Let’s enter the world of custom-fitted flex panel saddles pads, updated for 2022.
We all want the best for our horses, yet we know that finding the right fitting saddle isn’t as easy as snapping our fingers. And, often we have a saddle that used to fit right or fit another horse, or we just like how it feels for us.
So how can we make it right? How can we turn our ok fitting saddles into something, well, perfect?
The answer is custom-fitted flex panel saddle pads.
Custom-fitted flex panel saddle pads can help your horse feel more comfortable, and allow you to use a saddle that otherwise may not be an ideal fit.
Flex panels in saddle pads are used to disperse weight over a larger area while helping match the angle of the saddle tree to the horse’s back. The panels can be made out of lexan, delrin, acetal, or even old paint pails. I prefer a 2 layer combination of rigid no-memory delrin over top semi-rigid plastic.
Flex panels are located under the saddle tree and above the pad and are usually attached to both the tree by thin rope or zip ties and the pad via a leather sleeve stitched on the top side of the pad.
Flex panel saddle pads are commonly oriented independently on the left and right, to better allow for back flex and angle, and are often made with room for shims and extra padding.
The setup I use is fixed under the saddle. In other words, I can place the saddle, panels, and pads on my horse together and at the same time. Furthermore, I can rotate and replace the pads separately from the panels, which are always fixed under the tree, and specifically made and measured for each saddle I use.
The panels, and in particular the pads, can be made of different thicknesses and give, to use in different applications. I have one rigid felt pad, one soft felt pad, and one soft leather/ sheepskin pad. Each pad was made for a specific saddle but can be rotated to each of the other saddles. Each pad can accept any type of shim material such as foam or neoprene in between the felt and the leather panel sleeve.
The flex panels in my setup are a combination of rigid small surface area no-memory delrin over top a semi-rigid larger surface area plastic inverted concave to match the horse’s back. I sometimes add small areas of delrin at the pivot points to add rigidity in those areas.
Some last comments of custom flex panel saddle pads.
Flex panel saddle pads can be mounted under saddles with existing tree padding, providing it is not that thick, ie western style. When fitting under English-style panels or traditional Aussie panels, it is possible as well, but the saddle ends up sitting way high. It is preferable to remove the flocking first.
And, for outfitters or adventurers, this system is a breeze to mount underneath a pack-saddle tree.
The flex panel saddle pads work best under trees that have generous flare both at the front and back of the tree. Otherwise, the sharp tree angle doesn’t encourage the right type of flex that the panels need to match the horse’s back.
The panels jut out in front of, and behind the tree, around 1-3”. Then they fit into the leather sleeve above the pad, which juts out another 1-3” inches front and back. In total the pad extends beyond the saddle 2-6” front and back, to match the horse and application.
- The longer and wider your plastic panels, the better for weight dispersal, ie treks, and travel.
- The shorter and narrower your plastic panels, the better for lateral movement and agility.
- Layers of thin plastics with different shapes and rigidity can be used to create unique combinations of structure and flex.
Now, let’s look at some photos to help unpack all this technical jargon.
Custom Flex Panel Saddle Pads – Orthoflex Traditional Travel Saddle
This is my travel saddle, so highly modified the only original component is the tree. The Orthoflex Traditional was one of the first flex panels made by Len Brown; this model is an endurance saddle made on a fiberglass-covered Wade wood tree. Double rigging, western style.
Custom Flex Panel Saddle Pads – Stonewall Classic Endurance Saddle
This is my second, and lightest saddle, an endurance saddle made in the McClellan cavalry style. Double rigging, cavalry style.
Custom Flex Panel Saddle Pads – Syd Hill Australian Stock Saddle
My third saddle is a vintage – and heavy – Syd Hill Stock Campdrafter saddle. Very comfortable, but not so much for my horse, until I modified the pad set up and removed most of the wool flocking from the flocked serge panels, to allow the custom flex panel saddle to sit closer under the saddle tree. Double rigging, Aussie, and western rigging.
The main issue with this saddle is the rock in the tree doesn’t fit my horse’s back. Using the hard felt pad from my travel saddle under the custom panels helps even out the rock, yet still, pivot points under the tree are needed near the front and back, to ensure a flattish saddle fit that my mare needs.
You may ask why not add shims into the pad at the front and back? This is another option, but I find addressing the bad fit from the tree side solves the problem better and is more at the root.
After all, the ideal saddle is one where the tree shape and angles match the horse perfectly. But, this is often not the case; and rather than returning the saddle, we can be creative.
Another thing to consider is that the shape of your horse’s back changes with exercise and usage. Back muscles can build up, while wither fat can disappear with hard use.
Therefore, having flex panels that move with the horse’s back can be your best bet to ensure an ideal fit over a range of body conditions.
Finally, and this is a huge plus for horse travel: The flex panels under the tree usually have a bigger footprint than the tree, which means the saddle, gear, and rider weight gets dispersed over a wider area on the back – equaling lower weight and pressure per square inch…
Shimmable pads provide the final step in fit.
To recap, this is what to look for in a custom flex panel saddle pad:
- Properly shaped, contoured, and fitted saddle tree
- Customized flex panels to disperse weight and compensate for tree fitment issues
- Pivot points are added under the tree in a combination of front, back, or middle to correct for rock or bridging
- Hard or soft saddle pad padding used as per horse and application
- Shims or inserts are used inside the pad to create proper thickness and final uniformity of fit.
Don’t give up on a favorite saddle until you know for sure it won’t fit.
Take the time to make or buy a custom-fitted flex panel saddle pad. You may be surprised at what you find. You may discover a new lease on your saddle – many more years of comfort riding for both you- and your horse.