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.

Cody: The blue-eyed horse that could…

…refuse to retire!

Cody, my blue-eyed 17-year old paint gelding is returning to me tomorrow, graciously delivered by St. Francis Horse Rescue & Retirement Home in Rosholt, WI, for a hot lunch.

Did I hear Mary Hetzel, president of this well managed rescue, utter a sigh of relief and a remark such as ‘good riddance’? Surely not. (ehem) Mary loves Cody and has fond memories of his earlier days at St. Francis, when he was a rescue horse, surrendered by his former owner due to bucking problems and always well behaved on the pasture.

Cody the blue eyed paint horse
Cody at St Francis in 2005

In 2007, looking for a horse for me to ride on pleasure trail rides, I had found Cody on petfinders.com. Simultaneously I had found Bell Valley Yank, a tall dark bay Standardbred, through ASAP, a Standardbred rescue. I adopted Yank, but – after several visits to Saint Francis just to ‘look’I adopted Cody as well, feeling he was essentially a good guy, whose bucking issues with former owner and following adopters were pain related.

Cody with Nicole
Cody with riding student Nicole in 2007

Fast forward 2.5 years later: Cody was – thanks to Masterson Method™ bodywork and gymnasticizing – soon fit enough to be used as a lesson horse and served as a trail horse for a dear barn buddy, who needed to be re-infected with the horse bug. His physical maintenance involved in keeping him sound enough as a riding horse, however, was time consuming, and I decided to retire him this year, giving him the opportunity to fully devote himself to the ‘care’ (or micro management) of his all mare herd.

When rehab horse Yogi (formerly Jimmy Dean, see my blog ‘The Jimmy Dean Story’) ran out of options and got stuck with me, I thought it a good idea to return Cody to St. Francis for retirement.

Cody – as evidence will tell – did not agree with this assessment. Misbehaving at St. Francis from day one (I will spare you the gruesome details), he has not calmed down enough to be maintainable in a retirement facility with mostly geriatric horses.

For the sake of sanity (Mary and Bill Hetzel’s), health and wellbeing (the other ‘retirees’, who are embracing their retirement and would like to be allowed in the run in shelter every now and then…) and putting things back in order (in Cody’s mind that is: at home with mom and with a job), Cody is returning home tomorrow.

paint horse in pasture
Cody at 'Oak Mountain' in 2008

Yes, it looks like he’s the bad guy here. But face it: If you had any spunk left inside of you, would you agree to move into an ‘old folks home’, no matter how luxurious or how well taken care of you’d be? The energy level would probably not be a good match for you.

Same thing with ‘Ole Blue-Eyes’ Cody. That much calmitude and serenity just didn’t feel right to him. He’s just not ready for retirement quite yet…

Now it’s time to start the next chapter in this guys life. Anyone know of a part time job opening for a spunky old paint gelding, who still needs to ‘get his groove on’?

Please call us, since we can’t call you.

Yogi-“Meister”: A really ‘different’ looking horse’s …. [behind]!

It’s been a good 3 1/2 months now since Yogi’s hitching post flip-over accident, resulting in a watermelon sized hematoma (see earlier postings). After having been renamed from Jimmy Dean to Yogi and most recently – after Stefanie’s consumption of a tiny bit of Jägermeister – occasionally also called Yogi-Meister, the horse formerly known as Jimmy Dean now has a mostly healed, but quite different looking behind.

Yogi's hind end 3.5 months after the accident
Horse's hind end 3.5 months after accident

Yogi doesn’t mind at all. It feels good, he moves nicely without visible restriction or signs of lameness, the pain and heat is gone and: he cannot see what it looks like!

When Yogi scratches his sides with his teeth, all he sees is the quite attractive side view (compare to pictures of hematoma, taken in September in earlier post).

Horse's hind end 3.5 months after hitching post accident, side view.
Side view of horse's hind end, 3.5 months after accident, hematoma completely healed

And that looks pretty good!

Now it’s time to move this formerly very well proportioned Quarterhorse hind end around, get some exercise and some really enjoyable equine massage and bodywork. Massaging the area will help break up adhesions, encourage blood flow and help the body to move waste out of the muscle tissue. Bodywork (Masterson Method (TM)) will help regain full range of motion and overcome restrictions caused by temporary immobility and layup.

Uh-oh! Almost forgot: Yogi suggested to include some pictures of his other end –> the FRONT END in this blog! He feels there has been undue attention to his hind end and would like to show his other attractive side.  Until the next update on the horse’s …. [behind], that is!

Quarterhorse Yogi's sweet face
Yogi's sweet face
Yogi's attractive front end in focus
Yes, Yogi DOES have a really good looking front end!