When To Use A Bareback Pad in Therapeutic Riding

I had a good question the other day about when to use bareback pads, which led to this week looking through my notes and online to compile info about when and when not to use them. So here is everything I know about the topic. Please contribute your thoughts in the comments!

When To Use A Bareback Pad in Therapeutic Riding

Some Basic Concepts About Tack

The purpose of tack is (as I see it):

  • Comfort – to protect the horse and rider
  • Support – to put the rider in the correct balanced position to benefit from the horse’s movement and ride the horse the best they can
  • Independence – to allow the rider to be as independent as possible
  • Sport – such as to the point of competition, which requires certain tack

Tack and movement in therapeutic riding:

  • The thicker the tack, the less the movement is transmitted from horse to rider, because there is so much bulk between the rider and horse
    • Western saddle with big stirrup fenders
  • The thinner the tack, the more the movement is transmitted from horse to rider, because the rider is closer to the horse
    • English saddle with thin stirrup leathers
    • Bareback pad

How & Why To Use A Bareback Pad

Benefit/Use of the Bareback Pack

  • To develop better balance
    • Allows rider to find balance and center instead of depending on saddle
    • Feel the balance and center better without bulk of saddle
    • Assists a more upright neutral pelvis position
    • Use to find alternative positions that challenge the rider’s balance (ride backward and prone)
    • Help develop core strength and stability on horse
  • To allow more pelvic movement and sensory input from the horse
    • The pad is flexible so the rider can benefit from horses body movement because he/she can feel it better
    • It is the best way to directly transmit the movement of the horse to the rider’s body (versus the saddle, which prevents the movement from transmitting to some extent)
    • This movement may work muscles the client doesn’t normally use, such as the core and those used in walking
  • Comfort for high tone rider
    • The pad warms up from the horses’ body and it transfers the heat to the rider, promoting relaxation of tight limbs

Bareback pad equipment involves several pieces:

  1. the bareback pad
  2. the girth (attached) or surcingle – this holds the bareback pad on the horse and provides additional support
  3. the accessories – stirrups (if needed), additional straps (some bareback pads use breastplates)

Bareback Pad Options

  • Thickness
    • Thicker = less movement felt, weight perhaps dispersed more on horse
    • Thin = more movement/warmth, but may be harder on the horse since there is less cushioning for pressure points and dispersion of weight, especially for imbalanced or leaning riders or those with bony bottoms
  • Texture
    • Smooth for riders with tactile sensitivity, sensory processing disorder
    • Too smooth can be slippery
    • Fluffy can offer more traction
    • Soft to help riders with spasticity to relax
  • Saddle pad  cover
    • I’ve seen barns make saddle pad covers for their western pads, like a pillowcase with velcro or a zipper, to protect the pad from dirt and drool

Surcingle Options – without handles

  • Why use no handles
    • Best for clients with good balance who can stay upright without holding on
    • May attach stirrups if needed
    • Less interference with rider’s legs
    • Allows rider to rider further forward
  • Bareback pad with attached girth
    • Lightly padded, often used on top of a western pad
  • Driving surcingle (flat strap)
    • Often has rings to thread long reins through if driving horse from behind, as used in many hippotherapy sessions

Surcingle Options – with handles

  • Why use handles
    • Gives confidence by allowing rider to hold on
    • Holding on with the arms can support the upper body
    • Can help the rider stay centered
    • Gives the hands something to do (instead of flailing)
    • Beware: handles may increase tone in arms of high tone riders
  • Anti-cast handed surcingle (one handled)
    • For riders who
      • need to use their arms to help balance their upper body
      • cannot straddle a vaulting surcingle as the two handles are too far apart
      • need more lateral (left/right) trunk movement
    • Note
      • May push the rider farther back on the horse
      • Probably don’t use for a rider with seizures, as they can’t lie forward on the neck
  • Vaulting surcingle (double handled)
    • For riders who
      • Need more support for weight bearing with their arms
      • Need to change positions to explore balance and body awareness on the horse (vaulting positions)
      • Need more anterior/posterior (front/back) movement – tends to block lateral movement
    • Note
      • If highly spastic or crest mount, may be hard/impossible to get high tone legs around handles
      • May push rider farther back
      • May interfere with rider’s leg position
  • Natural Ride
    • Hand hold is not as high
    • More solid, may not move and pull on horse as much
    • Note: I’ve found they are not as flexible to fit the horse, the angle may pinch wider horses

Stirrups

  • Can attached to bareback pad loops or surcingle handles
  • Use if rider needs the support, or to keep legs in place

Common pads and combinations I’ve seen at facilities and posted on message boards:

  • Surcingle and vaulting pad – dense felt vaulting pad and cover, often used in hippotherapy – Example
  • Western pad + thin Navajo pad + surcingle
  • Two western pads + surcingle
  • Gel/memory pad + western/bareback pad + surcingle
  • Cashel Soft Ride – like a bareback pad but has some pommel/cantle foam support and can have stirrups – we used this for a rider with paraplegia and it worked quite well – it doesn’t appear they make them anymore but have a newer bulkier version out
  • Thinline Super Comfort
  • Supracor Bareback Pad
  • Parelli Bareback pad – suede leather surface is grippy, thick enough, but thin so very close contact
  • Stargazer Equiseat bareback pad
  • LittleJoe Hippotherapy Saddle – I really like the billet location on this one
  • Skito Bareback Pad

When To Use A Bareback Pad

The following are some determining factors for when to use – and not use – a bareback pad in therapeutic riding.

Rider Disabilities, Abilities, Needs

  • Low Tone = typically use a deep seat saddle
    • needs more support = use a deep seat: western, dressage, Australian
    • use saddle accessories to stabilize loose limbs
      • Devonshire boots
      • rubber band the stirrup to the boot safely
      • attach the stirrup to the girth with a stirrup keeper.
    • a bareback pad may be preferable when the low tone rider over-depends or leans on the supportive tack in a way that hinders the benefit of riding (such as leaning back against the cantle)
      • usually low tone riders need more stimulation to encourage their muscles to engage, such as via a choppy-strided horse or lots of transitions, but you can also use a bareback pad so they get even more movement from the horse
      • be aware the rider may tire quickly, since their muscles are working so hard with little support, so give lots of rest breaks
      • be aware that if the low tone rider rolls back on his/her seatbones this can hurt the horse’s back or change the horse’s movement, in which case using a saddle may be better
  • High Tone, Inflexibility, Spacticity = typically uses a bareback pad
    • needs less bulk so their legs can fit around the horse, as they may not be able to straddle very wide or sit on a saddle
    • the warmth of the horse’s body can relax their tight limbs and help them lengthen into better posture, which is transmitted better through a bareback pad
    • the soft feel of the bareback pad can help relax their tight limbs
    • may need to avoid the two handled surcingle, which can be harder to straddle, especially if using a crest mount
    • may or may not need handles – the use of a surcingle with handles may increase tone in the upper extremities as they hold on
    • however, they may need a saddle if…
      • the horse is wider
      • the rider wants to show
      • in which case use a thin saddle with a narrow twist, which sits the rider high with a narrow base and allows the legs to fall nicely around the horse (or if they hang forward, hang the stirrups in front of the saddle, until the rider’s legs improve)
  • Poor core strength, unstable (TBI, CP, paralysis)
      • may need surcingle with handles to stabilize core – two handles typically maximizes the use of upper extremities to stabilize
      • may need stirrups for additional stability
  • Hemiplegic (one-sided paralysis or weakness)
    • Single handled surcingle to help mid-line awareness and centered balance
  • Movement type needed
    • more lateral (left/right) trunk movement = use one handled surcingle
    • more anterior/posterior (front/back) movement = use two handled surcingle
    • needs less movement = use thicker bareback pads
    • needs more movement = use thinner bareback pads
  • Sensory Processing Disorder, Sensory integration issues, Tactile sensitivities
    • Depends on rider’s preferences – some prefer certain textures (smooth saddle vs. fluffy pad)
    • If includes gravitational insecurity, use stirrups and a supportive saddle
    • If includes decreased body awareness, change up the tack, use both saddle and bareback
  • Sensory seeking
    • use bareback pad to give input
    • if they have low tone or dislike the pads they may need to use a saddle, in which case you can use other techniques to give them sensory input such as transitions and direction changes
  • Skin sensitivities, irritation, breakdown
    • May need to use a soft bareback pad instead of a hard saddle with all the flaps and buckles
    • Be aware of surcingle buckles and where the rider’s legs lay on them
  • Language processing disorder
    • these riders often speak and process better after periods of movement input, so a bareback pad may be preferable to maximize movement input
  • Size
    • Small riders – you may not have a saddle small enough for them, so use a bareback pad
    • Large riders – you may not have a bareback pad that distributes their weight on the horse’s back adequately to keep the horse comfortable, so use a saddle
  • Behavioral problems
    • Bareback riding may give them more to focus on
  • Confidence
    • Confident rider that needs a challenge can ride bareback to improve their balance, or practice vaulting positions
    • Rider lacing confidence can use a bareback pad to build confidence in balance and abilities, but may need stirrups and/or handles to hold
  • Crest mount
    • may need to avoid tack that makes the crest mount more difficult, such as the 2 handled surcingle

Rider preference

  • Prefers riding bareback, and their goals can be met without a saddle
  • Prefers riding with a saddle
    • Rider may not want adaptations (such as bareback pads) because they want to ride like everyone else
    • The more independent the rider wants to be, the more adaptations they may need (such as Paralympic riders)
    • If the rider wants to show, they need to ride in a saddle

The horse

  • Tack fit
    • a bareback pad may place the rider in better posture and in a better position to receive the horse’s movement than a saddle, or vice-versa
    • there are no acceptable saddles that fit both the rider and the horse, but the horse is the best option for the rider – often this is the case with young riders and not having a saddle small enough
  • Narrow vs. Wide horse
    • narrow horses usually have more wiggle room for adding tack bulk
    • for a rider who cannot straddle very wide (high tone), you may be able to use a narrow horse with a thin saddle, but if it’s a wide horse then only a bareback pad
    • ex) a rider with high tone wants to show, which requires a saddle, so find a horse narrow enough and saddle thin enough that the rider can comfortably ride

The Instructor

  • The instructor’s knowledge, experience, and  comfort level puts limits on to the use of any type of tack
  • Only instruct what you know – from simply riding bareback (if you’ve ridden bareback yourself), to incorporating vaulting movements (if you’ve been trained in vaulting), to using hippotherapy techniques (which only a licensed PT/OT/SLP can do) – keeping in mind the goal is to teach riding skills

That’s all I know! Please add any thoughts in the comments. Have a great weekend!

Resources

  • Hippotherapy Equipment.
  • Rideability Victoria, Assistive flash cards – link no longer exists
  • Notes from the PATH Intl Registered Instructor Workshop I attended
  • NARHA instructor educational guide

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Note: This is not professional advice, this is a blog. I am not liable for what you do with or how you use this information. The activities explained in this blog may not be fit for every rider, riding instructor, or riding center depending on their current condition and resources. Use your best personal judgement! If you would like to contribute an activity or article, please contact me here, I would love to hear from you!

2 thoughts on “When To Use A Bareback Pad in Therapeutic Riding

  1. What a wonderful post. I use a variety of equipment for my riders but your comments made me review what I’m doing and gave me new ideas.

    I also looked at your web site suggestions for adaptive equipment and plan to order one of the pads I saw.

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