Which saddle pad is best? (Is there a right answer?)

Gel pad, foam, or saddle blanket?

The quest for the perfect saddle pad.

May it be for schooling, trail riding, endurance, or even rehabbing a horse, the search for the perfect saddle pad is almost as confusing and mysterious as the search for the perfect saddle. Many riders have a pad that they ‘swear by’, others try various models to find the one that finally helps solve the horse’s back soreness or seems to provide just the right amount of cushioning.

When searching the for the perfect saddle pad, it is important to ask the right question:

What does the pad do for my horse and me?

Here the criteria in the order of importance:

  1. Minimizes friction (!!!)
  2. Does not trap heat
  3. Wicks sweat away from the horse’s skin
  4.  Adds to the rider’s comfort
  5. Protects the horses back from pressure

In a survey of a variety of riders, most riders answered the question “What do you want your saddle pad to do for your horse” with “protect the horse’s back from pressure”. Is this really what needs to happen? What is putting the pressure on in the first place?

At the Midwest Horse Fair, which is held in Madison every year, I have lots of fun putting my hand under a gel pad and getting hit with a hammer. I enjoy this. Not because I am an undercover masochist, but because it’s fun, that it doesn’t hurt. This must mean that if we hammer on the horse’s back with very hard instruments (seat bones?) and lots of force (jump from a tree?) we don’t hurt the horse, at least not if we only hammer once or twice.

But is this actually what happens when rider meets horse in the horizontal/vertical alignment of equine and human spine, connected by an interface commonly called saddle? Unless you are an incredibly tough boned, unbalanced rider, I don’t believe so.

Let us leave the subject of ill fitting saddles aside – you should never attempt to correct an ill fitting saddle with a pad – we’ll need to examine what actually causes back soreness in the horse from the unavoidable forces that work together during the process of riding a horse.

For this purpose, we’ll take a quick look at the horse/rider biomechanics in the walk:

The horse, a quadruped, has a four-beat walk during which he naturally swings his rump from side to side. Humans are bipeds and can actually deal quite nicely with the horse’s walk, as long as they remember not to push simultaneously from back to front with both seat bones, which is not in harmony with the horse’s movement and counteracts any efforts to keep your horses back sound. Following the movement of the horse in a relaxed way, alternating the forward movement of the right and left sides of your pelvis to harmoniously engage with the horse’s movement, will ensure you are not working against your horse. Even under those most favorable circumstances, there are still two bodies at work, trying to harmonize in the same movement. The rider transfers his movement to the horse, if ever so slight, and the horse his movement to the rider. The result – or in other words: what happens between the saddle and the horse’s back – is FRICTION.

What actually is friction? What does it do to the horse’s back?

You all know the experiment where you rub both hands together until they feel really hot. If you keep doing it, you’ll get a blister. (I had my brother try it when I was a kid…) If you’d take a folded handkerchief between both hands and try it again, you will not get a blister, because there is less FRICTION on your skin. The more layers the less friction on your hands.

Also: the greater the pressure, the greater the friction force (here is a case for losing those 10lbs.!).

Here a little science:

“The force of friction is directly proportional to the applied load. (Amontons’ 1st Law)”

“When contacting surfaces move relative to each other, the friction between the two surfaces converts kinetic energy into thermal energy, or heat.”

“The force of friction is opposite of the direction of motion.” friction

(This is taken straight from Wikipedia. I am inviting anyone with more scientific knowledge to explain all this a bit better.)

If your horse’s back is subjected to too much friction, the results can be:

  • Muscular soreness
  • Damaged or inflamed hair follicles (white spots)
  • Calluses and hair loss

Now what does all this have to do with saddle blankets, foam or rubber gel pads?

Simply said, I have nothing against gel pads that can turn the impact of a hammer descending at 40 miles per hour into a soft caress, but – in my humble opinion – it doesn’t do enough for the horse’s back.

My horse’s back will still be subjected to quite a bit of friction, not speaking of the fact that synthetic materials have a tendency to heat up.

So what do you want in a saddle pad? You may say…

  1. What I want, is a natural, sustainable material that doesn’t heat up and wicks moisture away from the horse : wool felt!
  2. What I want is a pad or blanket that minimizes friction : multiple layers!
  3. What I need is something that I can wash, use as a cool down and turn around, if needed : a large blanket!
  4. And… what I also want is something that cushions my seat. Because if I move about less I transfer less movement to the horse’s back in return. Every millimeter counts!

This sounds like a sales job for a new, exciting product. Instead I’d like to get you enthused about a very old exciting product:

The military saddle blanket

The US cavalry and European cavalry forces used folded wool felt blankets for a reason:

  • They kept their horses back sound while riding 45-50 kilometers every day with heavy equipment by minimizing friction.
  • When sweaty, they can be refolded so you’d be able to put a clean, dry side on your horse.
  • When hopelessly dirty, simply wash and hang.
  • They are multi-purpose and double as a cool off blanket or – this might appeal to die hard distance riders – as a warm cover for the rider at night.

Please note: I am not a fan of war or military. Simply came to appreciate the practical cavalry approach. So when I got my hands on an original German cavalry blanket a few years ago, I simply wanted to try it on my horse Yankee, a long-legged pacer with big gaits.

I folded the blanket according to the cavalry instructions (below) and put it under his endurance saddle. Then we started riding….what a surprise: What a smooth ride I had! The layers clearly cushioned his movement against mine and I could feel a noticeable difference. What a difference he must feel as well!


I then proceeded to convince clients to try the blanket as well, starting with simple green blankets from the army/navy store, that lacked a bit in quality, but were still worth the try.

What ensued was no less than astonishing: Whether the rider used a Western saddle, endurance saddle or English saddle, the result was the same:

More comfort for the rider, less discomfort for the horse.

After a long search for the proper quality, I finally found a wool saddle blanket that is of exquisite quality and compares to the original cavalry blankets, ensuring long-lasting quality, durability, and functionality as a saddle blanket.


Veteran endurance champion Bonnie Mielke: “My new horse was getting a sore back whenever I would ride him for more than an hour.  At first I thought it was the saddle, so I changed that.  Stefanie came out and selected the correct saddle and yet he was sore.  She suggested that I try the cavalry style padding system.  It worked.  He has completed several 25 mile distance rides without getting a sore back.  Thank you, Stefanie for encouraging me to try this.  Kota (PSL Lakota Chief) thanks you, too.”

Happy cushioned trails!

how to fold a military saddle blanket

This is how to fold a military saddle blanket.

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2 Responses

  1. Mary says:

    Interesting blog, Stef. I have often wondered about the hundreds (if not thousands) of saddle pads out there and if they really do all they can for the horse’s back. And here you find this old relic blanket and it’s all good! Amazing!!

  1. April 16, 2013

    […] farther; I've not done any research before the Army's use of the Grimsley Dragoon saddle. Go to Which saddle pad is best? (Is there a right answer?) | Horse Wellness Blog and scroll down about half way. There's a pretty good diagram of how it can be done. It's my […]

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