If you’ve been an equestrian for more than 20 minutes you’ve probably heard some version of the “wool versus foam” panel debate. This article is not really about that benefits of wool compared to foam (or vice versa), since that topic has been beaten to death. But we will touch on it for a moment before getting to some more interesting details about how panels can help or hurt your horse. If you’re not privy to saddle fitting or the construction of a saddle, the panels are the two soft pieces on the bottom of an English saddle that make contact with the horse’s back on either side of the spine. It typically comes down to whatever the given saddle company fills their panels with, that’s the material they claim is better. Here is a picture of the foam and wool that is actually inside the leather of the panels:
You can see by the rigidity of the foam and “fluffiness” of the wool, why anyone without a bias opinion (independent fitters, vets & body workers) favors wool panels. Wool is generally favored because it is softer, more breathable and can be regularly adjusted to keep up with a horse’s ever-changing back. Here’s where things start to get interesting…
Not all wool panels are created equal! And it is up to you to be informed to get a saddle with the right kind of wool panels for your horse’s back. To start with an analogy, green beans are generally considered healthy, but there is a dramatic difference between the sodium-soaked green beans from a can and green beans picked fresh off the plant. The same goes for the wool panels in a saddle. Some can be so densely flocked that they are rock hard and lumpy, while some can be lightly flocked with soft fresh wool that molds to your horse’s back. Consider this image:
Depending on how your horse’s back slopes down from the spine on either side, you will want to consider the shape of the panels from side to side in hopes they are similar angles. Since a lot of riders don’t have the budget to get a fully custom saddle (and many of those high end brands sell off the shelf as it is) with panels specially shaped to a particular horse’s back, the trick is to do the next best thing. Be sure your saddle has substantial and SOFT wool panels. Most importantly this will allow the panels to mold around your horse’s back for soft and even weight distribution, but it will also minimize saddle bouncing and the concussion caused from that. But wait there’s more! It will also leave a lot of room for a saddle fitter to make future adjustments as your horse muscles up and/or grows.
You may ask, “This is good advice for someone in the market for a saddle. But what if I have to make do with the saddle I have?” There is some salvation for you, though depending on the saddle you have the benefits will vary. Both foam panel and old hard wool panel saddles can be fully reflocked with fresh wool. It is something you will need to ask for specifically because only some saddle fitters provide the service. A full reflock will give you some leeway in allowing for the panels to mold to your horse’s.
Now that you know not all wool is created equal, I hope you feel more empowered to protect you horse under saddle. Best of luck with your saddle! Be sure to post you comments, questions, suggestions & experiences in the comments below. I will reply to you!