Panels are the shock absorbers of the English saddle. They come in the form of stuffed pouches of leather or synthetic material that make up the underside of the saddle. Every saddle has only two panels, as each of the two sides has one continuous panel stretching from the front to the back.
Our terminology, however, sometimes treats those two panels as if they were four by referring to the sections under the head as the “front panels” and the sections under the cantle as the “rear panels.” Despite these misleading terms, there is only one panel for each side of the saddle.
Once filled solely with wool, these panels today are just as likely to contain foam or even air. On a custom-made saddle, the amount of that padding reflects a specific type and size of horse.
Panels do more than simply absorb the impact of riding activities. They also keep the brunt of the saddle’s weight off the horse’s most sensitive area – the thin and bony spinous portion of the withers that is too close to the surface for comfort. Panels also provide a buffer zone between your seat bones and the force of the horse’s movements.
Care and Feeding of the Panels
With the panels serving these important functions, it’s crucial to ensure that they are in tip-top shape at all times. They should provide enough lift for the gullet plate to clear the horse’s withers, and to do that they must have enough padding.
Unfortunately, even that just-right amount of padding tends to settle and shift over time, much like the feathers in a down-filled parka. You can also expect an uneven distribution of stuffing to occur if your posture in the saddle is less than perfectly symmetrical (as it is with most riders). The natural growing and aging process of a horse can affect how well panels work too.
Because of all these factors, it is important to keep track of the padding’s condition. To do that, turn your saddle upside-down and inspect the panels. You’ll notice that their stitching has gaps in it, and that’s no accident. The saddle makers leave the stitching somewhat incomplete to make it easier to re-stuff the panels.
Aside from this uneven stitching, what you want to see are two nicely stuffed pouches that look like mirror images. If they more closely resemble partially-deflated balloons than fully-stuffed bags, it is time to have them re-stuffed. Re-stuffing is also in order if the shape of one panel seems to be different from the shape of the other.
If you give the panels this attention during your horse’s springtime shedding of a winter coat, you will have even more clues about the padding’s ability to keep the gullet plate off the withers. Uneven or inadequate stuffing usually causes uneven shedding in the areas where the saddle is putting too much weight on the horse. If you see circular signs of uneven shedding in the places corresponding to the location underneath your seat bones, the panels need re-stuffing. If you routinely put greater pressure on one side while on horseback, the uneven shedding may be visible only on that side.
Perform this inspection at least once and preferably twice a year. You and your horse will be much happier if you do.
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