If you want to create a lively debate in the equestrian community, bring up the subject of treeless saddles. There are two main camps: those in favour who will not ride in anything else; and those that think they are unhealthy for a horse’s back.
Hazel McMillian from Campbellford, Ontario, began riding in a custom Bob Marshall treeless saddle this summer. “I’m super in love! I have some joint issues which prompted me to look for a lightweight saddle. It fits both myself and my horse perfectly with no signs of soreness at all.”
Vanessa Beach, a certified massage therapist and equine practitioner in Uxbridge, Ontario, cautions, “We have trees for a reason, to keep our weight from a horse’s spine. Having a rider’s weight directly on a horse’s back for a lengthy amount of time can cause soreness and back problems. The same can be said of a poorly-fitting treed saddle.”
I’ve spent years trying to find a western saddle to fit my downhill sausage of a mare. A few fellow riders suggested I try a treeless saddle, so I borrowed a Circle Y Tammy Fischer. I could feel my horse breathing beneath me, every movement jiggling my thighs and the warmth of her body radiating through the leather, a different feeling from a conventional saddle. The bum warmer sensation might be pleasant during a winter hack, but I wouldn’t like it all day at a horse show during a heatwave. The Tammy Fischer model is a barrel saddle, and I felt very secure riding around the ring. Not only are you sitting right down on your horse’s back, but the high cantle and generous horn hold your body in place.
But can having a rider’s full weight on a horse’s back cause any damage or pain?
Jochen Schleese, a popular master saddler specializing in saddle fit from Holland Landing, Ontario, says, “Only a tree can keep the rider off the horse’s spine. The horse has a horizontal spine; man has a vertical one. You may think that to a horse 180 pounds or so of rider weight is of no consequence, but it is. The horse’s centre of balance is directly behind the withers, but because a treeless saddle sits so close to the horse’s back, the rider cannot get far enough forward and will therefore be behind the movement – not to mention the risk of being past the horse’s last supporting rib.” (Check out his blog on the subject here.)
Darice Whyte is an endurance rider from Oakbank, Manitoba, and she rode in the Tevis Cup, a 100-mile single day endurance ride, using a treeless Sensation hybrid saddle. The Tevis Cup starts in the mountains of California near Lake Tahoe and follows a rugged trail to Auburn. During the competition, a vet checks the horse’s vital signs, hydration, back and muscles then assigns a grade. A rider wants to see a vet card with lots of As.
Whyte says, “My mare is wide and needed the extra area for her shoulders and the saddle accommodated that. She got all As for her back when I was using it.”
Brenna Sullivan from Kelseyville, California, also rides endurance in a treeless Bob Marshall and she says, “There is a high degree of flexibility, freedom and comfort for both horse and rider with enough support through the pommel and cantle to distribute the cinch, stirrup and rider seat pressure. I’ve ridden in these saddles on multiple horses on 50-mile, multi-day and 100-mile rides with great back scores.”
Devin Towrie is a speed rider from Blackstock, Ontario, and she started showing her aged pony JoJo when she was eight years old and he was over 30. He had a sway back, high withers and narrow shoulders.
Yvette Towrie, her mother, says, “We tried so many different saddles and nothing worked. We finally found an old Bob Marshall Sport Saddle and it was perfect. Now my family only rides in treeless saddles. We make sure we use correct saddle pads for spine clearance.”
Bob Hickman is a popular saddle maker from Alberta with clients worldwide, and he says, “Every saddle has its place in the horse world. The treeless saddle has found its place mostly in the pleasure area. They are lightweight and fit an array of different horses because of the flexible foundation without a tree. You are starting to see them pop up in barrel racing because of their lighter weight properties.”
Hickman says he loves debating this subject. “Now the downside!! Because of the flexibility trait, they don’t make good working saddles. It would be like wearing sandals to go do concrete work; you need a good foundation for that. You really don’t want to go roping out of one, you would tear it in half! If you are a large person there is too much flex and there is too much weight in the middle, causing the back and front to rise, much like trying to stay in the middle of a rubber duck in the pool.”
Dr. Joyce Harman is a veterinarian in Virginia and published saddle-fitting expert, with a specialization in integrative medicine for horses. She has studied treeless saddles as an alternative to riding bareback.
“If you’re not comfortable enough to relax while riding bareback, but still want to experience the dynamic feel of riding sans saddle, consider trying a treeless saddle. Unlike a regular saddle, a treeless saddle is flexible enough to move with the horse so, theoretically, there should be no pressure points. I have seen, however, some treeless saddles that create pressure points, so finding one that fits your horse correctly is just as important as with conventional saddles.”
Harman cautions treeless saddles may not work for everyone, “Pressure concerns with treeless saddles include the force generated by the girthing system as it crosses the back, and the stirrup leather attachment where the rider’s weight is concentrated. From the rider’s perspective, the wider the horse, the harder it is to have your legs drop down the horse’s side into a strong position.”
Jason White is a horse trainer and owner of White Willow Equestrian Centre near Thamesford, Ontario. He rides multiple horses a day and says, “a treeless saddle to a horse is like spandex to a runner, flexible and comfortable. They lock you in with lots of support and without a big price tag.”
When trying to decide what works best for you and your horse, take the advice of Dave DiPietra from Synergist Saddle Fitters in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
“Whether you end up getting a saddle with a tree or a treeless saddle, I always advise riders to make sure they have enough of a trial period. Go out and get three to five really good rides in. If you normally go for four to five hours at a fairly quick pace, then that is how you should evaluate the saddle.”
Related research: Comparison of pressure distribution under a conventional saddle and a treeless saddle at sitting trot – Dr. Hillary Clayton et al, The Veterinary Journal.