Saddle pads can be a crucial element of equestrian gear. There is an abundance of colors, shape styles and sizes available. It can be daunting trying to choose the right saddle pad and riders might use one for months before deciding to buy another. So, before you buy your next saddle pad or numnah—or before you buy your first—let’s look at your options.
Some dressage riders forego a saddle pad altogether during competition for the sake of more positive contact in the saddle. They may also prefer the stripped-down essential look of riding on a saddle alone. Even then, competitors frequently opt to use a pad during training to provide additional comfort and support for the horse as the majority of modern pads are designed with the horse’s health and well-being in mind.
So let’s consider why you use a saddle pad. They serve three purposes: to relieve pressure and friction on the horse’s back, to mitigate or eliminate heat and moisture build-up under the saddle, and to provide a “finished” look to the saddle that presents well in competition.
This last point is often the first criterion a relatively new rider will consider in selecting their pad. Appearances do matter. However, looks are the last thing you should consider for such a critical connection to your horse. So we’ll visit appearances last and focus on the comfort of your horse.
The primary role of a saddle pad is to manage pressure on the horse’s back. This is important in all riding, but critical for hunter/jumpers and the recurring impact of that discipline. Jumps (more specifically: landings) are a source of frequent and considerable pressure, as well as the potential rubbing of a saddle as the horse navigates around a course.
For this, a rider’s level of skill and the discipline being partaken in is the best guide for the most suitable saddle pad. Ultimately the tougher the competition, the more shock-absorbing properties you’ll want. This will point you toward gel and foam pads. These materials offer considerable shock absorbing properties on their own. They also allow for fabrication into designs that distribute pressure more uniformly over a greater area, further reducing the impact on any one point. Alternatively, felt, synthetic and natural sheepskin, and quilted pads provide perfectly adequate impact protection for most competition and training.
Each of these materials have their own distinct properties for heat and moisture dispersal. Many riders consider natural sheepskin the ultimate in this category, offering the best moisture wicking available, as well as terrific breathability. Felt pads are also a popular choice for much the same reason. The performance of quilted pads will vary depending on the fill material. This is not a matter of good vs. poor as the measure is always calibrated according to the riding you do.
Gel and foam have poor to no moisture control qualities, depending on the materials used and the construction. Instead, they derive their heat and moisture control properties from the enhanced air flow their engineered channels enable beneath the saddle.
Regardless of the material, shape is a key consideration when choosing the right saddle pad. It is important that the contours of your pad match those of your horse’s back and underside of the saddle to minimize pressure on the spine and withers. Any of the basic styles—shaped, square, or half pads should be suitable, however, this will be dependent on the shape and size of your horse.
In every case, remember: The pad may impact the saddle fit. Thicker materials (like sheepskin) add bulk under the saddle and increase the horse’s girth relative to saddle fit. The result can be that the saddle slips or “pinches” on the back; the opposite of the comfort we seek to provide the horse. Therefore, it is vital that you consider saddle fit when choosing your pad or numnah, and plan accordingly.
Assuming you have the optimal materials and shape for your style of riding, let’s look at your personal style. Some riders seek to coordinate closely with their horse. In this case, squares provide the largest color field, and can now be found in a wide and exciting range of colors to coordinate with leg wraps, fly hoods and riding wear. Other riders prefer the fancy and functional trim that sheepskin provides. The choice is matter of personal style: how you ride, and how you look doing it.
Whatever your taste, preference or budget, there is a saddle pad that will be perfect for you and your horse. You can find our selection here.