Got Back Pain? Your Saddle Panels Could Be to Blame

There are many ways a saddle can cause back soreness, tight muscles, muscle spasms and even lameness in both the horse and rider. One often overlooked cause are saddle panels in need of reflocking or refoaming. If the saddle panels are not in good condition, the overall safety, fit and functionality of the saddle is compromised.  Rider and horse back pain are often the result.
What Is a Saddle Panel and Where Is It?
In an English saddle, the panels are the part of the saddle that is underneath the seat and knee/thigh block area. The panels keep the tree (the "frame" of the saddle) off your horse's back and help absorb concussion. They are also an integral part of saddle fit and rider balance.
If you flip your saddle over, the panels are the part of the saddle that have "stuffing" in them as seen in the picture below. The stuffing can be natural or synthetic wool, which is often referred to as flocking, or foam. A small number of saddles have a combination of both. Panels can also be filled with air. (Air panels will be discussed in a future blog post.) Unfortunately, unscrupulous saddle makers and reflockers sometimes put matches, wood chips, old carpet fibers and even tampons in the panels, often putting high quality wool at the entrance to the flocking ports (holes) to give the illusion that wool was used to flock the entire saddle.
What is Saddle Reflocking and Refoaming? How Do I Know If My Saddle Needs To Be Reflocked or Refoamed?
There are two types of saddle reflocking. 1) Spot reflocking refers to making a small adjustment to the wool by adding or removing some of it to address a specific localized issue. 2) Full saddle reflocking is the process by which all the old wool (or other materials) inside the saddle panels is removed and new wool is placed inside the panels. This can be done via small slits in the saddle panels called “flocking ports” or by removing the panels from bottom of the saddle, opening them up and then restitching and re-attaching them.
The picture below is a saddle panel that is detached from the top part of the saddle where the seat is.  The panel has been cut open so you can see the wool inside the panel.
Regardless of whether your saddle needs spot or full reflocking, flocking irons (pictured below) are the tools used during the reflocking process to ensure the wool is uniformly placed throughout the panel or in the correct location in the case of spot reflocking.

Refoaming a panel usually involves making a new panel because the foam is attached to the panel via adhesives and felt. An entirely new piece of foam needs to be utilized in this process. There are a small number of fitters that will remove foam panels, open them up, and shave the foam, but this is somewhat risky due to the unforgiving nature of foam. Once it is shaved, it cannot be glued back on….and millimeters can make a difference.

In either case, it is very important that reflocking and refoaming is done in a skilled manner so the panels are symmetrical side to side, the saddle remains balanced front to back and the panels are not too hard or too soft.  If not, the rider may be pitched forward or backward or tip to one side. This will impair the horse’s ability to move correctly and freely resulting in back pain, soreness and possibly lameness for both horse and rider as well as riding difficulties.

Whether your saddle panels contain wool or foam, eventually they will need to be reflocked or refoamed. This is an often overlooked cause of rider and horse back pain, even by many highly talented vets, human and equine bodyworkers and chiropractors.

Key signs it is time to reflock or refoam include:
  • Panels feel hard or lumpy
  • Panels are asymmetrical, meaning each panel is a different shape (side to side imbalance)
  • Saddle panels are not balanced front to back (pommel to cantle)
  • "Holes" in the flocking or foam can be felt when running your hands down the panel
  • The flocking or foam has "thinned out" or flattened out
Check out this short DIY video to learn how to check your saddle panels to determine if they need reflocking or refoaming.

Will a Newly Refloocked or Refoamed Saddle Automatically Fit My Horse?
Saddle reflocking or refoaming and saddle fit are two distinct but related items riders need to understand. Reflocking and refoaming the panels does not automatically guarantee saddle fit. Generally speaking, reflocking and refoaming restore the panels to their original shape. If a saddle fundamentally does not fit your horse, because, for example, the tree is curved and your horse’s back is straight, refoaming or reflocking will not make it fit. Additionally, if the panels on your saddle have become very thin, it is possible your saddle may be too narrow once the panels are restored to their normal size and shape. In that case, the saddle may need to be widened.

Can Panels Be Flocked to Match the Shape of My Horse to Fit Better?
One of the advantages of wool flocking is that the panels will mold, somewhat, to the shape of your horse’s back. Also, spot flocking can sometimes be used to account for small asymmetries or other issues. But, there are limitations on the use of spot flocking.  If too much flocking is added, the panel can become hard and cause pain. Each situation should be carefully evaluated to determine if shims are a better option, which is often the case when larger areas need customization. Shims can be created in many different sizes, shapes, and thicknesses. For example, I have 15 different shoulder shims alone. Shims are also easier for the rider to maintain as they can easily be removed if no longer needed due to muscle development.

The Bottom Line on Saddle Panels and Back Pain
One important thing riders can do to help themselves and their horse stay pain-free and move to the best of their ability is to become educated about what is in their saddle panels, the condition of the panels, and the impact their saddle panels have on their horse and themselves.  Work with a saddle fitter who is trained in both saddle fitting and saddle reflocking to help ensure your saddle panels are helping you and your horse enjoy every ride.

How often do you check your saddle panels?  Did you know this was necessary?  Did you check them out after reading this blog and watching the video?  What did you discover?  Tell us your story!  Share here or on our Facebook page.

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