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Deconstructing the Saddle Pad

Deconstructing the Saddle Pad
By Stephanie J. Ruff
In the not too distant past most riders did not use saddle pads. And when they did they employed basic cotton or wool pads to simply help keep sweat and dirt off the underside of their saddles. As time has gone by, things in the saddle pad sphere have gotten more sophisticated … and more complicated.
Regardless of your riding style, take a look in any tack catalog and you’ll find pages upon pages of saddle pads in a wide variety of colors, shapes, styles, sizes, and purposes. And some of them cost several hundreds of dollars—­especially therapeutic pads that manufacturers claim will help solve saddle fit and assuage back pain. There are now so many choices it can be challenging to decide what to buy. 
So do you need to spend upward of $100 for a saddle pad, or will a simple, less expensive version do the trick?
Types of English Saddle Pads
English pads can be divided among disciplines such as hunter/jumper, dressage, and saddle seat. Still, even without splitting English pads by discipline, there are many types available, and that’s not even considering ones called therapeutic. For example, you can use square pads, shaped pads, contoured high-wither pads, and half-pads, which all come in a variety of materials. 
Debra Powell, PhD, PAS, assistant professor of equine studies at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, in Terre Haute, Indiana, says inexpensive pads are often made of polyester or nylon, but they are less comfortable for the horse than natural fibers, and they lack the ability to wick moisture and heat away from the horse’s back. 
Natural fibers typically include cotton or sheepskin (and sometimes reindeer fur). Powell says these fibers are strong, with a natural crimp (which makes them soft and springy, while adding to their bulk) and resiliency. They allow air to become trapped between fibers and, thus, dissipate loads and reduce pressure points. They can trap more than 30% of the pad’s weight in moisture and keep it away from the horse’s body, she says. The air-trapping ability also keeps the horse’s back warm in cold weather and near body temperature in hot weather.
Types of Western Saddle Pads
Western saddle pads are not quite as diverse as their English counterparts. First, you have the Navajo blanket, which is basically a long piece of thickly woven fabric folded in half. These traditional saddle pads come in many colorful patterns and might have fringed or tasseled edges. They are easy to clean, as you can toss most in the washing machine and dryer or hang them to dry. The downside to Navajo blankets is that on some horses they might slide out from under the saddle. They can also bunch, possibly causing sores, and, because they are made of a woven fabric, can pick up burrs and seedheads.
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