Saddle Fit Struggles: To Shim or Not To Shim, That Is the Question

I’ve been following all of the equestrian sports in Rio and paying close attention to saddles and pads as, of course for me, the saga continues. Just when I think I’ve found saddles and trees that fit my horses, I realize that I own too many horses to fit in just a few saddles. But, like most equestrians, we can’t realistically afford a custom saddle for every single horse we ride (even if we do aspire to the Olympics someday). So what to do?

saddle pad fit

Tyler says Rio Schmio. He already has a CSIO5* FEI record. Sheesh Tyler, not all of us are as accomplished as you are! Photo courtesy of CJ Millar.

Of my current competition and riding horses, I have two that needed a medium narrow County Solution and two that needed a medium County Solution, with another one not yet in work (that starts in fall) and a growing Dutch Warmblood that will both be somewhere in between as they re-muscle and develop. Great. Just as soon as you think you’ve found something that works, you find that you still need to make adjustment.

Now of course if I was “normal” and “just owned one horse” (wait, what?), then I could have my saddle fitter come out and adjust the wool flocking to fit that one horse and re-flock whenever needed for less than a few hundred dollars. Not bad, right? Oh wait, except I own more than one horse. A lot more than just one horse …

So back to the drawing board we go. At least I knew a saddle that worked, and while waiting to finalize my order, I have a demo to ride in that is a medium tree. With shims, I had a Mattes pad and custom County foam shims that made it work for nearly all of my horses for the time being.

While not ideal, and shims can, over time, create issues, when you have horses that are changing or in between tree sizes, or you simply need to ride various horses and have a freakish leg that only fits your saddle, shims can be a blessing. I set out to do some research to learn about the different types of shims and corrective pad options and how they all work. Then I asked (bribed with dinner) my fabulous chiropractor to come back out and evaluate the saddle fit from the ground both with and without a rider.

The saddle pads that stepped up to the challenge were:

I had a few other saddle pads to try as well such as the all new super high tech SedeLogic, which provided three very unique pads, and a few other fan favorites, but I set those aside to test in a second group focused on shock absorption rather than saddle fit and correction and shimmable pads. I also had an EquineLux pad to test that had pockets for shims, but since it was just one big pocket and the shims didn’t really stay put as well, it got bumped into this group as well.

First, we started out by taking off our shoes, and standing in the concrete aisle on all the pads to see how they felt to us. The Mattes was firm with wool, but softer with foam shims in place. The Cavallo pad was stiffer, and the Total Saddle Fit pad was soft and fuzzy but not as cushiony as some of the others. Our favorite was the ProLite with the gel shims because we could bounce on it and still not feel the hard concrete underneath.


Standing on the saddle pads in the barn aisle to see which felt best to us. Photo courtesy of CJ Millar.

Next, we dragged good ol’ Tyler, who we never quite did figure out in the original saddle fit series, and he got an adjustment and then we went out to the ring, saddle pads in tow. Since his first adjustment with Dr. Leah (read more in Fitting Follow Up and then how we finally found our gallop) he was starting to move forward under saddle. The Mattes with foam shims seemed to do the trick so we started there and got more of what we did our last ride: nice, easy-going, free-flowing shoulder movement.

We then looked at the Cavallo pad, and even though the foam compresses, there was no way we could make that work, unfortunately. It was just too thick and bulky, and Tyler gave me a very clear “no way” when I tried to girth him up. On to the next pad…

The Mattes with traditional felt shims was up next. It was the same pad, we just swapped out the shims, but man did they make a difference! The felt was harder and offered less give than the foam, and Tyler was more reluctant to move forward. Even more interesting was that it made the seat of my saddle, which was a soft seat model, feel hard. To make sure I wasn’t losing my mind, I made my friend get on and both she and Dr. Leah agreed. The felt shims weren’t as comfortable for the rider or the horse as the foam ones. Interesting!

Total Saddle Fit Six Point Saddle Pad

The Six Point Saddle Pad by Total Saddle Fit had the most customizable shimming options of all of the pads we tried.

We then tried the Total Saddle Fit pad. This one needed two sets of shims, and while it was a little confusing at first to figure out which shims went where (there are six pockets!) we figured it out. The wool was super soft and I loved it, but the test was to see how Tyler reacted. It was a tie with the Mattes with the foam shims. He moved equally as well and willingly as in the first pad. Hmm, very nice, and the bonus was if he — or any horse — changed size or shape, the Total Saddle Fit pad had more pockets so you could more easily customize the shims. Definitely a plus!

Finally we tried the ProLite. This was our hands down favorite for us, but the big question was how did the horse feel. Under the saddle, it was the opposite of the Total Saddle Fit pad. Where the TSF pad was slim, the ProLite was bulky and extended out of the underside of the saddle panels. We removed the thicker of the gel shim sets — it comes with a thick and a thinner set — and tried again. But, alas it was still too bulky.

While it felt weird to me and there was definitely a bit of a disconnect between me and my horse, I wanted to see how he felt so I urged him forward. He went, and while he was willing, he was not nearly as free in the shoulder as he was in the Total Saddle Fit pad. And even more interesting, he was having as much a hard time feeling my seat aids as I was in feeling his movement in his back. So the great cushion that we loved to stand on, on the ground, translated to too much cushion on the horse — who would have thought?

Then just to make sure I wasn’t crazy or biased, I went back to the Total Saddle Fit and the Mattes and swapped them out a few times with the same results. Tyler loved both, and I love the added adjustability of the Total Saddle Fit’s multiple pockets. I did end up using two sets of shims for the Total Saddle Fit, compared to just one set of the foam County Mattes shims, but I liked that again it offered even more adjustability than the other pads had.

At the end of the day, the Total Saddle Fit half pad won. Keep in mind, if you need larger shims, their full A/P Jump pad has larger shims and pockets, and the detailing on that pad is just beautiful! The reinforcements where the girth goes, the stitching, everything really is top-notch, and I was reluctant to send it back, but I use primarily Draper saddle pads for my horses because of their beneficial properties for circulation, and the half pad made more sense. I am such a creature of habit! I did, however, finally give up my 14-year-old Mattes original half pad that had seen better days and retire it to be replaced with the Total Saddle Fit Six Point Half Pad which I now love.

Total Saddle Fit and Draper Therapies Saddle Pad

Tyler sporting his Total Saddle Fit Six Point Pad over his favorite Draper Therapies saddle pad

It’s also good to remember that every horse is different, so what works for my horses may not work for yours. Testing out all of these pads gave me a great idea of what my horses prefer that works with their saddle. I could see how some of the other brands would also work depending on a horse’s needs, and if a horse was incredible back sensitive, for example, the ProLite may help keep the horse from feeling the rider’s seat, which in that case could be a good thing, especially if they were recovering from an injury or back issues. But when it came to adjustable shimmable saddle pads, Total Saddle Fit was the winner!

Next up: A test of saddle pads for shock absorption on my horses that are not between saddles sizes. I’m excited to learn more as we event and fox hunt and go to hunter paces, as well as take super long trail rides and camping vacations with my horses. We did over 40 miles the other weekend on vacation up and down the Adirondacks and into the Hudson River and are heading back next week. Check back to soon to find out which saddle pad won out in those conditions and more!