High Tech Saddle Pads

Learn about the benefits of high tech materials, such as closed cell foam, memory foam and gel, and how they work, to help you select the right saddle pad for your horse.

In the June 2009 issue of Horse & Rider magazine’s Horse Gear (page 74), we showed you some hard-working saddle pads for training, trail riding or otherwise getting the job done. Here’s a more detailed look at high-tech saddle pads from our August 2005 issue. (To order a copy of this issue, call 877-717-8928.)

Shopping for a saddle pad used to be a simple matter of choosing a color or pattern. Not anymore. Tack shops and catalogs are crammed with a wide array of high-performance (and often high-priced) options. There are pads that are purported to absorb shock, relieve pressure, prevent saddle slip, cool or warm your horse’s back, improve his performance–everything, it seems.

What can these rad pads really do for you? If you need to correct a poorly fitting saddle, you’re out of luck–no pad can do that. But performance pads can anchor your saddle, ease minor fit problems, and protect your horse’s back from the effects of long trail rides and the jarring and twisting of performance events such as roping. A pad’s materials and construction will determine its effectiveness in these areas. Do you want open-cell foam, closed-cell foam, or memory foam? Gel or elastomer? In this article we’ll sort through the tech talk and explain what these materials are, and how they perform.

Performance pads use a range of synthetic materials to absorb shock and distribute pressure. Each material has its own characteristics.

Open-Cell Foam
Open-cell foam is basically the same flexible foam used in chairs to mattresses. It’s a soft synthetic material full of tiny air bubbles, or cells. The surfaces of the cells are broken, so air is pushed out when the foam is under pressure and rushes back in when the pressure is released.

What it does: Under your saddle, open-cell foam conforms to the shape of your horse’s back, providing a cushion that gives to pressure and bounces back. The thickness and density of the pad determine how much cushion it provides and how easily it “bottoms out”–compresses to the point that it no longer provides much shock absorption. It’s breathable, but it tends to hold heat (insulator) and soak up sweat.

Good for: Adding cushioning and helping with minor saddle-fit problems.

Memory Foam
Memory foam, also called slow-recovery or visco-elastic foam is like open-cell foam in slow motion, sinking slowly under pressure and returning gradually to its original shape. It also responds to temperature, becoming softer when warm.

What it does: Memory foam molds to the contours of your horse’s back, providing a stable base for your saddle while it distributes weight. It reduces shock and relieves pressure points, but like other open-cell foams it can bottom out and soak up sweat. The foam’s sensitivity to temperature causes the pad to be softer in hot weather or during a ride, as it absorbs heat from your horse’s back.

Good for: Adding cushion, stabilizing the saddle, and helping with minor fit problems.

Closed-Cell Foam
The bubbles in closed-cell foam aren’t broken like in open-cell foam. When they’re squeezed, they immediately bounce back–because the air can’t get out. This foam can be squishy or firm, depending on its density. Its structure makes it impervious to water.

What it does: Under your saddle, closed-cell foam resists pressure and helps distribute weight. Unlike open-cell foam, it doesn’t breathe or absorb sweat. It also doesn’t compress as easily. Closed-cell foam is usually used in thin layers (3/4 inch or less).

Good for: Deflecting shock in roping and other performance events and adding comfort to everyday rides.

Gels (such as polyurethane or silicone) are squishy materials that behave like liquids in some ways and like solids in others. Under pressure, the pad’s polymers give and the droplets squish; when pressure is removed, the gel returns to its original shape.

What it does: Under your saddle, gel deflects shock, resists twisting forces, and helps distribute weight. It conforms to the horse’s back and does not absorb sweat. Gel does not breathe, but it’s less likely to trap heat than foam. Gel pads weigh more than foam pads.

Good for: Deflecting shock in performance events, adding comfort in everyday rides, and helping with minor saddle-fit problems.

“Light” Gels
These materials–solid gels, visco-elastic polymers and elastomers–are lighter and springier than gels. Like gels, they’re made from cross-linked polymers; but they’re less jelly-like because they don’t hold fluid. They squish under pressure without bottoming out, and then return to their original shape.

What they do: These materials distribute weight, relieve pressure points, and deflect shock and twisting forces. Although somewhat firmer than gels, they still conform to the horse’s back.

Good for: Deflecting shock in performance events, adding comfort in everyday rides, and helping with minor saddle-fit problems.

Other Materials
You’ll also find unique brand-name materials inside saddle pads. Supracor honeycomb is made from elastomers formed into a matrix of six-sided cells, which scrunch under pressure and then bounce back. Air moves through the cells, allowing the pad to breathe. Firmness and other characteristics are determined by factors such as cell diameter and thickness of the cell walls.

The Air Ride material used in Professional’s Choice pads combines characteristics of closed-cell and open-cell foam. It’s made of tiny, flexible polyethylene beads that are bonded together with an elastic adhesive. They’re not so tightly packed that air can’t pass between them, so the material breathes. But the beads themselves are air-filled closed cells that absorb impact without bottoming out.

More Options
While some shock-absorbing materials are available as underpads or liners, most can be found in complete pads with layers that serve other purposes. Top layers are mostly designed for looks and wear. You’ll find felt and woven wool, Cordura nylon, and other traditional materials, as well as several novel solutions to reduce saddle slip and increase breathability.

For the layer closest to the horse, you can choose from materials that wick (draw moisture away from the skin) or grip–but you can’t have both. Wicking materials include traditional wool fleece and felt, as well as synthetics. Some pads also incorporate an inner layer of vinyl-loop material or three-dimensional mesh for ventilation, to help heat and moisture escape.

Base layers that prevent saddle slip include Neoprene (a synthetic rubber) and closed-cell foams. These materials block moisture; thus they’re often textured or perforated so they don’t trap much heat and sweat next to the horse’s skin. What’s right for you will depend on the riding you do. Neoprene’s grip may be great for running barrels, for example, while wicking properties may suit your everyday rides.

Many of these pads also come in several styles–Western straight back, contour, or barrel, for example. They don’t look very different from the ones you’re used to, but many are thicker, so you may trade some leg contact and saddle stability for shock absorption. In many thick pads, the inner layers are cut out through the leg area for better leg contact.

This article originally appeared in the August 2005 issue of Horse & Rider magazine.

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