So many of us use them, and for so many different reasons. Whether you choose your half pad for the softness that offers extra cushion for our horses’ backs, the pretty colors that contrast our saddle pad so beautifully, or the inserts that offer extra shock absorption or the ability to shim up the saddle… half pads are becoming almost as much of an art and science as saddle fitting!
This is good news and bad news. On the one hand, buying a half pad is a much smaller investment than buying a new saddle, and for the almost-fits-perfectly saddle, the right half pad can be exactly what the doctored ordered. On the other hand, with such a wide range of half pads available, it is tempting to choose one for the wrong reasons, thinking that you need one because so many other riders are using one, or because it is the trendy thing right now, or because what horse wouldn’t like extra cushion under the saddle? At its worst, the plethora of half pads available are encouraging riders to try to “fix” a saddle that totally doesn’t fit by adding lots of extra padding… which of course doesn’t work! Unfortunately, this flawed logic only leads to uncomfortable horses and frustrating rides.
If the Shoe Fits…
To use an analogy that’s been used so many times… think about your shoes. Assuming they fit well, a regular pair of socks (which also fit well!) enhances the shoe-wearing experience and makes them more comfortable, less prone to rub, and also extends the life of the shoe by absorbing sweat. This sock is like your regular saddle pad. Now imagine wearing an extra pair of really thick wool socks in addition to your regular socks in your favorite running shoes. Does all the “extra cushion” make those shoes even more comfortable? Or instead are the shoes now uncomfortably tight and restricting? What about two pairs of extra thick socks for even more added “softness”? At what point do those comfy shoes start to be really painful?
The half pad is like an extra sock or an insert in your shoe. If the shoe fits perfectly, a thin sock is a great thing, but an extra sock will make the shoe fit too tightly. If the shoe is a perfect fit, even adding a gel footbed can make the shoe fit too snugly and suddenly the footbed which should create extra comfort instead causes the opposite.
If we consider a shoe that fits well but has just enough extra room, that gel footbed now becomes incredibly comfortable! It adds impact protection and it fills in the extra space, making that shoe feel like a custom fit. Sometimes we don’t need the full footbed, sometimes just adding a little gel insert where the heel is rubbing does the trick. Or in the winter, maybe we actually buy our shoes half a size bigger than normal because we know we will want extra thick socks to fit comfortably in them for added warmth!
So you can see how something as seemingly simple as “extra padding” quickly becomes more complicated and situation-specific when you really think about whether or not it enhances fit and comfort.
Back to half pads… Just like your favorite pair of running shoes, if the saddle is a perfect fit, extra padding is not going to make it fit even better. With the saddle that fits well, less is more as far as saddle pads go, and your best bet is to stick with a high quality saddle pad that fits the shape of your horse’s back (if your horse has big withers, your saddle pad should too!). The pad is mostly to absorb sweat and keep dirt off the bottom of your saddle, and just like your gym socks, should be washed frequently!
If your saddle is a close fit, the right extra padding can go a long way towards making the saddle a perfect fit. And as an added bonus, as your horse subtly changes shape, gaining or losing a little weight or muscle, the extra padding can be adjusted much more easily (and less expensively!) than the flocking in your saddle. This is where the art and science part comes in!
Choose a Material Based on Thickness
Half pads come in all different types of materials. Some of the more common ones are sheepskin, memory foam, gel, and high density foam. Of these, usually the sheepskin is the thickest material (and will take up the most room under your saddle), and the high density foams are the thinnest. Memory foam can be thin or thick, but can be a bit of wildcard how it will act under your saddle because it will compress to a thin layer in areas of high pressure but stay much thicker in areas where there isn’t as much pressure or the pressure is more distributed. Most materials will help alleviate pressure points and absorb some impact. Some materials do one or the other better and that’s something to consider if you are using the half pad for one of those purposes. But at the end of the day, if your saddle fits pretty well, you’ll probably want to go with a thinner half pad, something like a Thinline pad. If you saddle fit leaves room for improvement, you have more options.
Half Pads and Saddle Fit
All half pads will alter the fit of the saddle, some the tiniest bit and some by large amounts. When you add a half pad, take into consideration that the half pad may also influence the balance of the saddle, and sometimes in unexpected ways. Oftentimes, half pads are also without a wither and spine channel, so you’ll want to keep an eye on how much padding is filling in that space on your saddle and if they end up moving the pressure to places you don’t want pressure.
For example, if your saddle fits “about right” around your horse’s withers and sits in a good balance on his back, but is just a little too close over the top of his withers and spine, it makes sense to add a half pad to lift it up a little. But with a standard sheepskin type pad, what will happen is the extra layer of sheepskin around the sides of his withers will tighten up the fit of the front of the saddle. This will give the “extra lift” over the withers that you needed, but also may make the saddle pinch around the withers, and has also made the area where the saddle contacts the sides of the withers move higher up (like the picture with the thick pad above). Depending on the shape of the withers, your saddle may also now sit high in front if the boost the saddle got around the withers is more than the extra padding thickness it is sitting on in back. If you had “just enough” room through the channel for the muscles at the base of the withers and along the horse’s spine, it’s possible all the extra padding has filled in the channel of your saddle and it’s now tight around the base of his withers and starting to put pressure along his spine. So you fixed one problem, but potentially created several others…
So lets say you made this change, and while now you like the extra clearance the top of your horse’s withers is getting, he doesn’t seem happy. Where do you start? First, check the saddle balance, and if necessary, make an adjustment. Say your saddle is now sitting a little too high in the front, creating a pressure point under the back of it. In addition to that pressure point, you are also apt to be riding behind the motion, falling back into the saddle and hanging on the reins for balance, which will further upset your horse.
Add a few thin layers of extra padding under the back to adjust the balance of your saddle (pieces of felt cut to shape work well!). Now that the saddle, and the rider in it, are more balanced, maybe your horse will be happy with his new pad. If he still isn’t, you need to really consider how tight it has gotten around his withers, and also if all the extra padding his tightened the saddle channel, the part you can’t see very well under the middle of the saddle. That space allows the weight of the rider to be carried on the horse’s back muscles and not on his spine. If you “fill in” that space with extra padding, you do distribute the weight over a larger area, but you may move that weight distribution dangerously close to or on to his spine. It can be really hard to see what’s going on in there, but sweat marks on the horse’s back or on the saddle pad will offer some clues.
If we replay this entire scenario but with a saddle that is sitting just a little low over the withers due to being just a hair too wide, we could get an entirely different result. The half pad would fill in that extra space, snugging up the fit around the withers perfectly, and giving just a little extra clearance over the withers. With less “extra” padding being stuffed in a space where it doesn’t fit, the lift given to the front of the saddle will more closely match the lift given to the back of the saddle, and the overall saddle balance is less likely to be altered. This is a much better scenario where the use of the half pad improves the saddle fit, rather than fixing one problem just to cause another. In this scenario, you still want to watch how much of the channel is being filled in, unless you’ve found a half pad with a spine cutout.
What if your saddle isn’t quite balanced to begin with? Will a half pad fix it? Well, it seems to be… it depends. If you use shims with the half pad, then you can definitely tweak the balance of the saddle, but without shims a plain half pad of uniform thickness can lift the front OR the back of the saddle! Exactly how that works out is math beyond the scope of what I want to think about or get into here… but it seems the variables involved are how much “extra” room there is around the horse’s withers (so how well the saddle fits to begin with – or how much pad will fill in empty space versus altering how the saddle sits), the slope and height of the withers (so is the saddle sitting on top of the pad, or more like wrapped around the pad?), and the thickness/density of the pad (does it “squish” or maintain its thickness?).
By using shims rather than a thicker half pad, you can make bigger changes in how the saddle is balanced, along with shimming the left and right *side* of the front or back of the saddle, leaving the wither/spine area along the center free. For example, some of the high density foam half pads are made thicker in the front or in the back for exactly this purpose, and will significantly alter the saddle balance, but tend to not have a free center.
Others, like the Fleeceworks Perfect Balance pad, have thin and thick foam pieces that can be put in front, back, or throughout, and offer many options as far as how much thickness you need where, but all their inserts go on the left and right sides, leaving a center channel through the pad. Thinline makes high density foam shims that also absorb impact that can be used similarly in their adjustable pad, and Mattes makes felt shims for their adjustable pad.
You can also make your own shims from a variety of materials depending on the thickness you need. Regular craft store felt works well for thinner shims (and can be layered to add just a bit more thickness as needed), and you can go all the way to cutting up yoga mat for really thick foam shims! Start small though, you wouldn’t think a quarter of an inch would be a noticeable difference when you’re sitting in the saddle, but once you’re paying attention to it, it really can be the difference between comfortable and not!
Especially on my tall, long-withered horse, it seems like too much padding really tightens up the saddle right around the base of his withers, which then makes him reluctant to go forward or bend. With a thinner half pad, the shims can be cut to the shape and size needed, and positioned just where needed and only under the saddle panels, leaving the spine free. In this way, the shims can act more like a temporary reflocking of the saddle that I can quickly adjust as his body changes shape.
We can both feel the difference when the saddle is sitting just a hair too high in front or too low in front, compared to when it’s just right. The difference is often a 1/8-1/4 inch shim changed in the proper spot. It seems like I make these little adjustments every few weeks – his body is constantly changing with the seasons (pasture quality) and work he’s doing. Other horses will not tend to change as noticeably as often, but it seems that most riders don’t evaluate their saddle balance until things have gone terribly wrong, so I like to put it out there that it *may* need much more attention than it usually gets.
For this reason, I feel like the biggest value to a half pad is its shim-ability, which gives you such fine control over exactly how your saddle fits and sits!
Here’s an Example of How a Half Pad Changed Everything:
My current saddle on Remy needs “just a smidge” of extra thickness around the withers and a “pinch” more clearance on top since I’ve widened the gullet, and in addition, I like a shock-absorbing pad on him. I have quite an assortment of half pads that I’ve accumulated over time… So I tried one that I really like, it’s the Acavallo Gel and Memory Foam pad. It is super impact-absorbing, and between the two layers it has, there’d be almost no way to get a pressure point through it! It was a pricey pad, but it’s soooo nice and soft, if I were carrying a heavy load, that’s what I’d want on my back! When I’ve used it in the past, I’ve always loved how it feels.
This time, when I put it on Remy (first picture at the top), the first thing I noticed is that while it did lift the front of his saddle, it was too much as now the saddle was sitting such that it made contact almost to the very top of his wither. BUT – it raised the back of the saddle *more* so the saddle was off balance and needed small shims in front. I added those and had a predictably pretty “eh” ride, he didn’t want to go forward or give me a great connection, and I felt like I was working really hard to try to put everything together, and getting rather reluctant responses.
So I switched and tried a thinner half pad, the Fleeceworks sheepskin Perfect Balance pad, but I used it without any inserts. With this pad, the front of the saddle was just a hair higher than perfect but everything else was looking good. I added Thinline rear shims (they are maybe 1/4 inch thick pieces of Thinline that go under the rear half of the saddle). Everything looked good so I went for a ride…. and it was AMAZING!! Maybe I’m the princess and the pea (ok, I am…) and my horse has a bit of that too (ok, a big bit…), but that combination was *just right* and everything about the ride felt easy compared to the previous day.
There are clues that I look for that tell me my saddle is ideally balanced for my body, and sitting in a way that my horse finds comfortable. My body easily fell into alignment and staying in a good position didn’t take effort or repositioning of body parts. He reach into the contact and gave me a nice connection, my subtle aids worked and he gave me big responses to whispered aids. The responses he gave me were correct, there were no “blocks in the circuit” that I felt I had to work through or evasions he was trying to use to avoid correct work. The way I sat naturally allowed me to maintain a position that made it easy to use my core and hold myself in a balance that kept me out of his way. With nothing blocking his use of his body, he responded easily to small shifts I made. Nothing felt mechanical or forced, it all just flowed. That’s how you REALLY know when you have it right!
So for whatever reason, the thicker half pad raised the back of the saddle more than the front, while the thinner half pad had the opposite effect. The pad that *should* have absorbed the most impact was actually much more difficult to ride in, while the “lesser padding” made for better gait quality and better connection, which then made for a trot worth sitting on! Sometimes the pad has the opposite effect that you’re expecting it would, and can have a totally different effect with a different saddle, or with the same saddle but on a different horse (or even on the same horse after weight/muscle gain or loss!).
The moral of the story is: Just like with a saddle, try half pads out and take the time to find the right one. More isn’t always better, and just because someone else in your barn likes the effect it has on their horse, doesn’t mean it’ll work the same for your horse. Be aware of how the half pad changes your saddle fit, and your saddle balance. Used carefully, they can make everything so much better! But used incorrectly, they can throw everything off.