse’s back is crucial. Neoprene/rubber lined pads are popular in training barns because they can be easily disinfected; however, these materials trap heat. If there is no breathability, as the horse sweats, the back will get very hot leading to possible injury. I see a lot more back soreness with these pads than I do with pads that are constructed of a more breathable natural material. The heavy neoprene designs also typically do not have a good contour design – usually just vents over the spine, which is not the same. It’s better than nothing but not the same as an actual two piece contour design. This results in a great deal of wither pressure. You will also find this in some of the heavy gel type pads as well. FYI: A better choice instead of using neoprene pads for cleanliness purposes, would be to disinfect pads and cinches after each use with a spray made of 1 cup water, 10 drops tea tree oil, 20 drops eucalyptus, and 20 drops lavender. Your horses will thank you! ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Contour: To avoid unnecessary bunching that causes pressure points and wither soreness, a western pad should be made of two pieces, as well as have a wither hole in order to effectively pull the pad up into the gullet of the saddle. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Thickness: Again, more is not better. Thicker does not mean more protection. In most cases, a 1” pad is too thick. If the tree fits, you will need a ½” or less. What works on one horse, may not work on another so it’s important to assess to each fit individually. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Shoulder cut outs: I still come across folks cutting out holes in their saddle pads (gasp) in hopes of relieving shoulder pressure. This strategy does not work well at all. The real problem here goes back to being able to understand WHY there is shoulder pressure in the first place. Usually it comes down to an issue that is beyond what a corrective pad can fix. Although, there are some exceptions where it’s simply a misunderstanding of the problem at hand. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- The bottom line is that you should start with the best possible tree for your horse. Relying on a pad to fix major fitting issues is just not realistic. A pad is meant to compliment the fit rather than perform a fitting miracle. In english saddles, when you have a saddle that is wool flocked, there is a lot of room for customization allowing for the best possible fit. Western saddles are a bit trickier, especially when you are using the same saddle on multiple horses. However, if you start with a well-designed tree for the types of horses you ride, you may be able to stretch out its fitting versatility by choosing the right pads for each horse. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Heidi Pichotta Mechanics for the Equine Athlete

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