Saddle Pads to the Rescue! When, Why & How to Use Each

If you are already using a saddle pad strategically to help your saddle fit, good for you! This should give you a little more detail about how to do it better. If you still think a saddle pad is just a piece of cloth to protect your saddle from a sweaty horse… oh my, you’re in for an eye opening experience! If you’ve read any of my other articles you’ve probably read about the importance of saddle balance, possibly to the extent that I sound like a broken record! But balance IS that important and the biggest advantage of modern pads is that they can help to correct an unbalanced saddle!

Types & Uses

There are so many “corrective” pad options available nowadays, and there are a few different types that serve specific purposes very effectively. The pads we are covering in this article are most focused on protecting a horse’s back and improving saddle fit, which helps narrow the field.  The three most useful are foam topped pads (ie Thinline), Sheepskin pads, and shim pads.  They can provide a number of solutions including balancing a saddle along the topline, balancing the saddle laterally, minimizing acute pressure on a horse’s back, preventing bridging/rocking and lifting a saddle off a horse’s back.

Between these 3 styles of pads there are a ton of cases where they can help.  At least one of these probably applies to you (or your horse) right now:

  • Young horses changing quickly
  • Rehabbing and/or very sensitive backed horses
  • Leased horses that you don’t have a fitted saddle for
  • Low/no budget for a fitted saddle
  • One saddle for multiple horses
  • Heavier rider, especially an amateur rider
  • Shifting/bouncing saddles
  • Asymmetrical horse

How & When to Use

Keep in mind as we go through each pad’s uses, there is a lot of overlap between all of them.  For example, just about every different type of pad (foam, sheepskin, cotton) comes in a version that accepts shims.  It is simply my goal to help you find the best solution for your horse.

Foam Pads

Thinline Pad

Foam pads come in a few different styles, from just a 1/4 inch sheet of foam, to foam/cotton hybrids with the most popular brand being Thinline.  These are great pads for spreading out acute pressure under a saddle.  The biggest benefit is that they come in very slim designs, so if you don’t have a lot of room in the gullet, or the tree is on the narrow side, they won’t fill too much space under a saddle.

If your saddle has panels that aren’t evenly distributing your weight over the back, whether it be tight at the withers/shoulder or too much pressure over the trapezius/mid back area, foam pads are your friend.  They are also great when it comes to sore, rehabbing or sensitive horses that have a generally decent fitting saddle, thanks to the low profile design.

Sheepskin Pads

Sheepskin Pad

Sheepskin pads are definitely the most widely used “corrective” pads.  It’s hard to feel that soft fluffy sheepskin and think your horse won’t love it!  And they certainly are useful.  The higher end sheepskin pads are a hefty but soft consistency, and are akin to an additional set of wool panels under your saddle… as the material is very similar to what wool saddles are flocked with.

They work well for saddles that sit too low near the withers/spine, as they provide a healthy lift to the saddle to keep it away from the horse’s skeleton and ligaments.  They are also great for any saddle that is too wide for a horse, as they can fill that space under the tree points.  And anytime a heavier rider is in the seat, especially an amateur that isn’t perfectly balanced, they are a nice addition to give the horse a little extra protection.

Shim Pads

Shim Pad

Shim pads, meaning pads that accept 1/8 – 1/4 inch shim inserts, are by far the best innovation in saddle pads to date.  They come in all forms, including the two materials mentioned above, as well as in plain cotton.  They are great for young changing horses, leased horses, multiple horses sharing one saddle or asymmetrical horses.  Pretty much any time a saddle is out of balance for any reason, they will be your (relatively) low cost friend.

If a saddle is sitting low in the front, causing it to rock or bounce behind, siding in shims in the front on either side will solve the problem.  If a saddle is putting you in a chair seat or tipping back onto the horse’s lumbar, sliding in shims in the rear on either side will help get the saddle leveled out.  If a saddle is twisting or falling off laterally (to the left or right), often sliding a shim in the front on the side it falls down on will solve the problem.  Keep in mind with lateral movements of the saddle, there is sometimes an element of “trial and error” as there can be multiple causes to the shifting.  If the first try doesn’t work, simply experiment with different padding until you find the right one.

(Or write an email to care@totalsaddlefit.com and we can help you personally, free of charge)

Wrap Up

While none of these pads beat a perfectly fitting saddle, the truth is many riders cannot afford one, and the right saddle pad used the right way is infinitely better than nothing at all. We are in a lovely day and age of “smart” saddle pads, with so many low cost resources to help our horses and our positions.  Now go out there and take full advantage!!

 

Questions, comments, suggestions, or feedback of any kind?  Please leave a comment.  I will reply!

Justin

 

 

 

 

 

19 Comments

  1. Hannah on August 28, 2014 at 9:06 pm

    Help! I just got a new saddle for my lease horse. It fits fine in the withers but sits too low on his spine. I need a pad that will give some cushion and lift the saddle of his back. Which pad will work best for me?

    • tsf on September 2, 2014 at 12:26 pm

      Hi Hannah,
      Congrats on the new horse! I have a couple different answers for you depending on what you need. Also, this is from knowing very little about your horse. If he is very unique in any way that would be helpful to know (i.e. high withers, sore back, uphill, downhill, etc).
      If the saddle balance is already perfect and the gullet is good and wide, then most thicker pads will do the trick. In this case I’d go with the Thinline with sheepskin as it is very thick. If the saddle needs any adjusting, balancing, or any kind of fitting (or you foresee muscling changes for the future) I would suggest one of our Six Point Saddle Pads. They have a ton of fitting options and are a horse’s friend from an anatomical stand point. They can also have shims inserted to thicken them up and pick it up off the spine. There are a ton of styles available, but here are the 2 most popular:
      If he has low or normal withers look here: http://totalsaddlefit.com/shop/pad/sheepskin-half-pad/
      If he has high withers look here: http://totalsaddlefit.com/shop/pad/wft-sheepskin-half-pad/

      If you have anymore detailed questions you can also call us at 619-356-0151.

      Thanks,
      Justin

  2. Samantha on September 15, 2014 at 9:13 am

    I have a TB/Percheron, I keep getting dry spots in the concave area just below/behind the withers. He has large shoulders, left is larger than right. I have tried different padding combinations, but still have dry spots there. They are triangular in shape. I have not tried pads with shims, would that be an option?

    • tsf on October 8, 2014 at 2:49 pm

      Hi Samantha,
      Yes I think a shim pad could be a huge help. A lot of times you only need padding (shims) is one specific area, as opposed to a full extra pad. The specific placement of shims will affect the balance of the saddle and can relief pressure from those pockets behind the shoulder. Often times a saddle sitting too low in the front can add extra pressure under the front of the tree, which can cause the dry spots.

  3. Jenny Pierce on September 17, 2014 at 8:34 am

    I purchased a new Circle Y saddle this spring for my new horse. I had my chiropractor check the fit and she seemed to think it fit pretty good. I also went to a barrel racing clinic and the instructor there said the same thing. My horse, however is telling me a different story. She pins her ears when I put the saddle on and bites at the walls of the stall when I’m cinching it up. When I step back and look at how the saddle is fitting, it looks to me like the pommel is sitting lower than the cantle. I thought they were supposed to sit level. Every time I ride, there are 2 dry spots on either side of the withers and I am also noticing that the hair is ruffled on each side of her back in the loin area. The saddle pad even has 2 lumps of hair stuck to it in the area this ruffled hair is. From reading your article, it sounds to me like I should put a shim in the front by her withers. I have a saddle pad with pockets so I can try this out. This particular pad has pockets in the front, middle, and back.(The barrel racing instructor told me it’s not a saddle pad, its a sheet. I’m guessing it’s about 1/4 inch thick. He told me I should have a 3/4 inch saddle pad so that is what I bought and have been using.) Can you please tell me if it sounds like I’m on the right track here? Also, would a flank strap help in this type of situation also?

    • tsf on October 8, 2014 at 3:05 pm

      Hi Jenny,
      You seem to be on a great track, as it is the same as I would recommend! Admittedly I am an English saddle fitter (as opposed to Western), but in the saddles we fit the balance is by far the most important thing compared to the thickness of the pad. BUT if you have a very picky horse, sometimes thicker padding can help because it usually distributes the pressure points over a greater surface area.

      Overall, keep working with the shims to find a balance that your horse likes. There may be a little trial and error until you find the right setup, but it will be worth it!!

      Thanks,
      Justin

  4. Abby on May 11, 2015 at 12:00 pm

    Hi, I just had a quick question

    I lease a thoroughbred mare and just bought a new no name all purpose saddle. It’s fits her pretty well but it’s just a tad tight on her whithers. I bought a shape pad because I like using those rather then a regular square saddle pad. Can I put a foam pad under the saddle even using the shape pad? I was not sure because most people who just have a shape pad use it with a saddle that fits their horse perfectly.

    • tsf on August 7, 2015 at 9:52 am

      Generally it is OK to stack 2 saddle pads. The only exception would be if your tree or gullet in the panels is too narrow. My guess is that since you have a TB, your tree is actually a little wide, which is causing the front to sink down and get tight. So in a case like this an additional pad would help. But if you can email over pictures of you in the saddle and pictures of your horse’s naked back, I can comment more specifically. Our email is: care@totalsaddlefit.com

      Thanks!

      Justin

  5. missy on June 2, 2015 at 10:10 am

    My trotter has high withers. Every saddle I have tried so far has been too narrow in the bars and pinches him. Then we found one wide enough but it comes down too tight on his withers and causes pain. Which pad will help him?

    • tsf on August 7, 2015 at 9:54 am

      Hi Missy,
      That is a very common problem with high wither horses! Any Six Point Saddle Pad will help because they all have the same fitting-shim pocket design. The key is to fill in that space under the tree points (behind the shoulder) to lift the saddle up comfortably and correct the balance. This will get rid of the tightness.

      Hope this helps!
      Justin

  6. Barb on June 14, 2015 at 10:44 pm

    I’m still a novice rider, getting much more serious in dressage. I’m starting to ride in 2-point and without stirrups as well as doing lunge line exercises (no hands!) to get that “independent seat” and want to protect my horse’s back. My saddle fits extremely well. What pad would best absorb the shock of my bouncy body?

    • tsf on August 7, 2015 at 10:00 am

      Hi Barb,
      Great to hear you’re focusing on dressage. If your saddle fits perfectly, then I’d suggest either a straight forward sheepskin pad (like a Six Point Saddle Pad Sheepskin Half Pad), or a simple Ultra Thinline. They both have different benefits. The Six Point Saddle Pad will provide better moisture wicking and heat dispersion since it is real sheepskin. But the Thinline will be a thinner overall pad if you need something very low profile.

      Good luck on your dressage adventures!

      Thanks,
      Justin

  7. Pamela K on July 16, 2015 at 6:10 pm

    I bought your Freedom Dressage pad. I just got it today. I haven’t tried it yet, but my question is since I use a Thin Line pad every time I ride only because I like to protect her back., Would it be okay to just keep all the shims in the saddle pad? Also I really don’t want to get the Lambs wool real sweaty so could I put a thin pad under the FD pad just to keep it from getting real dirty? Thanks.

    • tsf on July 17, 2015 at 4:05 pm

      Thanks Pamela! Yes it is perfectly safe to but a thin pad underneath it and to ride with all 6 shims.

  8. Tegan steffens on July 22, 2015 at 6:04 pm

    Hi I have a very high withered tb gelding. O have just purchased a new swinging fender saddle that is specially designed for high withered horses and the saddle sits great not touching any where. I have had a lot of problem finding a saddle pad that does not slide down and put a lot of pressure on his wither. I have tried very expensive pads I have tried pads that are cut back in the wither but the still seem to slide down and cut into his wither. Every time I pull the saddle pad right up in the pommel but every time after about 2 minutes of work it slides down! Can u recommend a pad that will not slide down?

    • tsf on August 7, 2015 at 10:05 am

      Hi Tegan,
      If your saddle is similar to a Bates style swinging fender saddle, a Six Point Saddle Pad with Wither Freedom Technology would be perfect. This is because it will put NO pressure on his withers, and it will not slide/move because the pad has straps that attach to the rings at the front of your saddle to keep it in place. You can check out the half pad here:

      Hope this helps!

      Justin

  9. Alexis on July 27, 2015 at 11:05 pm

    hi. We just got a horse a couple of months ago and i have trained him completly by myself. I am currently tryikg to break him, but i only have a saddle and a saddle blanket, i dont have a saddle pad. My question is, will it hurt my horse if i dont put a saddle pad on under his saddle

    • tsf on August 7, 2015 at 10:07 am

      Hi Alexis,
      Congrats on training him by yourself! If you tell me what saddle and blanket you have I can give you a better answer. In most cases (especially if he is a young horse) you’d want a saddle pad. However, some exceptions could be made if this is a well-fitting English saddle.

      Thanks,
      Justin

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