Thanks to Netherfieldmom for suggesting this article. This is a longish article. It's okay if you want to skip to the evaluation of saddle pads.
Shoe is to Sock as Saddle is to Pad
This is a familiar analogy to many horsemen and women. The key to horse comfort is a correct saddle fit, just like a well-fitting shoe enables us to walk or run comfortably. With an uncomfortable shoe, it doesn't matter what socks you wear--your feet still hurt. But just as some socks complement a shoe fit, a saddle pad can complement and enhance a correctly fitting saddle. In some cases, a saddle pad can compensate for minor saddle fit issues.
Much of what we know about saddle pads can be attributed to the research of Dr. Joyce Harman, D.V.M and Dr. Michael Collier, Oklahoma State University. In the 1990s these two researchers began studying saddle pad materials and fit.
Sorry, a little history
Saddle pads in the "days of yore" were basically felt, woven fabric, or hair. The Cree saddle and pad (all in one!), pictured right, is made of leather, glass beads, wool fringe, and stuffed with buffalo hair. A rope or leather cinch would have secured the saddle on the horse. Even as industrialization changed production techniques, the use of natural materials prevailed through the first part of the 20th century.
Then in the 1960s synthetic fabrics emerged. Soon manufacturers of equine products began to incorporate these materials into wraps, boots, and pads. Materials like neoprene and polyurethane foams, synthetic felts and padding, and gel are common in today's saddle pads. Synthetics also allow for more variety in colors and designs.
But should we assume these materials benefit our equine partners? Probably not. A cynical person might observe that synthetic fabrics offer the highest profit margin to manufacturers. And while these high tech materials might be very effective in their originally intended uses -- aerospace, aviation, the military, and other areas--there is little research to demonstrate that synthetics are good for a horse's back.
What does a saddle pad do, anyway?
Saddle pads serve several functions:
- Decoration. For better or worse, you CAN buy a pad designed in a montage of animal prints.
- Saddle protection. Pads protect he saddle from dirt and sweat.
- Drying. Moisture is wicked away.
- Cooling. Pads can help to cool the back and dissipate heat.
- Cushioning. There are many measures of "cush" and frankly I don't understand every measure I read about. Suffice to say that a pad should reduce pressure points and other forces acting on the back.
Ideally, a saddle pad will help to dissipate heat and keep the back as cool as possible. For the average 3o-45 minute ride, the cooling function is desirable; for the hard-working horse that is ridden for hours cooling is essential. In his article "Saddle pads and what the manufacturers don't tell you", Michael Easton did a field test of saddle pads made of different materials. The field test was a long trail ride. The temperatures of the saddle pads were measured after ride, and the results were dramatic.
- Neoprene and synthetic fleece pad temperatures ran 3 degrees hotter than wool felt and cotton pads.
- While the wool and cotton pads cooled quickly following a ride, the neoprene and fleece retained their heat for hours after being removed from the horse's back.
Synthetic products may make claims for unique designs such as air channels or a waffle weave to improve cooling. In reality once the material is compressed against the horse's back, these designs are ineffectual. The best materials for cooling are wool and cotton.
Here are two cool words: hydrophilic (likes moisure and wicks it up) and hydrophobic (hates/resists water). Hydrophilic materials pull moisure from the horse's back and move it along. You might hear some people argue that the wet back is lubricated -- not true, at least according to researchers. The wetness causes stretching and pulling on the skin and hair, as well as slippage, which can lead to sores and soreness.
A Kansas State Study examined four western blankets for their wicking properties (among other things) before and after 200 hours of use. The results:
- Neoprene and gel were the worst performers, exhibiting almost no wicking properties (even though the gel pad had a wool lining).
- Synthetic fleece showed good wicking properties before use, but wicking dramatically declined after use. The matting of the material, accumulation of dirt and sweat were the likely reasons for the decline in wicking performance over time.
- The foam pads (both closed and open cell) performed well, in part because they were lined with wool felt or sheepskin.
- No wool pad (no synthetics) was included in this study. Too bad. For what it's worth, wool's wicking properties far oustrip synthetic materials (see "Advantages of Wool for Horse Tack" for more information).
The Kansas State University Study also looked at factors of compression reduction and cushioning. The study did not include an all-wool pad. Their findings were:
- Closed cell composite foam performed the best (in this case a Professional Choice pad).
- the open cell ""memory foam," which is used in modern mattresses offered no cushioning. It completely collapsed under load.
- Synthetic fleece offered some protection when new, but lost much of its cushioning ability with use.
- Gel and neoprene performed the poorest.
Dr. Joyce Harman, who studied synthetic materials used in western saddle pads, concluded that wool is more resilient and effective at protecting the horse's back than synthetic fabrics. Cushioning/impact reduction is a function of tensile strength and rebound resistance in terms of pounds per square inch (psi). When the "bounceback" factor of materials is considered, wool (80%virgin, 20% other) is measured a t 8 psi compared to foams (2psi), gels (2 psi), or synthetic fleece (1 psi). Wool far outperforms these materials in tensile strength as well.
Oh, a word about wool grades: Wool is graded on a scale of 1-15, and the grading is assigned in part by virgin wool content. The highest quality saddle pads use grade 10 or 11 wool felt (80% virgin wool). Most saddle pads use grade 15 wool, or about 50% virgin wool.
These conclusions are my own, standard disclaimers apply. First, it looks like some of these synthetic materials are being incorporated into pad design without really testing whether they work. For example, the famous mattress "memory foam" used in one of the saddle pads performed badly. Did anyone test the pad before going into production? Probably not.
Second, based on the performance of good old wool and wool felt, it's still the best thing going for saddle pads. The Horse Journal tested a variety of saddle pad materials and found that “natural sheepskin remains the gold standard in saddle pad materials” because of the excellent natural wicking properties, air flow, wear, and support sheepskin gives to a horse’s back. The author of the web site Sustainable Dressage also suggests sheepskin, but she wisely notes that the pad should be as thin as possible so that it does not interfere with a correctly fitting saddle. Ironically, I see people using pricey sheepskin pads on TOP of another pad--to protect the pad? This might preserve the fluffiness/cleanliness, but the benefit to the horse is lessened.
Third, none of the studies really looked at cotton, which is by far the most common material used for pads I buy. Cotton has good wicking and cooling properties so it often forms the lining or outer shell of a pad. Cotton is often combined with synthetics to form the interior padding as well.
Finally, I'll never again be tempted to buy the most expensive product (whatever that product is) because "if it costs more, it must be better." Although I didn't share the price of the pads, many of the more expensive produts performed HORRIBLY. The one exception to this is that if you're buying a wool product, check the grade of wool. If you're getting a better grade of wool (10 or 11 is optimal for pads), expect to spend more.
Saddle pads and what the manufacturers don't tell you by Michael Easton with Dr. Joyce Harman.
Saddle Pad Construction: Different Materials from the Horse Saddle Shop
Advantages of Wool for Horse Tack from infohorse.com
Evaluation of performance saddle pads (Kansas State University Study)
Sustainable dressage Web site discussion of saddles and pads
Saddle pads from the Horsechannel.com