Wool vs. foam vs. CAIR: One case study

Although I’ve owned many, many saddles over the years (Goldilocks and the 31 Saddles ) all but three have been flocked with wool and checked by a saddle fitter twice a year.

What’s the difference?

The material that fills the panels of the saddle are critical to saddle fit and comfort.

Adjusting the wool in a flocked saddle
Wool flocked saddles are adjusted by adding or removing wool through slits in the panels. It’s a good idea to have saddle fit checked regularly since wool can compress over time or your horse can change shape.

Wool Flocked

Traditionally saddles were flocked (stuffed) with wool. The wool is soft enough so that it conforms to they horse’s back over time. If it compresses too much, it can be removed and replaced; and if your horse’s back changes over time, a fitter can add or remove wool to adjust the fit. While a wool flocked saddle can’t be made to fit if the tree is the wrong size or the panels are the wrong shape, there is a lot of flexibility. The disadvantage is that wool saddles need to be checked more frequently to see if they’ve maintained their fit. The wool may move in the panel or compress. I, for example, have my saddles checked twice a year by a saddle fitter and those fittings can run $75-$250 and any adjustments are done on site.

Foam Panels:

When foam paneled saddles were first introduced, they were generally cheap saddles and the foam didn’t hold up well over time — it compressed to the point where it offered no padding and then disintegrated.

The new generation of foam is more sophisticated and durable and is used by many of the high end saddle manufacturers. It is made to automatically adjust to fit a wider tolerance of shapes, to offer cushioning and shock absorbancy, and to “spring back” to it’s original shape. The idea is that unlike a wool flocked saddle, which usually is fitted to a specific horse, a foam paneled saddle can be used on many horses. The disadvantage is that if your horse changes shape beyond the scope of the panel’s tolerance, the only ways to make it fit are to buy new panels — a company rep will remeasure your horse and the company will replace the panels for $400-$1000). Or, you can do a foam to wool conversion — this can be tricky since some of the foam paneled saddles have very thin, close contact panels.

CAIR Panels

Inside a CAIR panel
This is what a CAIR panel looks like when you cut it open.

CAIR panels technically filled with air, but it’s a bit more complicated than the balloon image that invokes. Air is captured at atmospheric pressure in an open-celled foam and sealed in the Air Panel. Once the air panel is welded the open-celled foam becomes irrelevant, as it is the air trapped in the panel.

Like foam panels, CAIR panels are designed to accommodate use on different horses — it is resilient and does not permanently conform to a horse’s back the way wool does.

Some people don’t like the feeling of CAIR: they find it to be “bouncy.” Some people say their horse’s don’t like the CAIR panels. I’ve also heard of CAIR panels that deflate. I haven’t had a problem with any of those aspects of it; so far the CAIR panels on my saddle have worked fine.

CAIR has many of the advantages of foam (fits many horses, requires fewer fittings) but the system is exclusive to saddles made by Bates/Wintec.

In addition to the CAIR panels some of the Wintec saddles also have pockets where a fitter can insert wool to fine tune the fit.

My experience

When I bought my Stackhouse saddle I was over the moon. I had found a used version of the exact saddle I’d always wanted. Since I have quite long femurs, it’s hard for me to find saddles with extra forward flaps on the used market. To find one in a Medium Wide tree as well? It was my Christmas present to myself in 2010. And I had heard positive things about the resiliency of the newer foam panels.

The saddle did not disappoint. It is incredibly well balanced — it fits my leg to a “T” and makes me feel very secure. My leg falls exactly where it should without any effort. It also fit Freedom very well. Or, it did until this Spring.

Over the past month and a half, since I started jumping Freedom again, I could tell that his back was a bit sore. Not terribly sore, but a bit too tight and a bit too sensitive. I have several saddles so I rotated them until my saddle fitter could come to the barn — I figured if one saddle was bothering him,  I could keep each of them from getting too much ride time.

Wintec Pro Jump
My Wintec Pro Jump still fits him very well and also provides me a balanced ride. But it’s a bit like going from the sublime to the ridiculous. And my knees are right at the edge of the flap.

Sadly, it was the Stackhouse that was causing the problem. Strangely enough, my other saddles still fit just fine (I have a County jumping saddle that’s a tad wide but works with a Mattes pad, an Austrian A/P saddle and a Wintec Pro Jump). The first two are wool flocked and the Wintec is CAIR.

Looking at Freedom, I can’t say that his back has changed much. He’s in very much the same fitness level as he was last fall and his weight is very similar. He’s about 12 so is at an age where you don’t expect to see a lot of changes in a horse that’s in consistent work.

You would think that the foam panels could accommodate the minor changes in his back since the saddle has fit so well for the past year and a half. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.

I discussed it with my fitter and decided that it wasn’t worth trying to shim it and pad it into fitting. Foxhunting is a discipline that takes us over quite varied terrain and you need a saddle that fits (you don’t want it to slide about or become unbalanced).

My conclusion: If I’m going to buy another expensive saddle, I’m going to choose one with wool panels. The Wintec saddles (and their Bates counterparts) are not so expensive that it’s a tragedy if they don’t fit after awhile. Foam panels are fine until they don’t fit. And then they’re not.

Since I enjoy saddle shopping, it’s not a big deal for me to sell the Stackhouse. I’ll hunt in my Wintec for the time being and keep my eye out for the next saddle to try. And I will pass my Stackhouse along to the next lucky person who has a horse that’s the right shape for it.

What have been your experiences? What type(s) of saddles do you ride in? Are you pleased with them?

2 thoughts on “Wool vs. foam vs. CAIR: One case study

  1. Interesting! My friend who has a custom-made saddle that she no longer uses (no horse), and can’t seem to sell, always criticized my Bruno Del Grange dressage saddle because it has the dreaded foam panels. Honestly I never realized that to be a problem. I’m wondering if it is, though, since I got it in 1996. It fit me and my horse like a glove. My horse passed away in 2014, and I have since used the saddle comfortably on one other horse. I wonder if it will break down though and become a problem. Being a French saddle, maybe it is of a different construction? Sorry I don’t know a lot about saddles. I just love my Bruno, however, and will keep it forever.

    1. The foam vs. wool debate certainly has supporters on both sides! Newer foam panels hold up better over time and are more resilient (I have opened up old foam panels on a saddle and the foam was very flat and had started to degrade). In addition, think I think that we tend to like horses of a specific body type. So it’s not that unusual (but lucky) to find that your saddle fits the next horse you ride. My horses’ backs changed most at the beginning and end of their careers — when they are young they are developing muscle; when they are old, they start to narrow, or when their jobs change and they muscle up differently. That’s when you have the most trouble with the foam panels no longer fitting your horse. I know a few people who love their saddle so much that they have sworn to take it with them when they try a new horse and only buy a horse that will fit the saddle!

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