BY BRITTANY BIRD
So, you’re shopping for a new saddle, and as you sip your morning coffee while researching different types, you stumble across the foam vs. wool debate. Some of your friends are all about the sleek, new French brands. Some of your friends won’t stop talking about how great wool is for your horse’s back. What do you do? You don’t want to sacrifice comfort for style, but you still want to keep up with the times.
Wool and foam have their own pros and cons. Looking at both comprehensively will help you make an informed decision that is best for you and your horse.
Foam panels have super easy maintenance if they fit (more on that later). Assuming you get a knowledgeable, qualified fitter out, foam can be an excellent option. Foam panels are often less bulky looking that wool panels, and can provide a closer feel to the horse. With advancements in foam technology, foam holds up extremely well to repetitive stress. They can work quite nicely on several horses as long as you have a high-quality shim pad. I recommend any shimmable sheepskin pad that will hold its shape well. As for the shims themselves, felt is my favorite material because it is breathable and works well in a sheepskin (or any kind) of pad.
However, foam panels are not without their downsides. Unfortunately, if your foam-paneled saddle does not fit your horse, they are expensive to redo. It often costs $800 or more and several weeks without your saddle as it must be shipped elsewhere to be fixed. Even with a proper fit, foam panels often require some form of shimming, especially if your horse has changed its topline at any point after you ordered your saddle. Shimming is almost always a necessity for off-the-rack foam saddles as they were not custom made to your horse’s back. Foam will eventually break down and either disintegrate or become extremely hard and unforgiving. Lastly, not all foam is created equal. Some foam is soft and easy for your horse to move his back into. Other foam is hard or lumpy and is not the most comfortable for your horse.
On the other hand, wool panels are easily adaptable, often costing only about $100 for a fitter to make minor adjustments on. Wool panels will eventually conform to your horse’s back to perfectly follow his conformation. When the time comes to completely reflock your saddle, it is much less painful to re-flock wool than it is re-panel foam. It typically runs $250-350, and you are usually only without your saddle for a few days. Wool is inherently more breathable than foam, which is good news for your horse’s back. Anything that allows heat to move away from your horse’s muscles during work is beneficial. Lastly, wool is renewable and much more environmentally friendly than foam.
Unfortunately, wool must be adjusted and replaced more frequently than a foam saddle. Usually every 6 months to a year for minor adjustments, and every couple of years for a complete strip reflock. This is all dependent on how much you ride. Wool flocked saddles are often heavier than foam saddles due to the amount of material used. Some riders also feel that they are further from the horse in a wool-flocked saddle than in a foam paneled saddle.
Wool flocked and foam paneled saddles are both viable options in today’s equestrian world. Sales reps commonly mask themselves as fitters to then push their own brand, so finding a qualified, preferably independent fitter is always your best bet in the quest to find the right saddle to keep you and your horse at your best!
Brittany Bird is a certified, independent saddle fitter residing in Camden, SC. She works with any brand of saddle, foam or wool. Brittany is available for traditional on site saddle fitting as well as online consultations. Learn more at https://www.bbirdsaddlefitting.com