Saddle Pad Science

With countless brands of saddle pads on the market, how do you know which pad is the right option for your horse? Dr. Marianne Marshall-Gibson, DVM, MS, cVMA, CAC explains what she looks for when selecting a saddle pad.

With countless brands of saddle pads on the market, how do you know which pad is the right option for your horse? Dr. Marianne Marshall-Gibson, DVM, MS, cVMA, CAC explains what she looks for when selecting a saddle pad.

Saddle pads play a key role in keeping your horse comfortable and performing his best, so it’s important to select a pad that fits his needs. Your Western saddle pad protects your horse’s back by absorbing and distributing pressure from the weight of you and your saddle. Whether your horse is performing in the arena, working on the ranch, or riding along the trail, knowing which type of saddle pad he requires for his body type and type of work will not only keep him performing comfortably longer, but also potentially save you money on chiropractic and vet visits.


Here we’ll explain what to look for in saddle pad fit, how a saddle pad should function, best materials, and things to avoid when shopping for your next saddle pad.

What to look for in saddle pad fit.

Good saddle pad fit starts with a good fitting saddle. If you start with a good fitting saddle, it’s likely you won’t need a robust saddle pad underneath. The saddle pad should help wick away sweat, distribute heat evenly, and absorb and distribute weight pressure from you and your saddle. Start with palpation of the back to see which areas of your horse’s back appear to be tender, this can give you an indication to which areas may need more padding or a shim that you can put in to help support that area to prevent it from bridging and creating more pressure points that can hurt your horse’s back.

Throughout the course of the year, depending on where you live, you may not be able to ride year-round, so naturally your horse’s back will change as his fitness level changes. Since many riders aren’t able to have a saddle for every season, it’s important to look at how you can support your horse’s back with the saddle you have—that fits him during most of the year—with a good saddle pad to make up for the lack of ability to change your saddle with the season. You’ll need to look at how much work is your horse doing and how you can support him with a pad, assuming you have a good fitting saddle.

Michaela Jaycox

How to know if your pad works for your horse.

Your saddle pad is a tool to help with your saddle. Western saddles were originally designed with rider comfort in mind as riders rode for long hours, while they wanted the horses to be comfortable that wasn’t necessarily why the saddle was designed. Therefore, the saddle pad itself is a unit with the saddle, rather than two separate units.

Feel your horse’s back before you even tack him up. Feel that there’s even coolness, there’s no sweat patterns, and make sure you’re comfortable with how your horse’s back palpates before you put the saddle pad on. Then put saddle pad on and feel underneath for areas with air pockets that may indicate that even with the saddle on that might cause a bridging area. Once the saddle is on, feel underneath there as well—feel for areas where the saddle may be creating more pressure. After you ride it’s a good idea to feel your horse’s back again with the saddle on and after you take the saddle pad off, turn it over and look for areas that might have more hair. For example, if you have a horse with a broad back and a saddle with a narrow tree, you may see more rubbing or more hair coming off around the withers where the saddle or saddle pad may be pinching. Paying attention to the wear patterns to your horse’s back for hair that may be missing will help you determine whether your pad is suitable for your horse and if your saddle is fitted correctly.

Another tool that’s beneficial with saddle and saddle pad fit is Infrared thermal imaging cameras. Using thermal imaging allows you to look for areas of varying heat distribution on your horse’s back before and after you ride. The process works but taking thermal images before and after your ride, then are reviewed to determine what issues may be causing the uneven pressure. 


Why natural materials work better than synthetic.

Saddle pads are available in synthetic and natural materials. Synthetic fiber pads are commonly made from polyester and nylon and tend to be inexpensive and easy to care for, while natural fiber pads are typically cotton and wool and are higher in cost and have specific care instructions.

The best pads to compensate for the saddle’s inability to form to the change in your horse’s back are natural fibers. The natural fibers are naturally springy and have a recoil ability. The natural fibers also have the ability to trap air to help dissipate pressures and have a natural sweat-wicking capability. As any horse has pressure points, natural fiber pads are also shown to distribute weight and pressures better than synthetic. The issue with natural fiber pads, however, is you have to be careful how you manage them. Natural saddle pads, depending on how you treat, wash, and care for them, can become compressed and create different pressure areas if not properly cared for. If it’s possible for you to use a natural fiber pad, they have the best results as they are the most versatile in working with different types of saddles and riders. 

Our top picks for saddle pads can be purchased on Amazon! We recommend 5 Star Equine pads, Weaver Synergy pads, Classic Equine Zone pads, and Diamond Wool Contour Relief with Shim Pockets pads.

Products we feature have been selected by our editorial staff. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn a commission. For more information click here.

Things to look for when shopping for saddle pads.

It can be hard to shop for the best saddle pad for your horse while on a budget, but don’t skimp on your saddle pad. Go into the store with this thought in mind, “What function do I need this saddle pad to perform?” this will help guide your purchasing process. Be aware of what you’re looking for. If you’re investing in a saddle pad and are willing to follow the proper care instructions for it, you’re likely better off spending more money for a pad that’s going to fit your purpose rather than the cheap fun-colored pad. Go shopping thinking about function over looks of the pad and talk to the people in the store about budget because you have to be realistic. But don’t shy away from a pad that’s going to serve your purpose because of looks or your finances—this an investment in your horse’s back and can ultimately save on a lot of chiropractic and vet bills. 


Dr. Marshall-Gibson owns Front Range Equine Performance. She also serves as the on-site veterinarian for the Steamboat Springs PRCA Pro-Rodeo Series along with High Country Veterinary Services. She is a member of the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP), the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA), and the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association (AVCA). Learn more about Dr. Marshall-Gibson by visiting

Related Articles
Pre-Ride Tack Check promo image
Pre-Ride Tack Check
HR-21WIN Equine Crisis_01
Your Vet, Your Ally, Your Friend
Western Tack Details
Importance of Quality Reins
The Paddie
Trailer Gadgets
Receive news and promotions for Horse & Rider and other Equine Network offers.

"*" indicates required fields


Additional Offers

Additional Offers
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.