Written by: Teresa Pitman

Discover the pros and cons of riding in traditional saddles with trees compared to today’s treeless saddles, according to the experts who design and fit them and the riders who use them.

Thumbnail for Traditional Saddles vs. Treeless Saddles

Courtesy Schleese Saddlery

The saddle must have seemed like a simple concept when the first bareback horseman (or horsewoman) thought of it all those eons ago. Add a comfy seat, and riding a horse will be easier. Yet, it turns out that the construction and fitting of a saddle to horse and rider is far more complex, especially as we become increasingly aware of the potential damage caused by pressure on the horse’s sensitive back and muscles. This article looks at two different approaches to the saddle question: traditional saddles with trees and today’s treeless saddles.

Traditional Saddles

“The goal of the treed saddle is to give the rider a firm seat and distribute the rider’s weight along the horse’s back, keeping pressure to a minimum,” said Dr. Jeff Thomason, of the Ontario Veterinary College.

Certified Master Saddler, Jochen Schleese, of Holland Landing, Ontario, agrees and noted that treed saddles provide the best solution for both horse and rider. “If you go back in history, saddles with trees were designed so that the horse could carry the rider longer and be more useful in warfare.”

A properly-fitted saddle distributes the rider’s weight and supports the rider in a correct position. “Without support, riders, especially women because their pelvic structure is different, will slouch and ride two or three times heavier than their actual weight,” Schleese explained.

Until recently, little formal research into saddles and their effects on horse and rider has been done. “Of course, every horse’s back is a different shape and a mismatch between the tree’s shape and the horse’s shape will cause pressure points,” noted Thomason. In most cases, it is possible for a skilled saddle fitter to find or create a match for most horses using traditional treed saddles. Thomason described the challenges saddle fitters face as an “engineering problem.” “It’s a trade-off between having a firm and secure seat for the rider that can be attached to the horse without too much pressure, and [having a saddle] that adapts as the horse moves. Trying to meet all those requirements is, to say the least, a complex problem. All the varieties of saddles out there are different approaches to solving that problem.”

In the past couple of decades, various systems of measuring pressure under the saddle have been developed. The most informative use sensors in a specially-designed saddle pad to measure the level of pressure. In general, pressure of greater than one and a half pounds per square inch over longer periods of time, or greater than three pounds per square inch for even a short time, can cause pain, damage and ultimately muscle atrophy, explained Thomason, who noted that physical damage often shows up first as patches of white hair. Blankets and pads used under the saddle may help to even out the pressure, but Thomason said they can’t compensate for poor fit.

Rachael Argo of Aylesford, Nova Scotia, is another strong advocate for traditional saddles with trees. Argo is a Master Saddler, who trained in the UK before moving to this country. “Many problems with horses are caused by bad tack, and those that aren’t caused by it tend to be exacerbated,” she said. “Every civilization that has used a saddle has some kind of tree in that saddle, even if the rest of the design was different. The tree helps to spread the weight of the rider evenly over the horse’s back. It also keeps the rider sitting centrally, and if the saddle is properly designed, it will have panels that are soft and springy enough to allow the horse’s muscles to move freely.”

She agreed with Thomason’s emphasis on the proper fitting of the tree. “There’s no way around that. You can’t fix a poorlyfitting tree with padding or panels.”

The length of the saddle is also critical, and may limit how much the saddle can be adjusted to meet the rider’s needs. “A horse can’t bear weight beyond where the last rib attaches to the spine,” Argo explained. “This can mean a problem for larger riders, if you need a longer seat than your horse can handle.”

The rigidity of the tree doesn’t mean that traditional saddles can’t be flexible and soft where they need to be. Argo’s favourite saddles have air bags in the panels replacing the usual flocking and padding. These can have air added or removed if the horse grows, gains, or loses weight, or develops more muscle. “This type of saddle has allowed me to refine my seat and become more sensitive in my riding,” she added.

Schleese sells saddles with a polyurethane/carbon fibre tree, which offers some flexibility, as it moves with the biomechanic movement of the horse – laterally, as well as showing flexibility along its front to back axis – but, he said, “they are not so flexible that they can be folded in half.”

Originally, rigid trees were made of wood covered in rawhide; today they may be wood covered in fibreglass or entirely made of synthetic materials. Each has its own fans. Synthetic saddles are lighter and may offer more flexibility to adapt to the horse’s movements, while the wooden trees can be stronger.

A 2010 study at the University of Zurich found that there were high-peak pressures on the horse’s back while trotting using solid treed, flexible treed and treeless saddles, but the flexible tree offered the best distribution of pressure. The treeless saddle used in the study showed high-level pressure points and no distribution of pressure.

Of treeless saddles, Schleese commented that he is aware of at least one dressage horse in Europe who has suffered neurological damage to his spine after being ridden in a treeless saddle. Sabine Schleese, Jochen’s wife and business partner, pointed out that “you won’t see any top riders on treeless saddles, and there’s a reason for that. Top performance horses will not do well without the protection of a tree. Any saddle that doesn’t have a rigid tree is really just a glorified bareback pad.”

Argo pointed out that a traditional saddle is more forgiving of the rider. “People using treeless saddles say that they can feel all the horse’s movements, but then the opposite is also true – the horse feels all your movements. And most riders are not able to sit perfectly still and balanced, so that they aren’t throwing the horse off. With a treed saddle, the solid tree helps to compensate.”

She emphasized the need for careful fitting of any treeless saddle as well. “It must clear the horse’s spine and not put too much pressure under the stirrup bars and girth attachments.”

Of course, careful fitting is also the key when using a treed saddle. “You can do an immense amount of damage with a badlyfitted saddle,” she said. “You can ruin a young horse by putting a crappy saddle on him. You need to work with an experienced saddle fitter, and you need to go back to have the saddle re-checked and re-adjusted every six months throughout the horse’s life. Sometimes, if the horse is muscling up or changing in weight, you need to go more often.”

All that sounds expensive – and it can be – especially if you opt for a hand-made saddle designed to fit you and one specific horse. Recognizing that, manufacturers are beginning to design more saddles that have adjustable tree systems, such as the AdapTree® saddle Schleese sells, or easilyadjusted padding, or flexible panels (these saddles are constructed with a solid tree that has large panels attached so that they are able to move as needed to respond to the horse’s movements or to change the fit). While some of these are more expensive to start, their adaptability means they can save money in the long-term.

The saddle choices available today can be a bit overwhelming to the average horse owner. Argo recommended finding a good fitter “and building a relationship with him or her. You want someone who will take the time to understand what you and your horse need. It’s worth the effort. I consider saddle-fitting an essential part of equine welfare. That’s why I do this.”

While horse owners need to rely on the skills of those who have studied the art of putting the right saddle on the right horse, the future of saddles and saddle-fitting may be more high-tech.

“The science and technology involved in saddles is picking up fast,” said Thomason. “Within the next 10 years, many of the questions we have about saddles today will have been answered, and I predict there will be equipment that you can use easily to determine the right saddle for your particular horse.” That’s a day to look forward to, for both horses and riders.

Treeless Saddles

When Stephany Dean of Kamloops, BC, was younger, she rode with a Western saddle she’d found on sale. “It seemed to work,” she recalled. But when she bought her Arab mare and began training for endurance riding, her research convinced her that getting a properly fitted saddle would be crucial to her horse’s comfort. “I first bought a saddle that had a shim system so that it could be adjusted,” Dean said. “However, it never really fit my horse properly.” Her local dealer had a treeless saddle available, so she decided to give it a try and said, “It fit her like nothing else had.”

These saddles typically feature lightweight fiberglass pommels and cantles, with leather seats and foam padding. There are no other rigid structures forcing the saddle to keep its shape. Dean is one of a growing number of riders who have begun using treeless saddles on their horse, convinced that they provide greater comfort for the horse and enhance the rider’s sense of connection.

As Thomason explained, all saddles are an attempt to solve the engineering problem we create when we put a rider on a horse. The treeless saddles seek to provide more flexibility and allow the horse to move more freely, and some riders feel they work well.

Dana Johnsen of Penticton, BC, and owner of Nickers Saddlery, became interested in saddles as a child and eventually opened a tack shop in 1993. “I had already spent years studying the equine form and saddle construction and I knew enough to see that there was a huge gap in the industry,” she said. “The one outstanding feature of saddles that appeared to me to be the problem was the tree – unforgiving, non-conforming and restrictive.”

Her own horse at the time had a very round and hard-to-fit back, and that prompted her to try building her own treeless saddle to fit him. Nickers Saddlery now produces the Sensation line of treeless saddles.

Johnsen stressed the importance of the multi-point stirrup attachment system she uses, which distributes the rider’s weight more evenly, and the system of pads that helps achieve a good fit. “Treeless saddles offer the horse full freedom of movement, while providing the rider with a close contact feeling of every movement from the horse,” she explained. “The rider still benefits from the seat and stirrup support without compromising feel.” One other benefit is the reduced weight of a saddle that does not have a tree, which  saddles are dramatically lighter than their counterparts.

While treeless saddles are more flexible, fit is still critical, said saddle-fitter Kaaren Jordan of Solvang, California, who has two Icelandic horses with very different builds. Lalli is low-withered, with a short, but broad back. “I had to try 15 treeless brands to find a saddle that was narrow enough for me, but wide enough for Lalli, as well as being soft and short enough for his back length to prevent loin friction,” said Jordan.

Her other horse, Selur, also has low withers, but has a narrow, A-frame shaped back with a prominent spine, croup high with a very straight topline that becomes convex when he lifts his back.  “Selur is a saddling nightmare, treed or treeless,” Jordan said. “We could not find a treed saddle that didn’t rock on hims great for the horse and for the rider,” she said. In general, treeless when he moved, causing pain.” Jordan now uses a soft structured treeless with panels that is comfortable for both her and Selur.

Research has noted, however, that there is cause for concern with treeless saddles. The Society of Master Saddlers in the UK conducted a two-day study in 2007 using a pad with pressure sensors under four types of treeless saddles while riders walked, trotted and cantered. All of the saddles tested were found to exert pressure onto the horse’s spine under the rider, and all had high, localized pressure under the stirrup bars. No special fitting of saddle to horse was done, and the types of treeless saddles tested were not disclosed. Some treeless saddle manufacturers do claim that their saddles fit all horses and riders, but most emphasize the need for custom fitting.

As Jordan said, “There are no cut and dried answers to the saddle fit questions. Each horse is different, each rider is different, and you throw in injury history, the type of riding done, length of rides, the climate you ride in, and you can see the combinations are dizzying, making the issue quite complex and highly individual. “Fitting a saddle is not a one-time endeavour, either, as the horse and rider change, the saddle fit needs to change via shims, padding, re-flocking or maybe even getting a different saddle.”

Some horses may not be able to fit a treeless saddle at all. Johnsen pointed out that a horse with a prominent spine my need a saddle with a tree to protect his back from pressure. If you are competing with your horse, you’ll need to check to see if treeless saddles are permitted in your sport or the shows you’d like to attend, as some may prohibit them. And while some Western versions do come with horns, they are not suitable for roping.

While most of the riders who turn to treeless saddles do so in an effort to provide greater comfort for their horses, Carolanne Klein of Sundre, Alberta, was also looking for a saddle that was more comfortable for her when she tried a treeless. “It is the most secure and comfortable saddle I have used,” she said. “I immediately noticed a difference in how I feel. There is no torque on my knees and my seatbones don’t hit bottom anymore. I don’t slop around like I used to in my western saddle. I also love the weightlessness of it, as I have elbow and shoulder problems. With my treeless saddle, it’s like lifting nothing.”

Johnsen explained that in a treeless saddle, the rider is not forced into any position, but “is allowed to drape naturally over the horse’s back. Some treeless saddles have too much padding, which can make it uncomfortable for the rider’s hips and pelvis, but the good ones are ergonomically designed for comfort. “I often hear our customers comment that their treeless saddles have been the best riding instructors they’ve ever had. The treeless saddle forces the rider to have an independent seat, ride with balance, and be conscious of his or her position at all times.”

Dean has also noticed that the treeless saddle seems to adapt better to the horse’s movements than the treed saddles she’s used in the past. “I don’t need a crupper or breastplate to keep it in place. We do a lot of riding up and down hills, and I found that saddles with trees tended to slide up her neck when we went downhill. The treeless just kind of sits there.”

Elaine Polny of Training Horses Naturally in Palgrave, Ontario, strongly recommended using the special saddle pads designed for use with treeless saddles. Many of the saddles also have options for adjusting the padding, changing the rigging of the girth and improving fit in other ways, such as the interchangeable pommel system in Barefoot Treeless Saddles. These saddles have a zippered pocket to make changing from a narrow to a wider fiberglass pommel quick and easy, allowing one saddle to be used on multiple horses.

If you are considering a treeless saddle, Jordan recommended asking to try the saddle on your horse for at least 10 to 14 days, and working with a professional to get the best fit for both of you. She also recommended getting input from an equine bodyworker or veterinary chiropractor. “Watch how the horse moves under saddle, and how he responds when you approach to saddle up,” she added. “If his respiration increases, if he snaps at you or pins his ears back, this is a red flag that needs to be looked at.”