A Review: The V.I.P

In a sport where one pole down, one percentage mark, or one time fault can slip you down the rankings… every rider is looking for something to give their horse that competitive edge. With the therapeutic and holistic care of our horses becoming increasingly accepted and widespread, the question of “can I be doing something more for my horse?” is being prompted more often.

About

I remember the first time I saw The V.I.P.; it stuck out vividly in a market of sheepskin, gel and memory foam. As one of the most streamline, invisible and thin half-pads on the market, it drew my eye as it strongly differed from the thick sheepskin underlays.

The V.I.P is marketed as a pad like no other. Quite literally. After trawling the internet for an insight into the materials used for gel half-pads on the market… I was surprised to find very little. I found one page by Acavallo which described the materials that they use. Yet, it was difficult to find information about HOW the material actually worked, WHAT the material actually was and what (if any) research had been undertaken. Because of this, I was initially impressed with The V.I.P as scientific-based information based on clinical practice about its gel material Akton is easily accessible on their website.

The V.I.P is described as a half-pad made of a viscoelastic polymer Akton that sits between your saddle and your saddlepad, or can be applied directly onto your horses back. It isn’t to be confused with a gel pad, as gel and Atkon have very different properties. The V.I.P is laid bobble-side down, with the smooth surface facing upwards. Although self-explanatory, I found there to be no clear instructions on how to place and position the half-pad correctly and so a mixture of advice from their FAQ section of their website was used.

The Material

Akton is a viscoelastic polymer. A material that has viscoelasticity is able to exhibit both viscous and elastic characteristics in a response to deformation (pressure). An explanation as to why a viscoelastic material, such as Akton, is important in comparison to just a viscous or just an elastic material is below. Akton was founded by Dr. W.R. McElroy has been used for 40 years in the human medical field; specifically created to reduce the risk of skin and nerve damage caused by prolonged sitting, reclining or laying down. 

WHY IS VISCOELASTIC IMPORTANT?

If a half-pad material was just viscous: over time, stress would be placed on the half-pad causing deformation and change in structure at a constant rate. When the stress is released, the material will remain in its deformed structure as it “forgets” its original shape. Over time, the shock absorbing properties of the half-pad will decrease.

If a half-pad was just elastic: over time, stress is placed on the half-pad. However, the half-pad has a solid memory of its original shape. And so when the stress is released, it returns back to its original structure.

If a half-pad is viscoelastic: over time, stress is placed on the half-pad. This causes deformation and change in structure, which then instantaneously returns back to its normal structure once the stress is released. Over time, the half-pad will acquire a “lasting memory” of the degree of deformation and the differing patterns of stress across the half-pad. Essentially, over time, the half-pad will become more adapted physically to your horse.

Papanicolaou and Zaoutsos (2011) Viscoelastic constitutive modelling of creep and stress relaxation in polymers and polymer matrix composites.

The Benefits of The V.I.P

The positives of The V.I.P half-pad are widespread. Most of its benefits originate from simply the Akton material used.

Benefits of the Akton Viscoelastic Polymer

The V.I.P itself is designed to be:

  • Thin – at only 8mm thick it ensures that it will not alter the fit of your saddle.
  • Non-sticky – after seeing the destruction caused to a horses back as a result of the use of a sticky half-pad (see very interesting Facebook post with videos here), the fact that The V.I.P is completely non-sticky is very attractive.
  • Bobbled – this increases the surface area of the half-pad, therefore increasing its shock absorbing capabilities and
  • Thin, film gullet – the gullet area across the horses spine should have no pressure, and the thin film used is enough to connect the two panels of gel but not cause unwanted pressure.
  • Seamless – adds no pressure points to underneath your saddle.

My Experience

The V.I.P was relatively straight-forward to put on; I opted for placing it between the saddle and the saddlepad. It sat flush against the back, with minimal folds and provided a smooth surface for the saddle to sit on top of. It worked well with both a dressage and a jump saddle. The thin filmed gullet was generously wide enough to avoid the delicate spine. Once on, it did not slip or slide around… it stayed in the place that I put it under the saddle both statically and when the horse moved. I found The V.I.P to be a little heavier than other gel pads on the market, which I feel anchored the pad in place without adding a significant amount of weight to the horses back.

Once onboard, the only way I can describe the feeling of The V.I.P is having a thin layer of supportive but shock-absorbing material between you and the horse. It highlighted to me the amount of force transmitted from the rider to the horse just with the simple movement of the seat at a walk. I felt like the pressure was dispersed, even and reduced. In all honesty, I was unsure what to expect… but I didn’t expect to feel such a clear feeling of supportive safety underneath me. Yet, I didn’t feel lifted away from the back or sides of the horse, as the pad was so thin I still was able to have the close contact feeling.

I noticed the most difference in trot, with Junior’s confidence in lifting through the back growing over time. Whilst I did not experience and extraordinary change in his way of going, I did feel that The V.I.P was providing that extra layer of comfort to allow for the easier execution of movements and increased suppleness.

Aside from the horse, I feel like it benefitted my riding hugely! I felt much less discomfort in my lower back and hips and also more freedom in my seat because of this. A big thumbs up!

One of the most impressive features about The V.I.P was when squished together between two fingers I just could not make my fingers touch. In my opinion, this is where The V.I.P has the clear advantage over simple gel pads on the market. When two fingers are pushed together on gel, the gel will spread out and separate beneath the pressure to a point where you can feel your fingers touching. If this is simulated underneath the saddle with the pressure of the rider against the horse… it is clear to understand how in this instance shock absorption is minimal.

Overall I found The V.I.P to be a worthy addition to my equipment list. Although not completely transforming my horses way of going, I felt an added security under the saddle and more epaxial (back) muscle engagement and lift. I feel like with the use of this product over time, I would most definitely notice a positive development in Junior’s way of going. I would really like to see if longer front portions of the pad would improve its capabilities, as the edges of the pad did not quite end clear of the flocking panel of the saddle. Over time I could imagine this pad providing many horses with the additional help needed to develop epaxial musculature, confidence to be more supple through the back and elastic in their paces. I also feel The V.I.P would also be useful in horses being rehabilitated following an injury. As The V.I.P continues its successful journey in the equestrian world, I look forward to reading future research into its use.

Application to Equine Musculoskeletal Health

“Everything you learn becomes a shortcut for understanding something else” – Scott Adams. And this is very much true when it comes to any piece of equestrian equipment. I have learnt knowing the benefits of something is very different to understanding the benefits of something. So, based on this, I have added this section to explain how The V.I.P may be able to encourage positive musculoskeletal health for the horse with longevity in mind. A decrease in stress or pressure placed along the back will enable correct biomechanics of the thoracic vertebral column.

THE BOW AND STRING MODEL

This is a theory used to describe the correct biomechanics of the vertebral column during locomotion. It compares the animals back to an archers bow; the bow = vertebral column, associated ligaments, muscles, forelimb flexors, hind limb extensors; string = abdominal muscles, forelimb extensors, hindlimb flexors and sternum.

The horses spine is the bow, which is held in place by the engagement (not tension!) of the string. Contraction of the string (which translates to engagement of abdominal muscles) causes flexion and rounding of the bow (back).

A brief explanation of the Bow and String theory.
Read more about the Bow and String theory here (Keith Wager, 2016).

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