Saddle pads 101

Saddle Pads 101

The modern saddle pad comes in a variety of colours and materials. That sometimes makes it difficult for people to choose the right option for their horse. Many riders simply select the pad that looks prettiest on their horse, but a saddle pad is much more than just a fashion accessory!

What is a saddle pad?

A saddle pad is, as its name suggests, a “pad” that is inserted under the saddle. Other names for it include saddle cloth, work pad or numnah. All are inserted under a saddle and serve the same purpose.

What’s the difference between all of the above?!

A numnah is shaped literally all-round the saddle whereas a saddle pad or cloth is shaped based on the cut of the saddle. A work pad is rectangular and is the most versatile as it’s suited to most styles and cuts of saddle, making them multi-discipline.

What’s the purpose of it?

The purpose of a saddle pad is to:

  • reduce moisture and cool the horse's back
  • reduce pressure on the horse's back
  • prevent the saddle from slipping and rocking
  • protect the saddle from dirt, sweat and horse hair.

What are saddle pads made of?

Saddle pads come in a variety of material choices. There are two classes used: synthetic and natural.

As you review the materials list below, keep in mind the two key requirements of a good saddle pad: breathability and moisture control, i.e. wicking. Further, synthetics will not absorb moisture, cotton will absorb moisture equal to its own weight and wool three times its own weight. Synthetic materials will also trap heat.

Merino wool: Merino wool is considered the finest wool and is consequently extremely expensive. The term "Merino wool" is used somewhat loosely in the textile industry, which means a saddle pad might be made with pure Merino wool fleece or a wool fleece that has all the technical attributes of Merino wool but did not necessarily come from the Merino breed.

Wool: New Zealand is the wool of choice of the better brands because the material is durable and holds colour well. In a scientific trial, wool was identified as good for evening out minor irregularities in pressure beneath a saddle that fits reasonably well. Be wary of less known brands that advertise "wool." Too often the “wool” is a coarser grade from India or Mexico which is not as colourfast nor durable, nor is it subject to quality control as with New Zealand wool production.

Cotton and synthetic: Cotton, synthetic or a blend of cotton and synthetic material are colourful and easy to maintain. However, they do not have the wicking ability of wool. Whilst cotton and synthetic fleece pads are typically less expensive and are easy to care for, do bear in mind that cotton offers very limited protection in shock absorption or saddle fit.

Sheepskin or wool pads can be pricey and require specialised care, but they are able to absorb up to three times their weight in water, while cotton will only absorb its initial weight.

Neoprene: Neoprene is elastic and easy to maintain. It may become sticky or slick and this feature is promoted as preventing saddle slippage. However, this could also cause the horse's hair and skin to be constantly pulled and stretched, creating frictional heat that results in sores. The material does not wick, but if the material is combined with felt or possibly fleece, the pad's effectiveness is improved.

Gel: There is little debate about the ability of this material to lessen the impact from sharp blows. Not all gels are the same - some are produced in moulds and others are rolled out in sheets. While some gels are better than others, they all suffer from the fact that they trap heat and do not wick moisture. However, when used sensibly with a wool or fleece, the negative aspects can be reduced.

Foam, gel and polyester batting are commonly used in the pad’s interior to add some additional cushioning and shock absorption. 

Do I need to use a saddle pad?

A well-fitted saddle ideally should not need anything underneath it. However, it provides a bit of extra cushioning between the horse and the saddle, absorbs sweat, and protects the horse’s back, plus it keeps the bottom of the saddle clean. So probably the answer is "yes"!.

How do I know what shape and size I need?

The shape of the saddle pad is determined by the cut of your saddle, and personal preference between a saddle pad or a numnah. The size is determined by the size of your horse and saddle. So measure both!

The following set of diagrams show for each saddle what the approximate sizes of the saddle pad should be.

General Purpose (GP) or Jump Saddle

LeMieux GP Saddle Pads Measurement Aid

GP/Jump Saddle Pad (measurements in cm)
Sizing A B C D
Cob (S/M) 13hh-15hh 47 63 54 48
Full (L)   15hh - 17hh 52 63 58 52

LeMieux GP Work Pad Measurement Aid

GP Work Pads (measurements in cm)
Type & Sizing A B C D
Full 55 52 50 68

 Close Contact Saddle

CC Pads Measuring Aid

Close Contact Saddle Pad (measurements in cm)
Sizing A B C D
Cob (M) 45 67 52 43
Full (L) 52 70.5 55 45

Dressage Saddle

LeMieux Dressage Saddle Measuring Aid

Dressage Saddle Pad (measurements in cm)
Sizing A B C D
Cob (S/M) 49 57 53 57
Full (L) 55 58 54 63
Extra Full (L) 60 60 56 65


LeMieux Dressage Work Pad Measurement Aid  

Work Pads (measurements in cm)
Type & Sizing A B C D
Dressage Full 57 61 58 66

A proper-fitting saddle pad should extend 1" beyond the saddle on all sides. In other words, the saddle pad must be 2" longer than the length of the saddle and 2" wider than the underside of the skirts.

As pads can vary by several inches from brand to brand and style to style, it’s a good idea to take a note of the measurements of the saddle pad that fits your horse and your saddle well, so you’ll have the information handy next time you purchase a saddle pad.

Here are our top four tips for finding the right saddle pad:

  • Match the horse's contours - Matching the contours of the horse's back as well as the contours of the underside of the saddle is vital to having a saddle pad that won't apply pressure to the horse's spine or withers. There are even pads available that are made specifically for the high-withered horse;
  • Choose the right size - Be sure to match the type of pad with your type of saddle. Pads are typically made with different style saddles in mind. Ensure the pad extends slightly beyond the saddle edge, but not beyond the horse's last rib;
  • Find a pad to compliment or improve saddle fit - Saddle pads should not be used as a means to rectify an ill-fitting saddle. Always look to find a saddle that fits your horse as best as possible. Having said that, there are cases where saddle pads can help improve saddle fit;
  • Choose the best material for either wicking or shock absorption capability. 

What key features do I need to look out for?

It goes without saying that the saddle pad must provide comfort to the horse. More importantly, the saddle pad must have two particular attributes:

  • breathability;
  • a means for controlling moisture or sweat.

If the saddle pad doesn’t "breathe," heat will increase under the saddle and moisture evaporation will be less effective. At the same time, moisture must be absorbed and allowed to evaporate. This process is more commonly known as "wicking". 

What thickness of saddle pad do I need?

The thickness of the saddle pad you require is determined by your horse's physical features and fit of the saddle. A few points to consider are:

  • a thin pad underneath a poor fitting saddle will maintain or increase the pain;
  • an overly thick pad can put direct pressure on the horse's spine and the nerves that run along the spine;
  • sometimes a thick pad can be used to fit a saddle which is too wide but this same pad under a narrow saddle could cause problems;
  • a thicker saddle pad can be helpful for older or out of condition horses that lack muscle as it will create "artificial" muscle. As the horse's body shape changes, it will be necessary to increase or decrease the padding, whilst keeping in mind that muscle will not develop at pressure points.

Knowing your horse's health, age or physical condition, and saddle fit will make the decision about the thickness of the pad much easier.

How should a saddle pad be put on?

Good saddles distribute pressure evenly across the horse’s back, and good saddle pads can help where saddles fail. However, no saddle or saddle pad can correct the basic problem of pressure applied where it shouldn’t be.

The No.1 pressure-free area is the spine. And there should be no pressure whatsoever on the sensitive wither zone–not even from a saddle pad.

"Anatomical" pads that are shaped to prevent pressure over the withers are especially useful for horses with naturally high withers. However, a high-cut saddle pad won’t do any good if the saddle itself is putting pressure on the withers.

High-cut anatomical pads on high–withered horses can also prevent bunching and wrinkling of the saddle pad. If you don’t have a high-cut pad, pull up the saddle pad in the saddle’s gullet to free the withers.

What colours do saddle pads come in?

All cuts of saddle pads come in a plethora of colour combinations. These add extra personality and style to schooling and hacking. Typically, at the heart of the “matchy, matchy” equestrian phenomena, saddle pads can now be co-ordinated with ear bonnets, bandages, brushing boots and over reach boots as well as the rider’s clothing.

Are there any special saddle pads for competing?

The classic plain white pad is still the preferred choice of most competition riders. However, with some of the new rules that associations have introduced, i.e. British Dressage, the rider’s number has to be visible on both sides of the horse/rider combination.

Care of a saddle pad

Be sure to keep your saddle pad relatively clean. A build-up of dirt, sweat, and hair could cause uncomfortable friction for the horse. Brush off the underside regularly with a stiff brush and check the pad surface for hard spots.

Wash cotton pads in the washing machine with normal detergent. Sheepskin pads can go in the machine too, but they require special wool detergents. Regular detergents could destroy the natural chemicals in the sheepskin that make it effective in distributing pressure.

Here are some tips for taking care of your saddle pads:

  • Examine numnahs and saddle pads regularly to spot wear and tear;
  • Hang your pad upside down to allow it to air dry after rides;
  • Never put your pad down on materials that can cause it to pick up extra dirt or debris that might be transferred to your horse’s back;
  • After washing, be sure to hang dry your pads to keep them from shrinking or changing size;
  • Always follow the cleaning instructions on your pad for the best results.

Are there any things I shouldn’t do with a saddle pad?

Never use a pad that is too small because it may create a ridge of pressure at the edge.

Is there anything else I need to know about a saddle pad?

Yes, quite a few things actually!

Firstly, regularly check it fits properly. Just like the way the human body changes with age and wear, a horse's body will also change. So regularly check the saddle pad and how it's working for your horse's body to ensure the best possible comfort and protection.

The saddle pad you're using now might be ideal for your horse but that may change. Keep an eye on your horse's muscling and shape to ensure use of the appropriate pad.

You may even find that his shape changes with the season too so you may need to change which pad you use at different times of the year. For example, a thicker pad may not work well when you horse has his thick winter coat, or after an inactive winter with limited exercise when your horse may be a bit heavier.

Secondly, it’s generally understood that a saddle pad cannot completely correct the problems created by a poor-fitting saddle. This buying guide does not address saddle fitting issues, but it does include a few thoughts on the relationship between saddle pads and saddles:

* a saddle pad should cushion rather than change the saddle's balance or cause additional pressure;

* it is not unusual for a horse to move better with your use of a new saddle pad, but if the saddle is a poor fit, the pressure points will return in a few days or weeks;

* a poor-fitting saddle alters blood flow in the horse's back, increasing muscle tension and inhibiting spine flexibility;

* a horse will not develop muscle where there is a pressure point;

* Just remember that if your saddle fits perfectly, you may not have room to use a thick pad without changing the way the saddle sits on your horse;

* red flags are: white spots, hot spots, hair loss or uneven sweat patterns. Post-ride, search for dry spots as well as wet spots, and observe the surface of the horse’s coat to see if it’s more compressed in some areas than in others. These signs can indicate uneven pressure distribution.

Speciality pads

There are a number of speciality pads that provide enhanced shock absorption or provide a temporary solution when your horse or saddle has changed shape.

Sheepskin pads and half pads are popular for the way the sheepskin fibres mould directly to a horse’s back, naturally wick away moisture, increase air circulation, and help distribute pressure and impact. They are used in all disciplines and can be used alone or in conjunction with a square or shaped saddle pad.

Sheepskin Half Pad   LeMieux ProSorb Plain Half Pad

Gel pads are intended to help or prevent sore backs. They absorb the impact of rider activity and help to distribute weight more evenly along your horse’s back to relieve pressure points. They can be made from a variety of materials. Gel pads are typically very dense and thin. Though they can initially seem a bit pricey, gel pads maintain resiliency and continue to provide benefits for many years of use, thus making them a solid investment.

Shires Gel Pad

Wash a gel pad gently by immersing it in warm water with some mild detergent, rinse, and then lie flat to dry in natural heat. Do not put it in the washing machine.

Mice have a particular love of things like gel pads and will quickly nibble into them and ultimately ruin them if allowed to do so. Store gel pads in a dry place out of the reach of vermin and damp.

A memory foam saddle pad is actually filled with a foam that “remembers” or moulds to the shape of the horse’s back. Just like their gel pad counterparts, they too are intended to help or prevent sore backs. Although they’re thicker than gel pads, they are less expensive. However, the foam may eventually compress over time and, for maximum benefit to your horse, should at that time be replaced.

LeMieux ProSorb Memory Foam Half Pad

A Riser Pad elevates the front or rear of the saddle. A Front Riser is particularly suited to a horse with high withers, or that has lost muscle and bulk at the top of the shoulder and below the wither. A Rear Riser softly distributes the rider’s weight. If you use this type of pad, be aware that by raising the back of the saddle with a riser pad, you may create pinching or pressure points at the wither area.

Riser Gel Pad

Wither pads relieve pressure on the spine and can improve the fit of a saddle on some horses.

Wither Pads

Take-Home Message

Saddle pads work as pressure and heat distributors under saddles and can also reduce friction. Keep the withers free from rubbing, and make sure folds and wrinkles don’t form under the saddle. Keep your horse happy and healthy under saddle with the right saddle pad from our collection.

Shop Saddle Pads and Numnahs


Kim Horton

Co-Founder of EQUUS and a keen equestrian, when Kim's not at her desk she's with her horse, Waldo.

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