The Great Stuffing Debate: Wool vs. Foam Panels

As if saddles and saddle fitting aren’t complicated enough, adding the element of panel construction can leave one feeling overwhelmed.  However, doing your homework on what’s IN your saddle is well worth the trouble.  After all, your horse’s comfort and performance are on the line.

Materials Used in Panel Construction
Various saddle manufacturers use different materials to stuff their saddles.  These materials can be either firm or soft, and each has positive and negative qualities.  Here is a brief overview:

Wool
Wool panels are a true saddle fitter’s #1 choice.  Wool is a natural fiber that breathes well and maintains elasticity.  While it does require some maintenance, the fact remains that you can in fact alter it to suit a horse’s change in body.  A high quality wool will retain its shape better than that of a lesser quality, and will subsequently require fewer reflocking jobs.

An example of Jacob wool.

As I began to research the various types of wool, I was amazed to learn that there are, literally HUNDREDS, and each one has very different attributes.  An ideal wool has a coarser fiber.  While the idea of a coarse fiber may cause one to imagine that it makes for a harder packed wool, the opposite is true.  Coarser wools retain their elasticity better than finer wools, and subsequently feel softer longer.

My favorite wool to work with is from the Jacobs sheep.  A wool of medium coarseness, Jacobs wool requires very little maintenance and yet makes for a very soft panel.

As I mentioned above, the only drawback to wool is that it does require some maintenance, and unfortunately so many people fail to have their saddles regularly checked so that the flocking becomes hard and lumpy.

An example of a low quality synthetic wool. This wool became hard and lumpy over time.

Synthetic Wool
Synthetic wools are less ideal than natural wools, but are definitely ranked higher than foam.  Synthetic wools can vary from the texture of teddy bear stuffing to carpet fiber.  Higher quality textiles used to manufacture synthetic flocking will obviously retain elasticity and avoid packing down and becoming lumpy as readily as the less expensive textiles.

While most inexpensive saddles use some form of synthetic fiber stuffing, you may be surprised at how many higher end, and even custom, saddles utilize synthetic flock.  It is, for manufacturers, a great way to keep costs down while making the most profit.

Like natural wool, synthetic wool does allow you to modify the fit of the saddle to customize it to a particular horse.   And while it does breathe better than foam, it is not as desirable as a natural fiber.

Foam Panels
Foam panels are the least desirable to saddle fitters when it comes to saddle construction.  There are several reasons for this.  The biggest issue with foam is that it doesn’t breathe.  This can cause the spinous process to overheat.  I have seen a horse or two that have had edema (swelling) all along the spine after being ridden in foam saddles.  The spinal fluid overheated and caused bumps along the spine that thankfully went away, but you can imagine how uncomfortable these horses got!

Many jump saddles are constructed with foam panels, making it difficult to adapt them should the horse change.

I usually equate the lack of breathability to running around with a neoprene backpack strapped to your back.  On a hot day especially, it would be VERY uncomfortable.  The horse is similarly affected.

Another disadvantage to foam is that it cannot be altered.  If your horse changes or if you change horses, you almost always have to invest in a new saddle.  Higher end saddles will allow you to purchase new panels, but there is a definite cost associated with this (in some cases nearly $1000).

Finally, foam does break down over time. Sweat from the horse will penetrate the leather of the panels and will cause the foam to harden and crack.  Inexpensive saddles will often have harder foams than higher end saddles, and are definitely less comfortable.

Unfortunately, foam panels are extremely popular in jump saddles, which perpetuates the thought that one can achieve a “one size fits all” with saddles.  Just as humans come in all shapes and sizes, so do horses.  Asking every horse in the barn to work in the same saddle is tantamount to asking everyone in the family to wear the same pair of pants!

Air Panels
There aren’t many choices when it comes to air panels.  The main ones are CAIR, found in Wintecs and Bates saddles, and FLAIR panels, available as an option in dozens of saddles on the market.  The two are very different by nature, and neither breathe well, presenting the same risks as having foam.

CAIR panels cannot be altered.  They are sealed air bags enclosed in the panel.  Unlike flocked saddles, should your horse change or you change horses, you cannot do anything to alter the panels, and neither Wintec or Bates saddles offer a change in panels.  You have to buy a new saddle.  A further caveat with these saddles:  While they do offer changeable gullet bars, there is a distinct limitation in the way they can fit.  The width of the tree is one small variable in the fit of a saddle; if the panels aren’t right for the shape of the horse’s back, you have on your hands an ill-fitting saddle, and run the inherent risks associated with it.  Because you cannot alter the shape of the panels, CAIR is down there with foam on the least desirable panel list.

FLAIR panels are extremely adjustable.  Two sealed pockets with valves are enclosed within each panel, allowing you to add or remove air to customize the fit.  While these panels also don’t breathe like flocked panels, they may be ideal for horses with a particularly difficult back conformation.  Horses with significant muscle atrophy or asymmetry often benefit from a saddle with FLAIR panels.  It should be noted that FLAIR can be temperamental.  Changes in weather/temperature can alter the air levels within the panels themselves, and considering the fact that it’s best to have a professional saddle fitter who’s been properly trained on fitting FLAIR panels asses and alter them, they may be higher maintenance than flocked panels.

Combination Panels
Some saddle manufacturers have taken to having layers of foam along the bottom of the panel (the part touching the horse) with flocking on top to allow for some adjustment.  While there is more flexibility with regard to fit, you still run into the problem of no breathability.

Identifying the Contents of Panels

Determining what is in your saddle can be tricky, but it’s important to know what you’re riding on.  Wool flocked saddles will often have what is known as rear gussets (the seam along the back of the panel), although an Antares saddle would be an example of a foam saddle that can have gussets to fit a broader backed horse.

Foam-filled saddles typically are firmer and feel more solid when squeezed.  Foam will have a definite shape to it, while wool panels have a softer shape.

One good way to check for wool is to lift the flap and check for “port holes” (slits cut into the panel).  You can sometimes see the wool peeking out, or you can feel them by sliding your fingers up under the panels.

Panel Conversion
In some cases, you can have foam or air panels removed from saddles, but to have it done properly is often expensive, and often times the saddle isn’t worth the trouble.  Often times the foam is glued to the leather of the panels, so it is impossible to remove it without completely replacing the panels themselves.

The Comfort Connection
Whatever the panels are constructed of, they must, first and foremost, be comfortable.  The ideal panel is soft and supple, and elastic enough to absorb shock while being breathable.  Since our horses are athletes (yes, even the weekend warriors), their comfort is essential to enhance performance and prevent breakdown.  If you were asked to run a mile in uncomfortable shoes, you’d find that your entire body hurts – it’s not just about blisters on your heels.

Panels that are hard and lumpy don’t just cause back pain, they can actually bruise the muscles, and in severe cases, a horse requires months off before being able to be worked again.

Breaking it Down
Ultimately, while foam panels require no maintenance, the fact they are unalterable and lack any breathability makes it the least desirable composition for your saddle.  Natural wool is the number one choice, with synthetic wool a close second.  However, in some cases I encourage people to have synthetic flocking replaced with a natural wool fiber, to provide their horses with the utmost in comfort and customization.

Copyright 2011, Anderson Equine Saddle Fitting Services, LLC

  1. #1 by Roxie on June 5, 2011 - 6:33 pm

    Thanks for that fantastic post! (: made my choice, to order a custom made saddle, with Natural wool!

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