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

21 thoughts on “Treeless v. treed: A saddle fitter’s perspective

  • September 26, 2019 at 10:37 am
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    I was saving up for a treeless saddle and you have convinced me otherwise; thank you!

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    • April 30, 2020 at 12:38 pm
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      Same here. Glad I read this before I wasted money on something that would hurt our mare’s back in the end. I grew up in the western US riding bareback on Appaloosas/Quarter Horses/Paints and I just always felt that was more natural but now I’m not so sure.

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  • September 27, 2019 at 10:39 am
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    Lizzy if you are planning to attend the NZ Equitana please do pop by our booth and say hello! Our friendly saddle ergonomists will be happy to discuss some options with you!

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  • October 25, 2019 at 12:31 pm
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    Super interesting information! I grew up riding bareback, from the age of 6, in the woods, swimming rivers, surfing ov]dean waves and jumping felled trees. I showed for 3 years for fun in my pre-teen years and got bored with it and I didn’t use another saddle until my late 20’s. I was delighted when I discovered treeless saddles as I finally had a saddle I was comfortable in, that didn’t make my crotch bones sore and that I could hang a water bottle holder from. I can feel the horse bend and flex and move with the horse as I am used to.
    Now, I hope I’m not harming my horse when I thought treeless had to be more comfy for him too. Ugh.

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    • April 30, 2020 at 12:41 pm
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      Plus bareback is faster to tack up, cooler in summer for you and the horse, warmer in winter for me. Plus I always felt like the girth must really suck for the horse. I grew up riding bareback and I love it but now I feel bad that I do. :'(

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  • October 26, 2019 at 3:15 am
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    Jeanne, if you’re comfortable and your horse seemingly has no issues, then don’t fix what ain’t broken. We write about the rule; you may be the exception! Just know what to look for and keep these points in mind. Happy Riding!

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  • November 11, 2019 at 5:02 am
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    I have a a hard to fit horse, high wither and long withered, but short back, he almost looks a little sway back he is registered 10 yrs old, I took him to Seymour Indiana to get fit, but I felt more frustrated, the guy there put a regular gaited circle y on him and said it fit, but without blanket I couldn’t even slide a finger under the front of saddle next to shoulder, when blanket and swaddled, it was so tight, ride for 15 minutes and hair was like messed up everywhere, what do u think he is not gaited.

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    • August 29, 2020 at 6:34 am
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      Mary, I have the same type of horse.
      We have now tried 40 saddles and all pinch his shoulders.
      Please tell me you have found a good fitting saddle. Please share Info with me? Mfastrnu@hotmail.com

      Reply
  • November 12, 2019 at 2:53 am
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    Mary, obviously – which you can see for yourself – the saddle is not right for your horse. If you are in NZ and available, please come to our booth at Equitana and consult with our professionals. Otherwise, you can contact our customer service via email (info@schleese.com) or phone +1-800-225-2242 and speak with one of our associates to discuss your options.

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  • May 16, 2020 at 1:29 pm
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    any suggestions on best saddles for the heavy boy’s, I have used full trees and made do but wondering on the treeless for them, They are both 18.3 hands breed is Clydesdales, they are a little narrower than my Belgians. both weigh approx 2200 lbs. thx for any suggestions..

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  • June 21, 2020 at 6:59 am
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    Might be too late for you to answer but is it really that bad if you ride maybe once or twice a week and it’s not any high level or intense work? Only like training collection, bending, some polework or a 45-minute hack (not in one go but examples).

    I can’t afford to buy a well-fitting saddle (unless I find a used one) so a high quality bareback like the Grandeur Tomentum treeless saddles seems like a much better option for me.

    My old horse I rode a lot over the years with a thick western pad and a thicker saddle pad (those filled ones) almost every day for hours (hacking) with a lot of different gates and she looked really well and loved it. So maybe I’m an exception but I can’t see why a treeless would be any worse? Of course without stirrups as I can see why those would cause a lot of damage.

    Hope I didn’t offend or so, just interesting really!

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  • June 22, 2020 at 9:01 am
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    As mentioned before, there is a reason that saddles have trees. Provided they are fitted properly, there is nothing better to protect the backs of both horse and rider from long term back damage. That is the rule – but there are always exceptions. If it works for you, and it really is only occasional, then there should be no problem; indeed, there seems to be none, so if it ain’t broke…
    But we still can’t give our unequivocal approval to treeless saddles/bareback pads for extensive use.

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    • June 11, 2021 at 12:41 am
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      Wonderful article and gave me a lot of things to think about as I’ve discovered my too-large but comfortable Wintec English saddle shifts too much on my Tennessee Walker. I tried an endurance Circle Y and I am starting to think it doesn’t fit. I am looking at a 16 inch Anser treeless – rode in it last night and I fell in love with it. I also ride bareback a lot (but not distance) and feel I’m pretty athletic but probably not (at age 56) nearly like indigenous riders. Before riding the Anser we palpated along the sides of my horse’s spine and the withers. She tenses in muscles at the far back of her spine – where my wintec and the Circle Y end up hitting. (A breast collar was discussed but there are other issues with the Circle Y fitting too tight in the withers.) After a 3 mile ride with the Anser, my palpations showed NO reaction. I realize that the problems with treeless are insidious and won’t appear for years; having some immediate positive results makes me realize why people try treeless. That saddle was really nice! I am going to try some treed dressage saddles next, with the help of a saddle fitter.

      Finally, you might rethink the comparison to professional runners. I get the idea, but I am a runner who transitioned to barefoot. I don’t compete, but my experience made it abundantly clear to me that my body was made to run without the support and structure of a shoe. Structured “western” shoes really mess up an athlete’s frame. They allowed me to run in a lazy way, causing damage to my back and knees. They also ADD impact. Took me 6 months to train my body to run correctly, and my knee and back pain disappeared. (Adding to your point about making sure our horses are using their bodies as naturally as possible.) I think the best runners train without shoes and opt to wear them during a race. I think athletic shoes should be compared to a treeless saddle. Runners don’t carry weight like horses. As you said, we’re asking horses to do something they didn’t evolve to do: carry weight on their backs. Humans evolved to run, and some interesting theories cite our ability to run (barefoot) as one reason we didn’t die out with the Neanderthals.

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      • June 16, 2021 at 3:33 am
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        Linda thank you for your well-thought out reply. I do agree with your comment concerning ‘normal’ western running shoes for runners – i have myself switched to Merrells which are much more conducive to running toe first (which is the why I understand the bare-footed ‘indigenous’ people run). But I stand behind the comparison – there is a reason that the great majority of professional runners use shoes – to support and enhance their performance on the track. I have a friend whose son trained with Andre De Grasse (one of the top Canadian sprinters) and he never trained barefoot (nor have we heard of others doing this).

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  • September 3, 2020 at 4:26 am
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    I have ridden a lot of horses bareback, all shapes & sizes, for short distances & in some cases for some months when saddles were stolen or no good. All bar one (with a somewhat prominent spine) felt very comfy, & the two I schooled with were happy & became lovely responsive rides & keen to work. It’s usually very obvious if a horse is not looking forward to being ridden, & they aren’t likely to stand calmly to be mounted & work kindly & ’round’ if uncomfortable. Riding bareback is a good way to check if the saddle is causing problems if you’re used to it! Based on this experience I got two treeless saddles (Freeform trail & GP approx 2004-7) for my own Arab type, difficult-to-fit with treed-saddles horse, & while they were wonderfully comfortable for me at walk & canter, & seemingly so for the horse, I felt that when rising to the trot, my weight, magnified by the force of the sudden transfer from sitting to standing, was going to be uncomfortable for the horse, causing a depression under the stirrups & also when riding forward on gallops. When riding bareback it isn’t usual to rise, but given stirrups, one’s inclined to! So eventually I invested in a customised Lovatt & Rickets Endurance treed saddle, which is very comfy for me & has been for my horse, though it has needed to be adjusted for his changes of weight twice. I feel confident that my weight (approx 128 lb) is well (& smoothly) spread over his back & there is no sinking when I stand in the stirrups. I think broad-backed horses with light riders are likely to be happier with well-designed treeless saddles, than narrower horses, where rider weight is over much less area.

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  • September 28, 2020 at 7:02 am
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    If you have a super-sway back older horses that still loves to get out and trail ride all afternoon or all day & are relatively light there is nothing better than a treeless with a good pad with built-in channel. My 25yo OT Arab loves to go out. I’m 125 lb & use good pads (different though the years). Swayback pads 2″ in the middle, tapering to edges are not enough to use treed saddle on her, they all bridge. She was a bit swaybacked when I bought her at 5yo, now even more. She won ‘Best Novice’ at a 25mi Competitive Trail Ride (ECTRA vets judge on condition, taking points off for any soreness anywhere) at 10yo, 15 yrs ago. I guessed we did ok on fit.

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    • October 24, 2020 at 4:28 am
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      what treeless saddle do you have. I have an impossible to fit, sway back, narrow in the front wide in the back, super short back 13hh older pony my kids ride and I think he would be happier in a treeless.

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  • September 28, 2020 at 10:06 am
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    Sorry – fact remains that there is nothing better than a WELL-FITTED, properly adjusted treed saddle. But that’s a big IF – since unfortunately so many do not completely accommodate the requirements of both equine and human anatomy and biomechanics. Take a look at the article we have written on the “8 Myths of Saddle Fit” https://issuu.com/weedy123/docs/ee_july_aug_2020_issue/1?e=1101475/79008378
    p. 58 as published in Elite Equestrian magazine this summer. Or attend one of our livestreams this week Thursday on Facebook/Youtube at 5 pm EST and ask your questions directly of our Certified Master Saddler Jochen Schleese.

    Reply
  • February 27, 2021 at 4:29 am
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    I like the idea of saddles for women. Although I’m not a woman, it makes sense to me that saddles have been designed for men throughout history. Good job on honing in on this aspect of saddle fitting!

    Reply

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