Saddle Pad 101: Best picks, materials & shapes

by | Cozy pets

A saddle without a pad? That’s a sure way to make things uncomfortable for both you and your horse.

The thing is, the whole art of picking the proper Western (or other type) saddle pad can be nothing less than intimidating.

First of all, you have to think about the horse you’re actually working with. Is it a high withered horse? A swayback? Maybe a short backed equine?

For example, a Western pad like this Reinsman is a perfect fit for a swayback. For a flat backed horse? Not so much.

Then you have all the materials. Felt pads are sturdy, with better cushioning, but more expensive.

Fleece pads – especially merino wool ones like this Weaver Leather, are a horse owner’s darling. However, they get matted easily and need frequent maintenance.

Then come the synthetics: neoprene reduces the risk of sliding around, but can feel “sweaty” for your horse. Open cell foam pads are the best for endurance and trail riding…on what cost?

Much like my other equine equipment guides (on winter blankets, for example), my goal here is to educate you. No, not in the boring, authoritative “professor’s” way of doing so.

Equine care is tough as it is, so I just want to help you a little bit. I’ll start with a quick comparison table between 5 types of Western saddle pads for different situations.

Then, I’ll discuss what different saddle pad materials involve for you and your horse. After we’ve gone through the basics, I’ll expand on why I picked these 5 pads in some summarized reviews.

Kicking it off: 

Fleece
WeaverLeatherThumb
  • WL Merino Fleece
  • Best for:
    Merino wool keeps cool and is softer than standard fleeces. Mold-resistant and fast-drying, beautiful designs.
  • Comfort:
    ★★★★½
  • Moisture-wicking:
    ★★★★½
  • Stability:
    ★★★★½
  • Shock absorption:
    ★★★★
Felt/Thick
DiamondWoolThumb
  • Diamond Wool Ranch
  • Best for:
    1" thick, extra sturdy felt that works especially well for high withered horses. Elegant reinforced leather spine & US manufacture.
  • Comfort:
    ★★★★½
  • Moisture-wicking:
    ★★★★
  • Stability:
    ★★★★½
  • Shock absorption:
    ★★★★½
Synthetic
ClassicEquineThumb
  • CE ContourPedic
  • Best for:
    Extra anti-slip neoprene bottom for better stability. Great for trail riding, barrel racing and other activities.
  • Comfort:
    ★★★★
  • Moisture-wicking:
    ★★★★½
  • Stability:
    ★★★★★
  • Shock absorption:
    ★★★★½
Swayback
ReinsmanThumb
  • Reinsman Tacky Too
  • Best for:
    Contoured, ergonomic design for swayback horses. Special care about weight distribution and shock absorption, paired with cozy cushioning.
  • Comfort:
    ★★★★★
  • Moisture-wicking:
    ★★★★
  • Stability:
    ★★★★★
  • Shock absorption:
    ★★★★★
Memory foam
EcpCottonThumb
  • ECP Half
  • Best for:
    Ultra lightweight memory foam and soft brushed cotton underside. Dries quickly, easy to clean and comes on a very lucrative price.
  • Comfort:
    ★★★★
  • Moisture-wicking:
    ★★★★½
  • Stability:
    ★★★★
  • Shock absorption:
    ★★★½

You, your horse & the saddle pad – fundamentals

Situations, horses, people – they all differ a lot. It’s not that just any saddle pad will fit the bill. There are 5 core things that will influence your choice:

  • Fit & Design

  • Moisture-wicking Properties

  • Shock absorption & Weight distribution

  • Stability & Lack of Slipping

  • Aftercare & Maintenance

All of these are extremely important. A pad that lacks proper breathability is a no-go for more humid areas. Lack of good shock absorption or constant slippage will ruin any riding session that’s more active.

And, while a neoprene saddle pad will only need a quick rinsing, wool will demand more dedication on your part.

Of course, the price also plays a role. I’ve seen many people gape at some of 5star’s saddle pads. The good thing is, there are numerous horse brands that are both affordable and of proper quality.

A guide to different saddle pad materials

There are five main materials you will see with Western saddle pads. I wouldn’t say one is better than another. As I mentioned before, it’s a matter of personal circumstances and preferences.

An important note is that specific horses might be allergic to specific materials. Always make sure that the pad material is compatible with your equine buddy’s skin!

Fleece

Fleece pads are usually quite affordable and maybe the ones you’ll see the most. You can either see natural fleece pads made of wool/merino wool, or synthetic ones.

Of course, there are also some models that are an intricate blend of both fabric types.

The big difference is that woolen saddle pads provide you with better cushioning. They are softer, but the natural fibre leads to easier matting. Additionally, horse sweat can really affect the integrity and longevity of woolen pads.

Synthetic fleeces are more long-lasting, but don’t provide as good cushioning. They’re also easier to clean and maintain: you don’t need to wash or fluff them frequently, unlike natural fleece pads.

Felt

Felt saddle pads are significantly sturdier with their construction of tightly compressed wool. Again, durability can be improved even further by blending wool with synthetic fibers.

Usually they are thicker than fleece pads, which allows for even your horse’s even better comfort. You should look out for moisture-wicking here, as some felt pads can be a bit too thick. They might cause more sweating, which is not optimal for very humid areas.

Neoprene

The benefits of neoprene are ridiculously easy maintenance and a very affordable price. You won’t see any matted fibers, and neoprene is water resistant for those rainy days.

As neoprene is rubbery, it’ll also take care of accidental sliding or rolling. This type usually stays put even in very active situations. In other words, some of the best saddle pads for barrel racing or vigorous trail riding are made of sophisticated neoprene.

The downside is that it scores lower in terms of heat dissipation. It might trap moisture and inconvenience your equine buddy.

That said, most modern neoprene Western saddle pads come with a “waffle” pattern in their bottom part. This design is more open and allows for extra breathability, cooling the horse’s back.

Open or closed cell foam

This is the cutting edge technology of saddle pads. What cell foam equipment excels at is weight allocation and shock distribution.

The reason is their special construction: usually molded foam wrapped in nylon. The mold adjusts to your horse’s back upon any contact, providing you with flexibility and reducing any pressure.

High quality cell foams also come with a mesh. This takes care of moisture-wicking and keeping your horse cool. Closed cell memory foam pads are denser, so generally they won’t be as breathable as open foam ones.

5 handpicked best saddle pads

1. Best saddle pad overall:
Weaver Leather Fleece [Merino Wool]

Weaver Leather provides the best fleece saddle pads, working pretty well with high withered horses.

As I mentioned, fleece pads are what you’ll see around pretty often. Synthetics are OK, as well as wool, but merino wool is a material that’s cut above both.

Why?

Easy answer: merino provides you with way better moisture-wicking and is even softer than standard wool. As a result, your horse will feel cooler and more comfortable.

Weaver Leather’s trademark sign here is the Herculon fabric that’s on top. It’s mold-resistant and cleans easier than traditional fleece Western pads. It also dries faster.

This is a size 32″x32″ contoured saddle pad. It should fit most horse types (aside from the swayback equines for which I have another recommendation.) The designs are always outstanding, easily one of the most beautiful pieces of equipment I’ve seen.

Definitely a craftsman’s work and a delight for both you and your horse.

2. Best felt Western pad:
Diamond Wool Ranch

While pretty plain looking in its appearance, Diamond Wool’d pad is extremely sturdy and comes at a great price. You can also have it either at 30″x30″, or the bigger 32″x32″ variety.

This works very well for high withered horses due to the pad’s thickness at 1″ of high quality wool felt. Otherwise you might’ve needed another thin pad to steady things.

If you remember, I noted that it’s exactly this felt thickness that might lead to equine discomfort. Rest easy: the contoured design allows for extra ventilation to keep the back as cool as possible.

The hold is good, not as good as a neoprene pad, but still above your average felt equipment. Definitely more steady than your standard fleece Western pad.

I did say the design isn’t that exciting, but there is some nice attention to detail. The spine made of reinforced, quality leather is one. Also, it helps that the whole product is handcrafted in the US by professionals.

3. Best saddle pad for trail riding:
CE ContourPedic [Neoprene]

If you’re more active, you want stability. As I pointed out, synthetic saddle pads like those made of neoprene fit the bill the best in such cases.

The usual problem is they feel a bit too…well, synthetic. ContourPedic solves this with a very classy blend.

Here you have a 1/8″ thick wool felt on top, and a respectable 3/4″ neoprene bottom. It’s actually closed cell foam which allows for unmatched anti-slip/anti-slide security.

Normally closed cell foam can be tricky for humid areas. ContourPedic has infused breathable technology in the foam, and paired it with anti-microbial properties to reduce any health risks.

The design is thought out to be cut over the withers, and its contoured shape will adjust to your equine buddy’s back. You can either get it in 30″x30″, or 31″x 32″.

While it’s not 1″ thick, it should be enough for general riding. If you feel you want to achieve something similar to Diamond Wool’s pad, just use a blanket over it. Most of the time it won’t be needed, I think.

Last but not least, the ContourPedic is extremely easy to clean due to its synthetic bottom. Saves you a lot of maintenance compared with typical wool Western pads…on the cost of a little bit of cushioning.

4. Best saddle pad for swayback horses:
Reinsman Tacky Too

Of course, this masterpiece isn’t limited to swayback equines only. However, it’s the best choice if you have a swaybackie.

1″ thick, the contoured design blends a trademarked bottom made of highly ventilated, non-slip fabric. The real gold lies in the fact that it’s soft construction is designed to align the saddle and make it fit with your typical swayback horse lower curve.

The key here is back relief: as poor swaybackies usually suffer even more than other horses if you slap a poorly fitted saddle and blanket on them.

Reinsman fills the back “gap” and ensures proper cushioning, along with equal weight and pressure distribution.

As far as technical details go…Reinsman is 30″x 30″ in size, and similarly to Diamond Wool is a product entirely made in the US.

5. Best memory foam horse saddle pad:
ECP Half

I’m not that fond of memory foam pads but a lot of people are into them. For those of you who prefer this style, Equine Comfort Products (or ECP) have quite the budget pick.

The catch is that it’s originally meant to be compatible with English saddles. However, I did my research and saw quite a few people with Western saddles reporting they’re doing OK.

In any case, the main benefit here are the four pockets you’ll find here. Their memory foam will provide your horse with the needed cushioning. A brushed cotton underside takes care of weight distribution and minimizes the pressure/shock on your horse’s back.

The lightweight cotton plus memory foam manufacture means that you won’t have any problems with moisture-wicking. It also makes it easier to clean the pad unlike some other more demanding types.

Downside? Not that the pad’s unstable, but it won’t provide you with the stability you’ll find with neoprene. Also, the thickness just isn’t here as much as woolen or felted pads. You might need an additional blanket.

What pad fits different horse types the best?

Horses come with their specific characteristics. Some of them have high withers, others come with prominent, curved backs like shortbacked equines.

There are three main shapes of Western saddle pads you’ll most probably encounter:

  • Contoured

  • Straight

  • Round

Contoured pads work best for highwithered or swaybacked horses. The contour focuses on making sure the equipment fits better with the slight back dips, or more prominent withers of your buddy.

Attention is brought to the withers too – and relieving any unwanted pressure from them. Some of the contoured pads also come with cut outs. This additionally alleviates any stress from the withers area.

Straight pads are most suitable for flatbacked or mutton withered horses. A straightforward, linear design that works well with normal withers and straighter horse backs without significant gaps.

Round saddle pads are reserved for shortbacked horses. Additionally, you’ll want one if your saddle has a really round skirt.

With equines whose backs are on the short end, contoured or straight Western pads will extent too much. This will affect both stability, your horse’s comfort, and pressure distribution.

A rounded design ensures all the elements entwine into one balanced, harmonious way of delivering comfort to both rider and equine.

Bottom note, as I almost forgot: if you’re looking for additional guides, check my tips on keeping the flies away from your equine buddy during summer months.

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