The importance of selecting the right saddle pad is an issue that has gained significant attention from horse enthusiasts in recent years. A good quality saddle pad is more than just a blanket that a rider places in between their saddle and their horse's back in hopes of providing a little extra protection for the horse and keeping fur and sweat off of the saddle itself. The right saddle pad can improve your saddle's fit, make your horse more comfortable, protect your horse's back from pressure points created by your tack, minimize saddle slippage, and help prevent heat and sweat from building up on the horse's back.
It is important to understand the different saddle pad materials and designs in order to make a choice that will benefit both you and your horse.
Straight – The straight saddle pad is the most commonly seen pad shape. It is a simple, straight rectangle with no contouring or extra padding. This type of saddle pad is best suited for use on horses with normal, straight backs or those that are mutton-withered. The term mutton withers is used to describe a horse with a very flat or no withers.
Contour – A contour pad is designed for use on horses with a high withers or a sway-back. The pad is shaped to accommodate for a horse with a high withers followed by a dip in the back. The design alleviates pressure on the withers and improves the overall comfort and balance of the saddle fit.
Cutout – A cutout pad is typically square or round and resembles a straight pad except for the cut-out area that rests on the horse’s withers. This cut-out allows extra space for a horse with a more prominent wither. These pads work best for horses that have problems due to pressure from the saddle pad placing pressure on the withers.
Round – Round pads are typically used for horses with short backs, as the rounded edges make the pad slightly smaller and help prevent it from interfering with the horse's movement.
Sway-back – A sway-back pad is specifically designed for use on sway-backed horses. These pads are designed with an elevated area for the withers and provide thicker padding in the center of the pad in order to allow the saddle to sit more evenly.
Wither Relief – A wither relief pad is also called a built up pad or build up pad. It is shaped so that it lifts the saddle off of the withers. It is most commonly used on horses with very high, or shark fin, withers and typically features a cut-out around the wither area.
Numnah – A numnah is the term used to describe the saddle-shaped blanket – usually made of fleece -- that is placed under English saddles for the purpose of absorbing sweat, and improving basic saddle comfort and fit. Numnahs may be worn alone or on top of a square English pad, and the pad should show approximately 1-inch around the saddles panels, pommel and cantle.
Fleece – Fleece is the most commonly used saddle pad material. It provides padding and absorbs sweat and moisture fairly well for most horses. Fleece pads typically start out fairly thick but over time the fleece will compress and the pad can lose some of its cushioning effect.
Wool/Felt – Felt saddle pads are made out of compressed wool. The primary benefits of these pads are shock absorption and the ability to wick away moisture and prevent heat build up from occurring. Felt saddle pads can help prevent pressure points from developing and are often a good choice for use with a saddle that fits well, but not perfectly.
Neoprene – Neoprene is a highly durable, waterproof rubber-like material. It is easy to maintain and has a long lifespan. Most saddle pads that use neoprene incorporate it in a waffle-style on the bottom of the pad. This design helps the pad breathe while providing additional traction between the saddle pad and the horse. These pads are sometimes described as tacky or non-slip pads.
Foam – There are two types of foam pads, closed-cell and open-cell. Both of these designs consist of a piece of molded foam covered in a nylon exterior. Foam pads offer advanced shock absorption and have the ability to mold to the shape of the horse in order to provide improved contact. Open-cell foam pads are considered more breathable than closed-cell. The closed-cell options tend to be firmer and most are considered to be anti-bacterial as well.
Cotton – Some very basic quilted saddle pads are made using cotton. These are usually English pads and are not designed to perform any major tasks except for the most basic functions of a saddle pad. Some of these pads have places where inserts can be added to them in order to improve saddle fit.