Half Pads: Exploring the Options

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If you’re an English rider, you probably use (or have used) a half pad. Available in a variety of materials, half pads are used to add additional cushioning between your saddle and your horse’s back and some can even be adjusted to improve minor saddle fit issues. With so many options out there, RW crew member Cheyenne dives into the different materials half pads are made of to help you decide what will work best for you and your equine athlete!


Getting Started

When selecting a half pad, it’s a good idea to first evaluate the fit of your saddle to your horse’s back. If you’re not confident in doing this yourself, utilize the knowledge of a reputable trainer or even better, a saddle fitter. Once you have an idea of how your saddle fits, you can then decide what material and style will work best for your situation.

Do You Need a Half Pad?

While half pads have quite a few benefits, there are times when using one may actually do more harm than good. The best example of this is when your saddle either fits your horse really well or especially if it might be too narrow. Think about it this way – if you have a pair of shoes that fit your feet perfectly with a thin pair of socks, wearing a thick pair will make them tight and uncomfortable even if they are the coziest socks in the world.

The same idea can apply to a half pad. If your saddle fits your horse well, adding more padding can create a situation where the saddle becomes too narrow and causes discomfort no matter what material you use.

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If you have a well-fitting saddle, the best choice may be to ride without a half pad to avoid making the fit too tight.

Shims or No Shims?

Some half pads on the market are considered “shimmable,” which means they have pockets for extra inserts underneath certain areas of the saddle. Depending on the half pad, the inserts may be the same material used for the rest of the pad or they may be different, such as a sheepskin pad with foam inserts.

Shimming your pad allows for minor saddle fit adjustments, which makes these types of half pads a great choice for young horses, horses coming back into training that may develop more muscle over time, and for horses with a saddle that may not fit perfectly. A shimmable half pad will typically have either 4 or 6 pockets, allowing you to add inserts to the front, rear, middle, or even just one side of your saddle depending on your horse’s needs.

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Shims can help you make adjustments to saddle fit or simply add more padding to cushion your ride.

What Material is Best For Me?

Sheepskin and Wool: Sheepskin and wool half pads are commonly used in all English disciplines.

The difference between sheepskin and wool is that sheepskin is still attached to the hide, making it more durable than wool, which is sewn onto a fabric backing. However, both materials have similar benefits. Depending on the thickness and density of these pads, air between the fibers allows them to absorb concussion as you sit the trot or land from a jump. The natural material is also breathable, anti-microbial, and moisture-wicking, holding up to 30% of its weight in water.

Sheepskin and wool half pads usually have similar styles with optional front and rear rolls that not only provide a classic look but can also help keep your saddle in place. They can be used over a standard all-purpose or dressage pad and can also be placed directly on the horse’s back to take advantage of the moisture-wicking benefit.

A downside to sheepskin and wool half pads is both cost and care. They are typically pretty pricey, especially when you get into the higher end brands. They also require special detergent to wash them and need to be air-dried and fluffed to maintain their shape. However, they can be a good choice for a variety of horses without specific needs, especially if your saddle is a touch too wide. Many of them are also shimmable to work with different horse/saddle combinations.

Fleece: Fleece half pads have similar attributes as sheepskin and wool, except fleece is a synthetic material.

This synthetic material does make the fleece half pads more easily washable, but they're typically not as soft and may not wick moisture or distribute weight as effectively. However, with a similar look and a much more affordable price, fleece pads continue to be a popular alternative to both sheepskin and wool.

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Sheepskin and fleece half pads have a classic look appreciated by many English riders.

Foam: Foam half pads can be made from a variety of materials and foam types. The two main types you’ll encounter are open-cell and closed-cell foam.

Open-cell foam, like the name describes, is foam with air pockets that allow it to compress down then rebound back to its original thickness. A great example of open-cell material is memory foam. This type of half pad easily conforms to the shape of your horse’s back and saddle, remaining thicker under areas with less pressure.

Depending on the pad, open-cell foam can
absorb shock; however, once the material is
compressed completely, it loses this ability.​

The thickness of this material can also be a bit deceiving, since 1” of open-cell foam may compress down to ¼” or less. They can also become stiff during cold weather, taking time to warm up under your saddle before they compress. Open-cell half pads are a good choice for absorbing some shock during your ride and assisting with minor saddle fit issues.

On the other hand, closed-cell foam has a higher density and does not compress under pressure. Instead, it has more of an elastic and bouncy effect. An example of closed-cell foam is neoprene. This type of foam can help evenly distribute weight and will not let in moisture. The stable density can also make closed-cell foam a great choice for shims but is ideally used in thin layers to avoid excess bulk. A thick closed-cell pad can create a tighter saddle fit and also cause a bounce effect throughout your ride.

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Foam half pads can help absorb shock and distribute weight for a more comfortable horse.

Gel: Gel half pads vary in terms of structure and density, with some having large areas filled with gel that easily moves, while others may be more of a honeycomb structure.

Half pads with a honeycomb structure will allow for heat and moisture dissipation, whereas the solid structure can trap both. A honeycomb structure also helps avoid the gel moving from an area of pressure into an area without pressure – a scenario that can actually worsen pressure points. Honeycomb gel pads are usually on the thinner side, making them a good choice as an extra layer of shock absorption. When placed directly on the horse's back, they can also help keep your saddle in place.

The solid gel pads can be a good choice if your saddle fits well, as they absorb shock and conform to your horse’s back. The downside of gel is the weight, as gel is typically heavier than other materials. Most gel half pads typically don’t maintain a contoured shape either, which can make them difficult for use with horses that have a prominent spine or withers.

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Gel pads with a honeycomb structure absorb shock while preventing the build-up of gel under one area of the saddle.

With ever-improving technology, there are always companies that create their own unique material for half pads. They are typically some variation of the materials listed above. Remember, not every half pad will work for every horse/rider/saddle combination! We hope this helps make the choices a little less overwhelming! Click here to shop our selection of half pads at Riding Warehouse.
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