With the trend for top professional riders using sheepskin saddle pads continuing to grow, Senior Saddle Technician for Childéric Saddles UK, Tricia Bracegirdle looks at the pros and pitfalls of using a gel pad or sheepskin pad under your saddle...
"It seems increasingly common these days that riders feel conditioned to put something extra under their saddles and very often when I turn up to do a saddle fitting I will ask why they are using one and the answers range from:
To protect the horses back: Concussion/absorb impact
To pad out saddle that's too big?
Saddle fitter told me to
Horse has lumps on its back
Saddle is not stable, too wide, too tight
Through to quite simply 'It looks nice'!!
But, what some riders fail to realise is that even if they are using one of these types of pads whether it be for just competitions or all of the time, it can have a huge effect on the fit of the saddle. For example, on a narrow TB type it can make the gullet much narrower and combined with the high wither the saddle's pommel may sit on the spine but the pad will make it even tighter.
On a horse with a big shoulder with or without wither it can cause bridging and make the saddle tight on the shoulder. Putting a thick pad can also increase the movement of the saddle and even change the balance of the saddle, either by lifting at the front through the shoulder or through the back, if the saddle is sitting on the thick edge. Make sure a fluffy is long enough for your saddle.
The wrong choice of pad can also reduce space through the gullet and restrict movement of the spine when horse is working through. Especially a problem if horse is tense /hollows – made even worse when the girth is done up tightly to try to stop it moving back. The saddle will always try to move to where there is space. A horse cannot make a shape over his back, if the saddle is jammed on it! Make sure there is sufficient space in the middle of the fluffy. Some pads are very thick and quite hard and take most of the gullet space.
So in what circumstances can using a thicker pad help? They can help improve comfort especially if flocking has gone hard, but balance is still good and the general fit of the saddle is not compromised. They can also add good shock absorption for horses competing at high level in jump or dressage but arguably if the saddle fits the horse correctly they should not be a necessity.
To conclude it's fair to say that they certainly have positive benefits when riding for long periods of time: i.e.: hunting, endurance and pleasure rides and when impact on the horse's back can compromise comfort. However, if it's more than a temporary measure or you just like the look of wearing a sheepskin pad, then it's imperative you discuss this with your saddler to ensure that the saddle can accommodate it and to also determine that if your saddle is unstable without the fluffy pad is it solving it or hiding the problem!"
The balance of this saddle is shown with the red line –
it is level and has good clearance and contact in all the right places.
Here you can see at point '1' the saddle is not as level as it was – it has been lifted at the front. Not a massive problem in this case but what you cant see is that at point '2' there is no contact between the saddle and the horses back and that at point '3' the shoulder is now tight – this is what causes the 'bridge' at '3'.
Picture of a horse where the saddle looks good
but the fluffy has altered the fit of it.
Many thanks to Stephen Rankin and Gubeon Equestrian for use of their horse for this feature