I’m the curious sort. I love to take things apart and see how they work. I love my Wintec and Bates Isabell saddles. They are so adjustable, and I can open them up and change the gullet plates and add shims to fit my horse, and change it as often as I need to. I also love the placement of the stirrup bar on the Isabell, when the saddle is sitting on the horse correctly it makes it very easy for the rider to find the correct position and ride in balance. The leather on the Bates version is soft and yet very durable, and mine is holding up beautifully. The Wintec version is great as well, if you aren’t a leather snob. They last forever and can take a beating. They make great saddles for kids who aren’t going to take care of leather, and they are great for trail riding and not worrying about getting them wet or dirty.
The only thing about these saddles that remained a doubt in my mind was the CAIR panels. Reading the Bates website, the explanation of how the panels work makes sense, and eliminating pressure points sure sounds good, and having it almost instantly conform to the horse’s back is a great feature, but something still bothered me. When I rode in my Isabell’s, I felt like there was a lot of bounce or recoil both in the seat of the saddle (especially trying to sit the trot), and even worse, also off the stirrups! I switched to other saddles and didn’t feel the effect, but I couldn’t be sure if it was something else about the saddles or if it was the CAIR panels. It made sense to me that if the panels were more plastic-like (without stretch) they would conform but not bounce, but that the more rubber-like the material was the more of a bounce-effect it would have (like sitting on an exercise ball). There was only one way to find out…
I took home my Wintec (just in case I ruined it forever), and opened it up. I pulled out the CAIR panels, and that’s what they looked like. I was amazed how easily they came out (and, thankfully, went back in!). They did overlap slightly in the middle, but otherwise felt soft and smooth. BUT they definitely have some give/stretch in the material, and when I dropped my screwdriver on it (handle down!), it bounced multiple times before landing on the floor. Putting pressure on one side of the air panel made the other side puff up (how that effects the ability to level the saddle and work with the shims becomes a more complicated question in my mind now…), and when I stood on one, my foot did just barely touch the floor through the panel (so very limited potential for a pressure point to go through the panel, but it might be there).
So, in case inquiring minds wanted to know, there you have it! If you’re considering getting one of these saddles, I’d say go for it, I love the saddles, but I’d urge you to at least consider getting the flocked version, or take both for a trial and make sure you like the way the CAIR panel rides. On a flat-moving horse the effect is minimal, but on a horse with big gaits and a lot of suspension, the CAIR panels amplify all the movement that’s already there and create quite a challenge for the rider!