In essence, all of these problems can only be temporarily alleviated by the use of pad or numnah. A well-stuffed and fitted saddle should, theoretically, be able to be used bareback, with a saddle pad used only to protect the leather panel from the horse’s sweat.
However, it is certain that some horses will appreciate the comfort of a pad and resent the occasionally cold leather panel of a saddle, and it is probably a wise precaution to put one on a young horse whose back has not yet become used to a rider. While rubber pads and keyhole pads have legitimate uses, there are drawbacks to using them. The free passage of air down the gullet of the saddle is inhibited, causing the horse’s back to overheat and become sore. Also, the rider is placed further away from the horse, preventing the close contact that is desired, and therefore defeating one of the design objectives of the saddle.
The use of a pad to counter the effects of an ill-fitting saddle is therefore questionable, when the answer would be to have your saddle properly restuffed. Also, you may notice the feeling of the saddle “swimming” on the horse’s back when using any kind of rubber pad. Think of the princess and the pea story. If you put a pencil on the ground and a rubber pad over top, you still are able to feel where the pencil is. So it is with a keyhole or rubber pad – the pressure points of a badly fitting saddle are only minimally lessened. Another analogy to explain something we often see is if you have a shoe that doesn’t fit because it’s essentially too small, then putting on another pair of socks is not going to make it fit any better; indeed it will just make the shoe even tighter!
We would suggest (after the saddle has been properly fitted) a simple cotton or felt pad, about ¼ inch thick, is all that is really required. (We recommend Ogilvy pads!) Anything more seems to make the purpose of the saddle panel redundant. If your horse has very sensitive skin and thin hair, the investment of a real sheepskin pad would be worthwhile.
Whatever the case, any pad should be kept clean, as dirt can also cause problems on the horse’s back. While it is not easy to throw your saddle in the washing machine to clean it, it is a relatively simple matter to clean the pad with a stiff brush and a wash when necessary. The use of any (rubber) pad should only be effected until you can have your saddle looked at and have it properly restuffed or refitted. With anything else, you may only compound the problem in time.
An idea which has come of age recently is the use of gel pads (both as partial pads or in one piece). The original gel was extracted from seaweed and used medicinally to prevent bedsores in bed-ridden patients. Gel is now made synthetically and never loses its consistency. The gel may be heated or cooled as desired, and in the function of the partial pad is used as an insert either unilaterally or on both sides of the horse’s back, depending on the requirement. It can be used where problems are already existent, or in cases where problems seem to be imminent. We have had success in the use of the gel partial pads particularly with young horses, difficult-to-fit horses, and in cases where one saddle has to fit several horses of not quite the same conformation. But again, we hope that the use will prove to be merely temporary.
There are many opinions when it comes to analyzing the dust patterns on a saddle pad, but I suggest you use common sense. Saddle pads may slip and end up crooked under your saddle, which may make it feel
like your saddle itself doesn’t fit, but don’t over emphasize the importance of the resulting picture. Saddles should fit similarly to what is indicated in the dust pattern picture below. The most dirt is accumulated where the most movement is: in the front shoulder moving back and forth and in the back, where the back moves up and down. The quick explanation is that no dirt should show where the saddle hardly touches, such as the gullet or at the transition between sweat flap and panel.
The white triangle under the front part of the saddle also indicates a good position and fit, because in this area the saddle should sit the most quietly without movement, since this is where most of your weight sits – no dirt accumulation and no movement. (Like the collar on a white dress shirt gets the dirtiest because there is constant “movement” and air and dust accumulating here, on top of the shoulder inside of the shirt it remains clean).
To summarize this, in nature, the horse carries the most weight on the forehand (60%) and if the rider mounts the horse this increases to about 75%. The reason why we want this white triangle in the saddle pad – it indicates that all effort has been made to free up the front and the back of the saddle so the horse can bring up its back, engaging the hindquarters. The first step for the horse to shift the weight from the forehand to the backhand is to have this ability to bring up his back. Only then can he pivot his pelvis and step under with the hindquarters. By doing so, the horse is able to shift the weight from the forehand to the hindquarters, come up in front of the shoulder, and move freer and jump higher. Most of the movement on the saddle pad should show at the shoulder (front) and at the back, not under the triangle.
Finally, in Europe leather pads are still used and popular. Special tanning methods allow the horse to sweat under these pads with minimal irritation. Thicker leather pads are known as bareback ads or treeless saddles, but this thread can segue into a whole new topic. (see article on treed vs. treeless). Point being, as long as a pad is used as a pad should be and not as a final fitting solution, the guideline should be the thinner the better and the more natural the fibre the better. After all, how many pairs of socks do you need to wear with a well-fitting pair of shoes? Saddle pads have a particular function – riding with only a saddle pad can be compared to walking only on your socks – comfortable for a while, but without the necessary support provided by your shoes it soon becomes very irritating. And here we are back again at the necessity for good saddle fit!