Pads & Blankets: What Are They And Are They Really Necessary?

When we think about what tack we need, saddle pads and saddle blankets aren’t often at the forefront of our minds. We all know that they go underneath a saddle but there’s still a lot of confusion about exactly what they are and whether or not they’re really needed. Some people talk about them as if they’re the same thing and serve a single purpose but, as we’ll soon find out, they are in fact very different and fulfill different roles.

What is a saddle pad?

While the term saddle pad is often used to describe anything (and everything) that goes in between the horse and the saddle it’s a little bit more precise than that. Whether you call it a numnah, half pad, dressage square, or just a plain old saddle pad it’s all the same thing and that is a cloth that has padding and helps to cushion the saddle and distribute the rider’s weight across the horse’s back.

In the past saddle pads were generally made of wool but these days they can be found in a huge range of materials such as cotton, gel, and foam, and of course, they can still be made from wool. They’re also designed with the horse’s comfort in mind which is why they tend to have a honeycomb underside that allows for moisture to be quickly wicked away from the horse’s body. In terms of thickness, most pads range from 1/2” to 7/8”.

What is a saddle blanket?

Unlike the saddle pad, which provides cushioning to the horse, a saddle blanket is just that, a blanket. It’s typically made of wool or a synthetic blend and offers very little in the way of padding. They’re normally used over a saddle pad to add thickness to it but they can also be used underneath instead of a pad to act as a liner, absorbing sweat and helping to increase the longevity of the saddle pad.

Being originally made of wool, saddle blankets were often brightly colored and decorated with a wild array of designs. This has made them a very popular sight at shows where they can add a real splash of color to any Western outfit!

While saddle pads are used in all riding styles, saddle blankets are only really seen in Western riding.

What’s the difference between a saddle pad and a saddle blanket?

While the main difference between a saddle pad and a blanket is the cushioning they offer, they’re actually very different from a visual point of view. Saddle pads can be saddle-shaped or square-ish, but they also have a quilted texture to them. Saddle blankets, on the other hand, are square-shaped cloths that have a woven texture to them. It’s worth pointing out though that you can now buy Western saddle pads that have all of the benefits of pads but have the appearance of saddle blankets. A good example of this is this Weaver pad I found on Amazon.

In terms of colors, saddle pads are normally solid in color but can also have a metallic or iridescent effect, whereas saddle blankets can come in any color or design that you can imagine. Originally woven by Navajo women (and traded with the Lakota), many designs carry Native American patterns.

The cost of both pads and blankets can range from a few bucks to hundreds of dollars but saddle pads are generally more expensive.

The table below gives a quick summary of the main differences between saddle pads and blankets.

Saddle PadSaddle Blanket
Synthetic blend
ColorsGenerally solid colorsA huge range of colors and designs
Used on its ownYesVery rarely
Differences between saddle pads and saddle blankets

Do you need a saddle pad?

Saddle pads are one of those items of tack that are often overlooked and forgotten about but not only are they essential, but they’re also crucial to the horse’s comfort and wellbeing. So to answer the question succinctly, yes you absolutely need a saddle pad. Even with a well-fitting English saddle that doesn’t need any extra padding, you should still use a saddle pad.

In the past they were used purely to stop expensive, leather-bound saddles from getting dirty and sweaty but, as the role of the horse changed over time, saddle pads evolved to keep the horse (and to a lesser extent the rider) comfortable. They do this by providing a cushion between the horse and saddle so that the rider’s weight doesn’t cause saddle sores and is distributed evenly over the horse’s back. They also quickly remove moisture from the horse’s back, helping to keep them cooler.

As well as keeping the horse comfortable, saddle pads also help to protect the saddle from dirt, sweat, and horse hair and reduce wear and tear on it. This means the saddle doesn’t need to be cleaned as often (although you should still clean it every 4 weeks). 

Not sure how best to clean your saddle? The best way to clean a leather saddle.

Another benefit of a saddle pad is that it can help to keep the saddle in place and stop it from slipping. This doesn’t mean that it can make up for a poorly fitted saddle, but it can give the saddle a little bit of ‘grab’ when compared to the horse’s hair alone.

In summary, the benefits of a saddle pad are:

  • Reduces pressure on the horse’s back
  • Evenly distributes the rider’s weight
  • Keeps the horse cool by removing moisture
  • Stops the saddle from moving around
  • Protects the saddle from dirt, sweat, and hair
  • Reduces wear and tear on the saddle

Do you need a saddle blanket?

While saddle pads are essential and an absolute must, saddle blankets aren’t so crucial and their use is optional. That said though there are still times when you should use them. When used as a liner underneath the saddle pad they can help to keep the pad clean and therefore extend its life but this isn’t done so often. More commonly saddle blankets are used over the top of the pads to give extra padding and to also add some color and style to the tack. This is one of the reasons why they’re so common in the show ring.

Is it OK to ride without a saddle pad?

There’s an argument that riding without a saddle pad is okay if it’s only done now and then and for short periods but I personally don’t subscribe to this view. After all, how would you feel if you had to walk (or even run) without sneakers on? You might not think it matters but after a short while you’ll soon regret not having anything on your feet so why would you want the same for your horse!

Can you use a saddle blanket as a saddle pad?

The only time you can use a saddle blanket instead of a pad is your Western saddle is fitted well. In these circumstances you can, for shorter rides, use a thick (around 1/4”) saddle blanket folded in half instead of a saddle pad. This is, however, the ONLY time you can use a saddle blanket without a pad.

Can you use too much padding?

You might think that the more padding you give the horse the more comfortable they’ll be but this isn’t always the case. Ideally a saddle pad (and blanket if you’re using one) should be somewhere between 3/4” and 1 1/4” thick. Too much padding will raise the saddle too far off of the horse’s back, causing it to roll more and making the horse’s back sore.

Saddle pads won’t make up for a bad saddle

While a saddle pad provides the horse with a certain amount of cushioning and padding it should never be used as a substitute for a properly fitted saddle, nor should will it ever compensate for a poorly fitted one. With this in mind you should have a trained saddler check your saddle at least once, if not twice, a year to make sure it still fits your horse properly.

I hope you found this article helpful. If you did I’d be grateful if you could share it please as it would really help me.

Recommended products 

Over the years I have tried hundreds of different horsey products, from various blankets and halters to different treats. Some I’ve loved, others I’ve hated but I thought I’d share with you my top all-time favorite products, the ones I never leave the yard without. I’ve included links to the products (which are in no particular order) that I really think are great.

  • Horse Knots by Reference Ready – If you’re like me and enjoy pocket reference guides then you’ll love this knot tying guide. These handy cards can easily fit in your pocket or attach to the saddle for quick reference. They’re waterproof, durable and are color coded to make them easy to follow.
  • Mane ’n Tail Detangler – Even if you never show your horse you’ll need to detangle his tail from time to time (and possibly his mane too) which is always a challenging chore! I’ve found that if I run a little bit of detangler through my horse’s tails every few days it stops them from getting matted up and makes combing them easy, even if they’re coated in mud. I don’t know if I should admit to this or not but it also works wonders on my hair.
  • TAKEKIT Pro clippers – Over the years I’ve tried a lot of different clippers and while some were obviously better than others I found these to be by far the best. They are heavier than a lot of other clippers but for me, that’s a good thing, it makes them feel more sturdy and hardwearing. On top of that they have a range of speeds so are just as good for clipping your horse’s back as they are his face. I also like the fact that they come in a handy carry case but that’s not for everybody. The company that makes them is super good and incredibly helpful too, a real bonus these days. The only thing I wasn’t keen on was the fact that it doesn’t come with any oil, but that’s not a major problem as it’s not difficult to buy lubricant.
  • Shire’s ball feeder – There are so many boredom buster toys out there but I like to use these every day, regardless of whether or not my horses are bored. I find that it helps to encourage my horses to problem solve by rewarding them with treats (or pieces of fruit) but it also mimics their natural grazing behavior which helps to keep them calm and de-stressed.
  • Horse safe mirror – This is a strange one that many people are surprised about but I like to put horse safe mirrors in the trailers as well as in the quarantine stalls. It helps to prevent the feeling of isolation by giving the impression of other horses being around. Being herd animals horses can get extremely stressed when they feel that they’re on their own but with these stick-on mirrors, they believe that at least one other horse is with them.
  • Rectal thermometer – I know this isn’t glamourous at all but it’s vital for your horse’s well-being to be able to check their temperature and a rectal thermometer is the easiest way of doing this which is why I’ve added it to the list.

Shopping lists

I’ve also put together a few shopping lists of essential items that I’ve found helpful over the years. I’ve broken the lists down into different categories rather than put everything in one massive list 😉

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