Getting Saddle Pads for Dressage Right
Modern dressage may have originated from military maneuvers, but things have changed significantly since the first riding school was founded in 1532, and even since the development of competitive dressage culminated in dressage being included in the 1912 Stockholm Olympic games https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classical_dressage.
People unfamiliar with the sport may think of it as a horse riders’ mastery over a horse, but in reality, horse and rider form a tight partnership, with a relaxed horse able to understand the subtle shifting of the rider as directions to be followed. It is this subtlety in movement that means most dressage riders have a preference for saddle pads that are not bulky, so that they do not interfere with what the horse can feel.
The Importance of Appearance
Of course, modern dressage riders are very appearance conscious. Although no marks are given in competition for appearance, there is an expectation of immaculate presentation, with strong attention to detail, of both rider and horse – dressage is not just about technical difficulty shown in the arena. Saddles, bridles and saddle blankets all form part of the overall ‘look’, often being matched to the rider’s outfits, as well as to accentuate the beauty of the horse. In dressage, fitting in with its military origins, the tack is usually minimal, with no overly showy or jangly decoration, and generally black leather (polished and spotless).
The dressage saddle is generally placed on a white saddle pad. The saddle pad may be pure white or be trimmed in a color to suit. Because horses do sweat most competitive riders will have at least two dressage saddle pads, a pure white one that is kept exclusively for competitions and events, and a schooling one that is able to be used in day to day training (that doesn’t need to be kept quite so spotless).
A Good Fit
As dressage requires little movement to be seen in the riders’ hip or pelvis, riders know that a good saddle must fit the horse as well as the rider, not to mention be fit for purpose. But, particularly beginner riders, may forget that the saddle pad is a vital part to providing protection and comfort for your horse – and that saddle blankets come in a wide range of styles, fabrics and shapes.
Although you can get an all-purpose saddle blanket, generally you’ll need something like the specialty Mattes saddle pads for dressage or jumping. Saddle pads are designed to aid the fit of the saddle to create the most comfortable ride possible for both rider and horse, however they are not designed to correct an ill-fitting saddle! However, be aware that if your saddle is a good tight fit that adding a bulky pad underneath it can alter that fit.
You particularly want to ensure that the saddle pad you chose does not put pressure on your horse’s spine or withers.
When choosing a saddle pad, you will need to consider not just the purpose, but also the fabric. Traditionally saddle pads have been made out of sheepskin, wool or cotton, as these help to draw sweat away from the horse’s skin. However, cheap synthetic options are also increasingly available. You may also find that saddle pads have internal padding made of a foam, gel, or a polyester felt.
Just like saddles are not a one-size-fits-all item, neither are saddle blankets. Saddle pads should not only be matches in size but also in style, for example a dressage pad has a different fit to a western pad. Most good saddle pads will come in a variety of sizes, and although each brand may have slightly different suggestions for getting a good fit generally:
- Measure the distance from the back of the saddle to just past the front.
- Add 2-3” (6cm).
- This is the minimum length the pad should be in order to fit with your saddle.
The saddle pad should be slightly bigger than the saddle, but not so big that it goes beyond the last rib of your horse.
If you are unsure about what saddle pad will best suit your needs speak to your saddle fitter, coaches at your riding school, or the knowledgeable staff at your equestrian shop – there is also a wealth of information (and opinions) to be found through online forums (like this) and groups.