Panels, Panels, Panels! And Why Your Horse Cares

If you’ve been an equestrian for more than 20 minutes you’ve probably heard some version of the “wool versus foam” panel debate. This article is not really about that benefits of wool compared to foam (or vice versa), since that topic has been beaten to death. But we will touch on it for a moment before getting to some more interesting details about how panels can help or hurt your horse. If you’re not privy to saddle fitting or the construction of a saddle, the panels are the two soft pieces on the bottom of an English saddle that make contact with the horse’s back on either side of the spine. It typically comes down to whatever the given saddle company fills their panels with, that’s the material they claim is better. Here is a picture of the foam and wool that is actually inside the leather of the panels:

foam panel wool

You can see by the rigidity of the foam and “fluffiness” of the wool, why anyone without a bias opinion (independent fitters, vets & body workers) favors wool panels. Wool is generally favored because it is softer, more breathable and can be regularly adjusted to keep up with a horse’s ever-changing back. Here’s where things start to get interesting…

Not all wool panels are created equal! And it is up to you to be informed to get a saddle with the right kind of wool panels for your horse’s back. To start with an analogy, green beans are generally considered healthy, but there is a dramatic difference between the sodium-soaked green beans from a can and green beans picked fresh off the plant. The same goes for the wool panels in a saddle. Some can be so densely flocked that they are rock hard and lumpy, while some can be lightly flocked with soft fresh wool that molds to your horse’s back. Consider this image:

Saddle Panel Diagram

Depending on how your horse’s back slopes down from the spine on either side, you will want to consider the shape of the panels from side to side in hopes they are similar angles. Since a lot of riders don’t have the budget to get a fully custom saddle (and many of those high end brands sell off the shelf as it is) with panels specially shaped to a particular horse’s back, the trick is to do the next best thing. Be sure your saddle has substantial and SOFT wool panels. Most importantly this will allow the panels to mold around your horse’s back for soft and even weight distribution, but it will also minimize saddle bouncing and the concussion caused from that. But wait there’s more! It will also leave a lot of room for a saddle fitter to make future adjustments as your horse muscles up and/or grows.

You may ask, “This is good advice for someone in the market for a saddle. But what if I have to make do with the saddle I have?” There is some salvation for you, though depending on the saddle you have the benefits will vary. Both foam panel and old hard wool panel saddles can be fully reflocked with fresh wool. It is something you will need to ask for specifically because only some saddle fitters provide the service. A full reflock will give you some leeway in allowing for the panels to mold to your horse’s.

Now that you know not all wool is created equal, I hope you feel more empowered to protect you horse under saddle. Best of luck with your saddle! Be sure to post you comments, questions, suggestions & experiences in the comments below. I will reply to you!

Justin B

16 Comments

  1. Kerry Weisselberg on January 2, 2014 at 7:27 pm

    I can totally see where you are coming from, BUT a well-shaped (flattish, large surface area) foam panel is appreciated by a lot of horses. It it shock-absorbing, warms up with the horse’s body heat, and usually stays perfectly uniform, whereas wool can go lumpy and asymmetric, and not all riders are diligent about checking it frequently.
    Many of the top horses in the world are ridden in foam-panelled saddles and perform incredibly well. I think ‘foam bad, wool good’ is too simplistic, unfortunately.
    I’d say “narrow panels like rolling pins BAD, wide flat squidgy panels with give, good”, I think.

    • Justin on January 2, 2014 at 7:49 pm

      Hi Kerry,
      You make a great point about avoiding too simplistic of assumptions. And I agree with you that there are foam panels out there can will work for particular horses when done properly and maintained. My essay is attempting to address the majority of horses and riders, where they are generally safer for the long term with the right kind of wool panels. Thank you for your comment!!

  2. Brita Rizzi on January 2, 2014 at 10:30 pm

    A very good write up – thank you!

    As an independent fitter I still prefer wool way over foam. As explained above, no adjustments can be made to foam and on most foam saddles the padding is just way too thin and many times I can feel the tree points and stirrup bar attachments press through the foam by just pressing my finger on it. Foam also goes bad eventually and I have seen enough saddles being compressed with dents in the panels which just cannot be fixed unless the foam is entirely replaced (have not seen too many people do that).

    One of the companies which has started to make good quality foam panels now is Prestige; the foam is thicker (and still soft enough) so there is protection under the tree points and stirrup bar attachments.

    Foam to wool conversions can only be done if the panels are broad enough, otherwise the added material creates panels like a ‘pipe’. I have attempted some but stay away from it now unless a saddle really does have broad panels which most foam saddles don’t have.

    I am still way prefer wool over foam – for sensitive backed horses wool flocked serge panels are the best way to go.

    • Justin on January 3, 2014 at 12:00 am

      Thanks for the reply Brita. Great to hear from a saddle fitter!

    • Subeesh on July 19, 2014 at 1:20 pm

      I need a saddle pad but I don’t know which one to get There is just a naorml english saddle pad. Or a sheepskin half pad. What should I get? I am using a Amerigo close contact jump saddle.I am going to be showing but not for awhile.

      • tsf on August 7, 2014 at 12:17 pm

        Most likely a sheepskin pad will be best for that saddle. But there are a lot of factors to consider before I can really give you a useful/specific answer. Send me an email at care@totalsaddlefit.com and I will help you on a personal level.

        Thanks,
        Justin

  3. Karla Deacon on January 8, 2014 at 8:45 pm

    Thank you for the great images along with your post! A picture is truly worth a thousand words! 🙂

    I have always preferred wool flocking to foam because of the ability to have it adjusted to fit your horse.

    Even having seen the different designs of where the flocking goes it took your image of good wool panel vs. bad wool panel to make the complete connection in my mind. That image is a wonderful tool! Thanks again.

    Nice to read the other comments as well.

    • Justin on January 10, 2014 at 11:37 am

      Thank you so much for the kind words Karla!

    • Xylene on July 19, 2014 at 9:35 am

      I have a brand new saddle and it is prtety stiff and VERY squeeky! I just ran out of oil and I was wondering, before I bought anymore, what yalls opinions were on different oils and conditioners. What is the best oil or conditioner to use to make a saddle nice and flexible and NOT squeeky? Tell me if you recommend saddle oil or saddle soap. Also how often should I apply it?

      • tsf on August 7, 2014 at 12:16 pm

        As for the stiffness, just riding in it a lot is the best thing. Then applying some Passier Lederbalsam every week or two to at the beginning will help. As for the squeak it depends what type you mean. If it is leather rubbing, the Lederbalsam will be your friend. If it is a tree related noise you may need to get in touch with a saddle maker to inspect it if the noise doesn’t go away after a few weeks.

        Thanks,
        Justin

  4. Wholesale Seattle Seahawks Jerseys on January 15, 2014 at 9:08 pm

    Thank you! Really, really useful!

    • Justin on January 16, 2014 at 8:33 am

      That’s so great to hear! And there will be much more in the future.

  5. Karen Thomas on February 26, 2014 at 8:22 pm

    I know that the preference is wool, but I have been riding a long time and I have yet to actually meet anyone who has had their saddle reflocked. It is advisable, for sure, but here in the panhandle of Florida it is hard to find someone to do that work. I purchased a couple of Wintecs with the Cair panels and my horse seems to love them…but what do you think of those? I wish they had more give, but so far it’s been great, and we usually have a perfect sweat mark…however, the other day I had a perfectly “dry” mark, like the entire panels were pressing uniformly, but instead of sweat, it was dry like too much pressure?? I don’t understand what is going on with the sudden change…

    • Justin on March 7, 2014 at 11:48 am

      Hi Karen,
      Thanks for the comment. The Cair panels do a good job for the price range they are in… definitely better than anything else in that price range. However, regularly adjusted wool panels, will be more effective in keeping you horse safe and comfortable. Wool is soft, and with an ever-changing horse, you can make sure the balance is always right and the pressure along his topline is consistent.

      As for local fitters, Florida is an equestrian’s hot spot, especially in the winter! I am SURE you could find a local saddle fitter to come for an evaluation and adjustment. If you want any more details or saddle fitting help via email pictures please send us a note at:

      Thanks,
      Justin

    • 6n7.8ths on December 29, 2016 at 6:37 am

      Hi Karen;
      Last year I had my Cair panels replaced with wool flocked panels. It was a decision I do not regret. My horses top line is much happier and the cost was not prohibitive.
      I weighed the option of a new saddle but the saddle fit both of us so it worked for us.

  6. 6n7.8ths on December 29, 2016 at 6:38 am

    Just added the six point saddle pad for tweaking saddle fit between the horses.
    Looking forward to seeing how well it works.

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