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What's wrong with foam panels?

By: Galadriel Billington

8:38PM Oct 31, 2006

To fit well, a saddle must match the shape of a horse's back. It must match all along the length of the underside of the saddle, not just the "gullet width."

However, it must also allow for motion of the back, with its shape and its substance giving to the motion. In all three of these--matching, shape, and substance--foam panels fall short of fitting a horse well.

The shape of a foam panel does not match to a horse's back well. In particular, the majority of foam panels are thich at the back, and thin at the middle. To match that shape, a horse's back would have to curve upwards.

Instead, the panel "bridges": it touches at the front of the saddle and at the back of the saddle, but not in the middle. This creates pressure points under the pommel and under the cantle. (A horse can have a smooth, clear sweat pattern and still have terrible pressure points.)

See how the panel narrows at the middle, then gets very very thick at the back (the right is the back).

A good wool panel is curved across the surface, from front to back and side to side. This allows the horse's back to move up into the saddle and down again, as the horse's back moves. (This is known as "flare.") Flare also allows the horse's shoulderblade to slide smoothly under the points of the tree and back again, as the horse extends his leg.

Foam panels have no flare. The front of a foam panel is straight and edged; where the shoulderblade will touch it, there is a corner. The horse's shouldeblade will bump into that corner with every stride the horse takes.

For comparison, here is a panel that has some flare at the front.

The flaw extends to the back as well. The edge of the panels in back is also a corner. This will gouge the horse's back as it tries to flex upwards, as it must do every time the horse extends a hind leg (takes a step with a hind leg).

For comparison, here is a panel that has some flare at the back.

A flocked panel is soft and gives with the horse's back. It "beds in"--packs down--to fit the horse's back precisely. Once it adapts to the shape of a horse's back, it will fit him very, very well.

Manufacturers of foam panels claim that the foam "moulds" to fit the horse's back when it is placed on the back--no! It's too firm and resistant to give well. Foam can't be adjusted and it does not mould to fit when placed on a horse's back.

Substance part II:
Further, you can not adjust a foam panel as you can a flocked panel. With a flocked panel, wool may be shifted around, added, or taken out in order to make the saddle fit the horse's back more exactly. Foam is one hard piece, and you can't add to, take away, or shift the material.

Substance part III:
Further yet, a foam panel disintegrates under pressure, and with heat. As it ages, a foam panel gets flatter, loses padding under pressure points (such as under the points of the tree--ouch!), and becomes very lumpy. It does not take long for a foam panel to begin to disintegrate.

The image to the left shows a panel that has disintegrated badly. The horse who was wearing this saddle had several indentations down his back; those corresponded to the (visible) lumps in the underside of these panels. The lumps are particularly visible in the right panel, which is on the left side of the photo.
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2006 Galadriel Billington. All rights reserved.