One of my most commonly asked questions! Why do I have a fur under my saddle? So here’s why, along with the 18 FAQ’s that tends to come as follow-up questions!
To read the study I’m referencing, you can find the abstract here (clickable link).
While it’s a small study, there are a lot of interesting information in there, the most interesting to me is this part: The saddle pressures and maximum overall force (MOF) showed significant intra-horse effects. At walk, the foam and gel pads significantly reduced the MOF in 44.4% of cases, whereas at the trot, the gel and reindeer-fur pads significantly reduced MOF in 61.1% of subjects.
Bear in mind; the horses in the study was fitted with an excessively wide saddle. If your saddle isn’t too wide, this might not be a good option for you, and they also point out how gel pads reduced the maxiumum overall force too. I have not been able to find any details on which gel pad they used, which I bet is of some pretty big signifigance, but if you’re keen to know I’m sure you can reach out to the team.
While the study was performed using MOF as a measurement, there are plenty other features it would have been interesting to test – such as temperature distrubution, breathability, sustainability and so on. There are some good theories as to why the reindeer fur shows such good results, so let’s walk through some of them.
Reindeer hairs are hollow. This sets them apart from most other animals we could use as a substitute. I’m sure this has a nice name in English, I have not figured it out myself but the Norwegian name for it is “rørhårsdyr” (pipe hair animals), so there’s another fun fact for the day.
These hollow hairs give us some pretty unique features. Not only do they work very interestingly when warming up, distributing and keeping the heat, the way the hairs lay in one direction (as compared to a sheep pad, which is curlier), helps the excess heat travel somewhere. This prevents over-heating.
Many accustomed hikers in the Nordics know very well that if you are to sleep outside in the cold; you sleep on top of a reindeer skin, and underneath a sheepskin/wool product, because the reindeer is better for your back, and the hollow hairs heat up underneath you, keeping you at a comfortable temperature.
While all of this is pretty exciting, let’s get to the reason why you’re all here: the FAQ.
Where do you get the reindeer furs from?
I buy mine from Skinnlåven, my “local” leather supplier. They have some great 2nd sortment furs, that have some cosmetic errors, that come at a cheaper price. They do ship within Norway (just tell them it’s for a horse saddle pad and they’ll find you a good one), or you can do to their store in Hønefoss.
Can I get one outside of the nordics?
This might be difficult. There are gift shops that sell them, but usually they have been coated with a layer to make the flesh side water proof – but this also makes them quite slippery and stiff. If you can find a good one though, a reindeer is a reindeer. Shipping reindeer out of country is quite difficult due to customs, so you would need to find a supplier who have the permits.
How do you pick out a good fur?
This is a bit tricky. First of all, even the bigger furs look small once on horseback, underneath a saddle. The bigger the fur, the thicker the skin, and the thicker the fur too – and this is what’s tricky with these natural products. I try to find a nice middle way between big enough, and “thin” enough. I’m not worried about thick fur, I’m more worried about the skin being too thick and stiff underneath the saddle. Finding a good fur for your horse and your saddle is a very individual process. The furs I use are tanned with alum, one of the oldest tanning techniques, but I do know some people use dried furs – though I would be worried about wrinkling and hard edges.
Is it common in Norway?
Not really, it’s usually only seen in a bit more “alternative” communities, where you won’t be bullied for looking a bit different, haha. There have been quite a few experiments with reindeer half pads in more common “english” stables, with generally good results and positive feedback. I know several people who really swear to it, and while I do change back and forth between reindeer and “normal” saddle pads, I can really recommend it!
Where can I find ethically sourced hides?
Here it would depend a lot on what you put into the term ethically. There are only so many ways to keep reindeer, and the absolute majority is kept just like nature intended to – out in big herds, freely roaming the mountains. The reindeer keepers, usually nordic indeginous families, move after the animals, and round them up one or two times a year. It’s about as ethical it gets. You can usually ask your supplier where the hide is from.
Do you prep the fur before use?
Since I buy a whole reindeer, and I don’t need a whole reindeer, I cut the front off. Depending on the size of the animal, it could be only the neck, or I could cut of the shoulders too. Apart from this, I don’t do anything else with it. I prefer to have some extra space in front, so I can fold it over slightly to reveal the fur, but only because I think it looks cool. It serves no other purpose.
How do you put it on?
Fur against fur, tail towards tail. That way, the reindeer hairs stay calm against the horse fur, and you won’t experience rubbing. The skin also thicker over the spine, so having it lay across the back could create uneven pressure points, and we don’t wante that.
Does it fill up and close the gullet?
I have not had any issues with this. Simply grab the fur and lift it up into the gullet, and you should have plenty of space over the spine. If your gullet is very narrow, you might expeirence this a little more than I do.
Does it slip?
I have never expeirenced slipping.
What saddles does it fit underneath?
All saddles with flocking! It’s not suited for western saddles that require a proper pad underneath. Remember, the horses in the study had too wide saddles, so if your saddle is a little narrow or just perfect in width, a thick fur underneath might not yield the results you want. I have a saddle adjutable in width with an allen wrench, so I can take it in, or out, depending on what pad I want.
Do you use it during summer?
Not a lot. While it does transport heat very well away from the horse, it does have its limits. During summer I tend to wear normal saddle pads, which breathe far better.
Do I need the whole fur?
No! Many english riders have experiemented with cutting out a smaller piece, similar to the “standard” wool half pad, and found very satisfying results. This could also help you if you want to try out reindeer fur for yourself, but have a saddle that won’t fit a whole ass animal underneath it. You do need to cover the entirity of the flocked panels, with enough spare to be able to pull it up from the spine. You also need to have a fur that is even in thickness (see the a few Q’s above).
How do I clean it?
It’s very important that the pad is left to air out if your horse broke a sweat, or it was raining. Do not leave it hanging underneath the saddle on the rack – this is an organic product and moisture will slowly break it down. Hang it out in the wind, give it a bit of a brush with your horse brush if needed, and it’ll be good to go.
Another common way of cleaning it, is to take it out into (dry) snow, and rub it around in the cold. Get some snow in-between the hairs, leave it for a while, shake well and hang to dry indoor.
How long does it last?
As it’s an animal product, being used and abused, you might have to look into replacing it after a while. How often depends on your horse, your riding conditions, of often it’s used, how it’s stored etc. Mine usually lives for 3 years before they get flat, and succomb to moisture.
My reindeer fur sheds a lot. Why?
This could be for a few different reasons. It could be due to when the animal was slaughtered, if it was starting to shed and so on. It could be due to the tanning process damaging the hairs, but most likely it is because the reindeer hairs are hollow. This means they are quite a lot more brittle than sheep furs.
Can I make it stop shedding?
Sadly, if a fur sheds it will continue to shed. It’ll go bald, unless the shedding is due to rough wear, in which you can try to treat it a bit more nicely.
Does your horse react to the smell/look of the pad?
I haven’t had any negative reactions yet. I always let them smell and investigate the fur, just to be sure. Once they are satisfied that it’s not alive, they don’t care. The tanning process also removes a lot of the natural scents.
Yes, but why do you use it?
I personally really enjoy the way it feels under the saddle, and how it works with the wool flocking in the panels. It offers some better weight distribution than normal fabric pads, looks super cool (to me, at least), Brego really seems to enjoy it, and truth be told, it’s a pretty good pad to put on wet fur – no need to wait for him to dry up. I have yet to meet a gel pad that didn’t make me feel icky, and I do enjoy the sustainability aspect of using animal products, that will melt into the earth in a few years time.
Can you decorate it, like sheep skins can?
Yes absolutely, if the flesh side hasn’t been treated with something that would make the ink inable to stick. Reindeer fur acts quite differently than sheep skin when you press down on it, so results may not be as clean and pretty, though. Another problem is that there isn’t really a lot of skin visible, so even if you did print on it, it would be hidden underneath the saddle.
Why not sheep fur? Or any other fur, for that matter..
Sheep hairs are not hollow, so they have an entirely different set of functions than reindeer. If I were to buy a sheep skin, instead of a finished product with sheep fur, I’d also struggle with matting, as wool matts when moist and exposed to large amounts of rubbing – and it would create pressure points after a while, or end up completely unusable due to the thickness and randomness of the matting. This is mainly the reason why you find sheep skin half pads with wool that’s been through a process to make them all “the same”. The sheep hairs are also thinner and longer by nature.
As for other furs, goat hairs are (depending on the goat breed) thick and coarse, smaller animals would leave you with a lot of seam to fit under a saddle, and a cow really doesn’t have that much hair. Moose skin + fur will be thicker than your entire saddle in total, roe deer has a rather thin layer of hair, boars are coarse and prickly. I would think in my head that caribou might be an option though, they are basically the same animal (but don’t quote me on this, I have never even seen a caribou).
What are your views on the ethics of putting a dead animal on a living horse?
Reindeer furs are a biproduct of the meat trade, and if anything, I think the reindeers have a pretty good life compared to many other animals in the meat trade. They are living wild in the Norwegian mountains in gigantic herds; just like they are supposed to. My saddle is made of a dead cow, and if you do use a sheepskin pad, that is made out of a dead sheep. While it might be more obvious with the reindeer fur, I personally do not see a difference – after all leather is just a fur without the fur.
If you don’t like this for yourself, or disagree with me, that is absolutely okay; just a matter of personal preference and choices 🙂
PHEW that was a lot of questions
But at least we have gone through all the common follow-up questions to our reindeer saddle pad! Leave some comments if you have more of them, I’ll do my best to answer.
// Emma and Brego