Treeless saddles offer a lot of advantages, but they don’t work for every horse or rider. Find out whether or not you should consider investing in one.
Treeless saddles are well-established in the horse world. They come in a variety of interesting designs and often offer a comfortable ride or solve saddle-fitting problems. They are not without issues, however, and this article will discuss how to decide if a treeless saddle belongs in your barn or not. The take-home message is that it will be a very personal decision, based on information and test rides, not style and hype.
Many different types of treeless saddles are available, and they often incorporate some sort of flexible plastic form to help support the stirrup leathers or girth system. Some look like western saddles, some are English, and many suit more of an endurance style. They can be among the more versatile saddles for general riding, trail riding and even western showing, depending on the style of the horn and leather. Cheap copies of treeless saddles are also made, however, so stick with brand names for safety and quality.
Horse fit considerations
- In the treeless saddle design, there is no gullet (central gap for the spine), so horses with spines visible above the back muscle will need a pad with a gullet built in. If you do not use a pad with a gullet, you will actually be sitting on the horse’s hard spinous processes on the top of his back. When the saddle rests on the spine you will see pain along the very top of the back where the bone is. You may not see pain in the muscle unless the horse is dropping his back down, due to pain, and is making the muscle sore. Chunky horses, with the hard bony part of the spine below the muscle, may not need a special pad because the muscle acts like a pad with a gullet, keeping the saddle and rider off the hard part of the spine.
- Because there is no tree to hold the saddle above the spine, horses with very high withers or big hollows on each side of the withers are difficult or impossible to fit with a treeless saddle.
- Generally, treeless saddles are not designed for jumping, though small jumps can be taken while trail riding. One of the English versions is better designed for jumping but may not offer the support and stability the rider wants, and can still cause pressure points where the stirrup attaches. Landing over a jump puts a lot of pressure on the stirrups and leathers.
- Treeless saddles are quite versatile and can fit many different horses; consequently, they can be beneficial in school and camp settings. Riders in therapeutic programs often benefit from the close feel of the horse’s movement.
- These saddles can be an option when you have a short-backed horse that is difficult to fit. The saddle can be longer than the rib cage (saddle pressure should end at the last rib), but the soft leather can extend beyond that point and not put any pressure on the lumbar area. The rider’s weight is concentrated on the weight-bearing area of the short back.
- Treeless saddles can be useful for all types of trail riding because most pressure points are eliminated. Many horses move much better without a tree. While it is commonly believed that a tree distributes the rider’s weight better, trail horses can go many miles in treeless saddles with minimal back soreness.
Rider fit considerations
This is where the treeless saddle can work – or really not work. It is important to test ride your horse with the saddle you intend to purchase. A saddle should help you feel safe and secure. An incorrect fit for the rider can leave you at risk for a fall, or cause you to become a more timid rider, feeling less secure but not really understanding what is happening.
The twist – or waist – is the area of the saddle from the pommel to the center, where it widens into the seat. Each brand and style offers different twist shapes, so you need to find a saddle that suits the anatomy of your pelvis and hips. You will be able to tell when the twist is correct by your level of comfort in the saddle.
If the twist is too wide, your pelvis and hips will feel overly stretched and pained, as it does when you ride a really broad horse for a long period. What happens with a treeless saddle is that there is little to no structure to form a twist, other than the shape of the horse’s back, as if you were riding bareback. The wider the horse is over the area where your legs go, the farther your hips and legs will be spread out. The thicker your thigh on the inside of your leg, the farther your hips will be pushed out. If you have a thick thigh and a thick horse, it is impossible to drape your legs around the horse and sit safely. You will be forced back onto your buttocks, or will have to tip forward. Neither is a safe or strong position, and both become painful.
Treeless saddle structure
One western treeless saddle design has a small wooden fork and cantle at the front and rear, with a sheet of leather and neoprene everywhere else. The rigging for the girth and the stirrups hang from the fork and cantle. This style of saddle avoids a common pressure point from the girth attachment. Due to the low hanging rigging ring, a fairly short girth is required, which can interfere with some horses’ elbows. Select the girth carefully to prevent having a large buckle or cinch ring. The bottom of the saddle can be covered with fleece, either synthetic or wool, or it can be left with a smooth finish. The western-style models have a full horn and can be finished with leather to look like a regular western saddle. The endurance models have a simple fork with no horn.
Other endurance and English designs incorporate a thin plastic form under the seat, covered with leather or synthetic material. The girth attachments vary, but the girth or rigging must hold the saddle on the horse. The way the girth and billet systems work needs to be examined, since they are a source of pressure points. The same holds true of the stirrup attachments. The rider’s weight will be concentrated over the area where the stirrup leathers originate. Computer pressure-measuring devices have shown increases in pressure over the stirrup leather area.
Since treeless saddles are relatively easy to make compared to treed saddles, many small companies have come up with unique designs and ways to adjust the fit for the rider and horse.
The most important thing to remember about adjustability is that any changes that are made must be made symmetrically. The heavy Velcro often used is very sticky. It can be difficult to move, and frustrating to get the two sides the same. Be patient, and get it right, since an uneven saddle will make you and/or your horse sore.
If you’re buying a treeless saddle, go out for a test ride, and see if you drop your legs down into a secure position. You should feel able to move in the saddle, and not be sitting in the back seat ready to tip off at the first spook. If the saddle works for you, then check it out carefully for your horse. Keep in mind that if the saddle t does not work for you, it does not matter how much your horse likes it.
As technology continues to advance in the saddle world, we will see more treeless saddles. Some will work very well; some will not work at all. Listen to your horse and your own body to help find the correct match.
The Horse’s Pain Free Back and Saddle Fit Book, English
The Horse’s Pain Free Back and Saddle Fit Book, Western
both by Joyce Harman, published by Trafalgar Square Books.