The Saddle Pad Test

I’ve been busy with some RL things lately and haven’t had the inclination or concentration to put together an article for the blog, so I’m cheating and going to link to a short article for all to read, ponder, and test out.

Most understand the importance of saddle fit for horse and rider, but few know how to accurately judge a good fit.  The following offers an easy test, requiring nothing more than a clean, white saddle pad and a ride.

Saddle Pad Dust Pattern

Even though this is an ‘English’ test, this could also be done with a clean, light colored (and thin) Western pad and Western saddle, as the same principles apply.

At the end of the article is mention of the true purpose of the saddle pad.  English riders in particular should take note, as they are usually the biggest offenders of using various thick and/or exotically cut saddle pads to fit a saddle to a horse that doesn’t.


13 thoughts on “The Saddle Pad Test

  1. My pet hate is saddle cloths that are cut straight across the top. I have yet to see a horse with a back that was a straight line from wither to croup. Second the thin saddle blanket under an English saddle, but I prefer a sheepskin numnah for endurance under an English saddle.

  2. I have always functioned under the belief that a well made, good fitting saddle does not need a pad. For years I rode without a saddle pad but then I got tired of cleaning my saddle every day (although, looking back, it really wasn’t a big deal).

    I also prefer a thin pad/blanket under a western saddle.

    The dirt test sounds like a good, simple way to test fit.

    I wonder how often those thick, bulky pads are actually the cause of some saddle fit issues….

  3. I love this! Flecha will be fit for a new saddle soon, but in the meantime we do use a sheepskin half pad underneath her current one. It has shims cut from a yoga mat, and I actually don’t put a saddle pad underneath it after reading a study that showed sheepskin had the most benefit to the horse (absorption of force and comfort over moving muscles) when in direct contact with the body. But i look forward to the day when I have a saddle that is properly fitted, and no longer need it (or at least the shims).

  4. Does anyone have doubts about the claims made in this article? If the back lifts correctly, it moves up from neck through the lumbar region. If a back bends correctly, it bends all long its length, albeit more at the lumbar vertebra than the thoracic. Why then would only the shoulder and the rear of the saddle show movement? Further, if the saddle fit too tightly over the middle triangle, the horse would sweat less because of the excessive pressure, and less dirt would show up on the pad. Alternatively, if the saddle bridged badly, the horse’s back would never come into contact at the ‘triangle’, as the pressure points are only at the front edge of the saddle under the portion of the tree that extends downward and at the rear. Further, should the front of the saddle come into contact with the shoulder as it moves? Can anyone think of a reason you wouldn’t want that to happen?

    • As explained in the article, the white triangle appears because the rider’s weight holds the saddle the most firmly in place in that region (due to the stirrup bar placement concentrating rider’s weight). It’s not that the back doesn’t move but that the saddle is moving with it. Further back on the saddle, the rider’s weight is not holding the saddle down as tightly so there is more movement between saddle and back.

      It is also possible for a saddle pad to show that a saddle is too tight from the triangle being too clean; this article doesn’t get as nuanced as possible about reading saddle pad sweat marks. Bridging can also be seen on a saddle pad; it would have been helpful to have an article showing some bad fits as well as good.

      As for the shoulder. The sweat mark at the front of the saddle from shoulder movement should look different depending on type of English saddle. A dressage saddle shouldn’t show much dirt at the shoulder as the whole saddle should be sitting behind the shoulder since the saddle basically comes straight down from the point of the tree. Whereas a close contact should have the point of the tree behind the shoulder to keep the shoulder free for movement but the flap will come forward over the shoulder a little, and there will be movement there. The more forward-cut the flap of the saddle, the more leather extends forward and the more sweat mark will be visible. This doesn’t interfere with the movement of the shoulder as the weight is being carried behind the shoulder, it’s just leather resting on the shoulder to accommodate the shorter stirrup length for the rider.

      • Are the claims in this article consistent with the claims in the first article?

        Why would one want and expect less movement under the rider’s seat if proper movement requires the spine to level along its entire back? Why do we talk about the horse lifting its back and giving the rider a place to sit if the back remains without movement? What part of the muscles are not expected to contract and release in each phase of a stride so that there is no movement?

        Note the placement of the stirrup bar on the tree in the diagram of the english saddle. Is that placement and the weight supposedly carried there consisten with the first article and your statement that the bar concentrates the weight in the white triangle?

        • Another factor is that the saddle is tightest where it is girthed to the horse and therefore sways more at the cantle / back of skirts which is the farthest from the girth. I notice this most in the winter months when my skirts (western saddle) tend to work back and forth against my horses’ winter coats causing their coats to frizz / break off. This doesn’t happen with summer coats. The very movement of the horse with its swinging gait causes this, especially down hills where the horse is fighting gravity and taking deep, strong steps behind.

          There are now various types of trees and treeless western saddles but for years there were 2 choices; semi or full Quarter Horse bars. I have one of each working saddles and use a variety of shapes and widths of pads to fit various horses. I have 2 thick, cut back pads that seem to do the trick of filling up narrow shoulders of the TB’s and giving good clearance to the withers. I rarely have saddle fit issues and attribute this to the thickness of the padding softening any pressure points. I find the hardest fit are the huge shoulders of the bulldog QH’s. The more padding, the more the saddle tightens on the shoulder muscles. Setting the saddle back off the shoulders, which is the correct way to place them, only lasts a short while as the saddle works its way ‘home’. I don’t like the pressure it creates but have yet to find a way around this type of horse.

          • western saddles because of the long skirts that have no gullet to avoid the spine and lay more or less flat on the back at all times, won’t look exactly like the English saddles. But how much movement should their be in a saddle? I’ve seen hair sheered off as if razored. Ruffled hair to me (though on a winter coat much less so just because some horses have very fine, very long winter coats that create the equivalent of our helmet hair), is usually not a good think.

            Does the back only swing at the rear of the saddle?

  5. I’ve been thinking about this a bit lately, although my latest mount was given away after bucking off the owners husband again. Grrr. Anyway, Its nice that this article was written but it would be more effective if they posted several different saddle pad dirt patterns and discussed the saddle fit problems (or benefits) with each. Sure our own common sense can conjure up what the pad would look like with different ill fits but still, the article left me wanting more.

  6. jrga, I had the same thought as you. If the saddle was bridging a lot, wouldn’t you get this same effect, that there was heavy dirt front and back, and not much in the middle? Indeed, I was thinking this the other day looking at a friend’s white saddle pad on a hook; front and back were black with dirt, middle clean (I said nothing of course). It does happen that this pad was being used with brand-new Schleese saddle, that had been fitted by the local Schleese rep, and the article posted here is also from Schleese. . .

    I don’t necessarily want to single out Schleese, but I did have a chat with the local Schleese rep while she was fitting my friend’s saddle. I went out to the truck to watch the rep put the saddle in the patented Schleese vice to adjust the width. I asked her how she adjusted the front to back curve of the saddle, the longitudinal curve, not just the width at the withers or the spread of the tree. She said the longitudinal curve could be altered by stuffing to fit any horse. I said thank you, that’s good to know 🙂 .

    However, my main source on saddle fitting is a local indepdenent saddle fitter (she is not a dealer of any brand) who has European qualifications, and who starts off by taking multiple measurements of the back and making a set of paper tracings that you can then take away and use to evaluate the fit of potential saddles (she will also build custom saddles). She stresses that you have to keep trying different brands of saddles until you find one in which the longitudinal curve of the tree fits the curve of your horse’s back without bridging; this can’t be changed by stuffing. Most saddle makers have only one tree, and only refer to the wither measurements for fit. So there is a good chance that you can’t make any given brand of saddle fit any given horse (just like some of us will only be comfortable in one brand of running shoes).

    My saddle fitter’s advice here is also backed up by what I’ve read on-line from more advanced saddle-fitting discussions. This has made me think that the best bet is in fact getting a used saddle with her advice, and having her tweak it, rather than writing a check for $5000-plus dollars and putting myself in the hands of a local saddle rep, who will “make it fit.” All of the local reps for the more expensive saddles would, I think, operate on the same principles: they sell one basic tree, slightly different models, and believe they can alter it to fit any horse. No rep is, afrer all, going to send you away to one of her competitors.

    I am not sure what to think about the total Schleese project. Some of what Mr. Joachin Schleese posts on line about saddle fit and correct riding seems excellent, and in complete agreement with sophisticated saddle-fitting and classical dressage precepts. Other posts have not seemed quite so correct to me, though I don’t have the links at hand to remember exactly how.

    The saddle pad in this picture also reminds me of something else I have been told around and about that doesn’t quite make sense to me, which is that if you look at the sweat patterns on a horse, the places where there is *very heavy* pressure *will not* be sweaty because the sweat has what — been choked off? So dry spot under your saddle is a pressure point? But I can’t see how this could be true. If my horse sweats, she will be wettest under her girth, all the way around, and that is surely much more concentrated pressure than the saddle is giving her. I also have to say, based on my own experience in summer weather, that the tighter your jeans, the more you will sweat under them: i’ve never had a piece of clothing so tight that it stopped me from sweating.

    So I would assume that in fact, a dry spot is a place where the saddle bridges. You can get a small random bridge if the stuffing has shifted around, even if the saddle fits OK.

    Then there is what this independent saddle fitter finds when she restuffs saddles! She shows us what she dug out, the factory installed stuffing, and it is quite scary! “Wool” flocking even in expensive brands doesn’t necessarily mean wool,it is an all-purpose category meaning “random fibre as opposed to foam slabs.” But that’s something for another post …..

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