Treeless v. treed: A saddle fitter’s perspective

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The topic of treeless saddles vs. treed saddles is a pretty controversial one. My thoughts here are based on scientific facts and truths. I have had some interesting discourse on the topic with Barbra Ann King of Relationship Riding in Alberta, and some of these thoughts are based on her point of view. 

A variety of Treeless saddles randomly chosen from the internet – brands unknown.
A variety of Treeless saddles randomly chosen from the internet – brands unknown.

The subject of treed and treeless saddles is somewhat contentious and each side will always have its ardent supporters. Since they first showed up on the market, some treeless saddle manufacturers have addressed the spinal issues as well as weight distribution, although there are very few that are doing it properly.

Barbra Ann King has had experience in rehabilitating horses with muscle atrophy caused by treed saddles, with dramatic and convincing results. So obviously there are two sides to the story; I still maintain that while treeless saddles may even be a positive solution for a short period, in general properly fitted treed saddles win hands down, every time. There is a reason for the development of the saddle tree – which goes back many centuries, when horse people were actually horse people and had to ensure their horses stayed sound as their lives depended on it. The saddle tree acts as an interface between the vertical spine of the rider and the horizontal spine of the horse – protecting both against long-term back damage.

Many of today’s treeless saddles offer spinal clearance and proper weight distribution, but not all treeless saddles are created the same. Some are still no more than ‘bareback pads’. The same applies to treed saddles, obviously, where many are still made the way they were made decades ago – with relatively unadjustable trees and gullet plates.

In a treeless saddle – as well as a saddle with a tree – made for a man, a woman does not have the necessary support behind her pelvic area to sit correctly in balance and in position. This female pelvis on the horse’s back is shown in the approximate position it would be in a treeless saddle. The photo shows that she is lacking the necessary support a treed saddle would give her from behind in order to change her position to the plumb line (shown in green) and that she is tilted backward from the vertical (along the axis shown by the red lines).
In a treeless saddle – as well as a saddle with a tree – made for a man, a woman does not have the necessary support behind her pelvic area to sit correctly in balance and in position. This female pelvis on the horse’s back is shown in the approximate position it would be in a treeless saddle. The photo shows that she is lacking the necessary support a treed saddle would give her from behind in order to change her position to the plumb line (shown in green) and that she is tilted backward from the vertical (along the axis shown by the red lines).

Weight distribution on a horse in motion is different when on a hard surface, i.e. tree, versus a soft surface, i.e. treeless. When weight is pushing down on a hard surface in motion, the distribution of this weight has to be balanced and spread out throughout the tree in order to not unbalance the horse or cause pressure points. Otherwise, the tree will be very uncomfortable for the horse since the rider’s body and horse’s body are not in contact with each other, thus not moving at the same time/rhythm.

On a soft saddle, the rider’s body moves in synchronicity with the horse’s body as there is nothing interfering between them. Since the horse’s body is in motion and the rider follows that movement, the pressure points are not as significant on a treeless saddle and weight distribution becomes a whole different story.

This may explain why centuries of bareback riding did not create sway back, sore horses. However – we need to remember that bareback riders (mostly aboriginals – i.e. native North Americans – are used as the example here) rode ponies, and did not ride dressage or any of the other disciplines we now practice. Sway back is a man-made condition, for the most part, that occurs when a horse’s dorsal muscles are atrophied because they haven’t been used for many years. Treed saddles can prevent the dorsal muscles from moving freely and to their full range of movement – if it is not fitted properly to the biomechanical and anatomical requirements of the horse.

A treed saddle may compensate somewhat for a rider’s lack of balance, to a point that the rider will not necessarily feel unbalanced or feel the need to make any adjustments. This can also cause aggravation on a horse’s back. In a treeless saddle, there are no hard components to “hold” the unbalanced rider which means the rider will feel his lack of balance and need to correct it immediately. Again – if this is a rider with enough competency and capability to actually do so!

There are many components that should be taken into consideration when talking about treed versus treeless such as balanced, well-trimmed feet, body condition, conformation (horse and rider!) as well as level of riding. Ultimately, a horse should carry a rider without hindering his natural movement, so much so that you could imagine “erasing” the rider from the horse’s back and observe the horse’s movements. Ideally, the horse should move as naturally with a rider as without one (which in truth is very rarely the reality). We mustn’t forget that horses were never meant to be ridden; this is an artificial constraint that we have imposed on them.

Why saddles have trees

After having discussed the points on this topic made by Barbra Ann King above, I will now elaborate on the concept of treed saddles and what are essentially ‘bareback pads’ – the title of ‘treeless saddle’ is somewhat of a misnomer. Particularly of interest is King’s view that these ‘treeless saddles’ could be deemed superior to even a perfectly fitting treed saddle.

(In an aside, a few years back we organized an objective study using four different horses (varying breeds), four different saddles (a Western, a ‘treeless’, an adjusted and fitted English dressage saddle [Schleese], and a “semi-fitted” other English saddle) – diagnostic tools included thermographic imaging, a computerized saddle pad, and Pegasus Gait Analysis Software. The horses were analyzed with both a male and female rider, all four saddles, in walk, trot, canter and baseline.  Interesting results – without going into too much detail, everything you are about to read is substantiated by the objective results especially from the Gait Analysis Software – which is probably the most accurate diagnostic tool we have come across to measure changes in the biomechanics of the horse in all the gaits under saddle. And these results were pretty much supported by the thermography and the computerized saddle pad pressure results.)

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 an 180lb or so rider weight is of no consequence, but it is. The horse’s center 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.

Also (especially for a man) the seat bones are closer together and tipped on a steeper angle, which means every time he sits, those bones are digging into the horses back. How long before that becomes terribly painful? For a rider who goes on a half hour hack twice a week it wouldn’t have a lasting effect, but when we talk about an upper-level dressage horse that has a rider of 140lb or more pounding on its back for upwards of 40 minutes, five days a week it just doesn’t make any sense!

Yes, there will definitely be more freedom in the shoulder through the scapula than with a rigid tree, but there are a lot of other trees out there now that have more flex. Much scapula damage has been done by tree points, which is why a saddle with longer tree-points that actually point backward is optimum. Yes, a tree can be very detrimental if it is not made correctly, which has been proven with the use of fiber-optic cameras and thermography scans – showing resulting bone chips and shoulder injuries to the horse. But a treeless saddle can cause injuries as well.

There is a reason the majority of saddles still have trees – and the important thing is that the tree fits the horse both along its length and especially over the withers (the ‘vice-grip’ of the saddle!). This is where the stallion bites the mare during mating to immobilize her – but is a reflex point for all horses regardless of gender. There especially shouldn’t be too much pressure put directly on the spinal processes of the horse, nor on the ligament system that runs alongside the spine. Treeless saddles (which are essentially bareback pads) may work for a while, especially if the horse has been ridden in a badly fitting treed saddle, but eventually constant pressure will cause long-term damage.

It is paradoxical to expect to buy one saddle that is hoped will fit forever without adjustments. In a well-fitting saddle the horse should begin to muscle up and change conformation so that at least annual adjustments will be required to accommodate this growth. Continuing to ride a saddle without having it reflocked or refitted is doing horses a disservice. Using different types of pads to ‘fix’ the fit is a Band-Aid solution at best. A pad should be used on a well-fitting saddle simply to protect the leather from sweat, and should be no more than a thin cotton layer. Think of putting on another pair of socks if your shoes are too tight – same result!

Many current books on equine anatomy will offer back-up information to this statement (see specifically references to the supraspinous ligament system). Sometimes veterinarians are at a loss to explain equine ‘problems’ – often related to using the wrong type of saddle, or a badly fitting saddle. The unfortunate truth is that treeless saddles go against the logic of equine anatomy – they may work for a few years, but as has been reiterated, there is a reason that there are so many more treed saddles on the market, and that treed saddles have been so ubiquitously successful.

Why we need saddles

Not many people today have the luxury of time to learn to ride as well as the native Americans did – with or without saddles. Many people still need to use a saddle to even stay on a horse so you can’t really compare the two. Nothing would make us happier as saddle makers and saddle fitters than having bareback pads/treeless saddles universally accepted – they’re much faster and much cheaper to make, and little skill is required to sew what is essentially a leather pad. If this is truly the best thing for the horse, why have many of the long-established traditional saddle makers not jumped on the bandwagon?

Think of this other analogy. Why do you not find high-level human athletes pursuing their sports barefoot? For three reasons – support, comfort, and protection that a shoe can give. There are only a handful of riders (from all over the world) at higher levels riding a bareback pad/treeless saddle. Elite (equine) athletes require support, comfort and protection to perform optimally. Without a tree, a bareback pad/treeless saddle cannot protect the horse’s spine, support the curvature of the rider’s spine, and be comfortable for both horse and rider. The rider needs to sit softly (only achievable with correct posture and support of the four curvatures of the human spine) and the horse needs to keep the longissimus dorsi loose, so the back can rise, the hindquarters can come underneath, and the weight comes off the forehand.

The charts above and below are printouts from the Pegasus Gait Analysis Software used in the experiment to determine the effect on various gaits with different saddles (western, fitted English, treeless and non-adjusted English saddles (Without specific comment as to what the findings represent).
The charts above and below are printouts from the Pegasus Gait Analysis Software used in the experiment to determine the effect on various gaits with different saddles (western, fitted English, treeless and non-adjusted English saddles (Without specific comment as to what the findings represent).

Much has been written about how wonderfully the horse moves in the shoulder with a bareback pad/treeless saddle, yet this ‘freedom of movement’ in the shoulder is ineffective and damaging in the long term if the back is hollow because the back muscle tightens due to the sharp seat bones of the rider. There is no support to the rider’s spine and no protection to the horse’s spine. The result is that all the weight is on the forehand, which is an undesirable consequence.

The majority of people riding have horses larger than the native American’s ponies (who were, of course, traditionally ridden bareback), and common knowledge states that the bone density usually only optimally supports an 800lb horse. (Most horses weigh much more than this). If the horse is not ridden off the forehand, damage will result to the ligaments, joints, tendons, and musculature.

In the past at international championships you likely will not see a bareback pad/treeless saddle – even race saddles, although tiny, do contain 1/2 trees to protect the spine. Of course, a saddle fitter will always state his/her opinion, such as the owner of the bareback pad/treeless saddle also has his/her opinion – we live in a free society where everyone is allowed to state his/her opinion – however, for further input to form an educated opinion, please refer to the book The Horse’s Pain Free Back and Saddle Fit, by Dr. Joyce Harmann, DVM. She has made saddlefitting her focus, and mentions how important it is to keep the weight off the horse’s spine.

Laura Collett jumping bareback
Laura Collett jumping bareback in a high jump event at the 2011 Blenheim Horse Trials. © Julie Badrick

More and more veterinarians concur and investigate saddle fit, with research and evidence collected with MRI’s, fibreoptic or thermographic cameras, and computerized saddle pads.

Although some of the bareback pads/ treeless saddles have incorporated a gullet into their design, without the tree you cannot bridge the spinal processes nor the spinal ligament system properly, and therefore end up not providing the protection a properly fitted treed saddle will provide. Flexible, adjustable trees are an alternate choice to traditional wooden spring trees to provide horse and rider with what they need to prevent long-term damage.

There is nothing wrong with going barefoot, (or ‘bareback’) but to ensure the health of athletes (human or equine) the educated consumer will choose the product which provides the best support, comfort and protection. Obviously no-one is going to convince anyone of anything they don’t want to believe in – the bottom line is you should ride in whatever you are comfortable in, because no matter how well your saddle fits your horse, your horse will never move optimally if you as the rider are not comfortable as well, because your discomfort will translate down. I don’t think anyone would argue that point, but the point is, please consider that the reason treed saddles have been around for so long is because they serve a distinct purpose – to protect, support, and provide comfort to both horse and rider. But use whatever works for you – just be aware that sometimes products appear on the market that seem to be a lot better than they really are, given the logic behind the manufacturing.

Nonetheless, a properly fitted treed saddle is superior to a treeless saddle when it comes to protecting both horse and rider from long-term back damage and pain. Sometimes things that appear to be perfect solutions in the short-term will prove to have less than satisfactory outcomes in the long-term. If you tap the top of your hand, it doesn’t hurt much the first couple of minutes, but if you continue tapping for an hour or so, the tendons become very sore. Short term – no problem; long term – pain.

Emotion should be taken out of this discussion, and it should be based on fact. More and more veterinarians are specializing in saddle fit and research evidence will become more apparent and available. Time will tell who is right.

Jochen Schleese

Jochen Schleese is a Certified Master Saddler, Equine Ergonomist and a leader in the concept of saddle fit. He teaches his Saddlefit 4 Life philosophy worldwide. He is also the author of "Suffering in Silence" and "The Saddle-Fit Link to Physical and Psychological Trauma in Horses".  Visit www.schleese.com

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