Saddle Fit and Saddle Trees - Treed vs. Treeles Part One

The ongoing controversy – Treed or Treeless Saddles?? PART ONE


This is a topic I often get asked about, and I feel very strongly about. This is my opinion – based on the facts that I have researched and believe – but of course you are entitled to your opinion as well, and I know that there are many ‘treeless advocates’ riding comfortably and successfully in their saddles. All I ask is that you keep an open mind to the potential damage you could be doing to your horse – in the long run!


Several years ago in Europe a very expensive dressage horse had to be extensively treated because a treeless saddle had been hitting the horse on the spine, resulting in neurological damage. It was proven that it was in fact the saddle that had been the trigger. 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 lb or so of rider is of no consequence, but it is. The horse's centre of balance is directly behind the withers, but because a tree-less 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 the ‘saddle’ sitting behind the horse’s last supporting rib (ie., past the saddle support area). In males the seat bones are closer together and tipped on a steeper angle, which means every time he sits on a treeless saddle, those bones are digging into the horses back. (For women, this would be a three-point ‘dig’ since her pubic symphysis is also in play – and usually pretty uncomfortably). How long before that becomes terribly painful? For a rider who goes on a 1/2 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 150 lbs or more pounding on its back for upwards of 40 minutes 5 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, shoulder relief panels, and rear-facing tree points.


Much scapular damage has been done by tree points, which is why a saddle with longer tree points that angle backward is optimum – if it also fits the correct angle for the withers and has the correct width. A tree can be very detrimental if it is not made and fitted correctly, but no tree at all causes pain as well. This has been proven with the use of fibre-optic cameras and thermography scans – showing resulting bone chips and shoulder injuries to the horse – as well as other symptomatic issues.


There is a reason why the majority of saddles still have trees - the important thing is that the tree fits the horse both along its length and especially over the withers (the 'vise-grip' of the saddle!). This is where the stallion bites the mare during mating to immobilize her. There especially shouldn’t be too much pressure put directly on the spinal processes of the horse, nor on the ligament system that runs along side 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 the very least annual adjustments will be required to accommodate this growth. Continuing to ride a saddle without having it reflocked or refitted is doing both horse and rider a disservice (at the very least) and possibly causing longterm irreversible damage (at the very worst). Using different types of pads to 'fix' the fit is a bandaid solution at best. A pad should be used on well-fitting saddle simply to protect the leather from sweat, and should be no more than a thin cotton layer.


More next time.

Jochen Schleese, CMS, CSFT, CEE

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Comment by Laura on March 1, 2011 at 4:16pm
Jackie - keep an eye out for used Schleese on the different horse websites/blogs. They are out there! You might have to be patient but you can find some beautiful old Schleeses (with no worry about the technology being an less superior to current Schleeses) out and about. My friend just got a 2008 Eagle (jump model) for $2300!!! That's compareable to an HDR etc. Just depends what you want...I'm hunting for a 16.5 dressage - incase anyone knows of one ;)
Comment by Jackie Cochran on February 7, 2011 at 1:31pm

When I started riding other people's horses I researched the treeless saddles.  I had dreams of a saddle that would fit most horses.  There were several reasons I decided against a treeless saddle. 

First, compared to my jumping saddles they were ugly. 

Second, I have MS and my balance is bad, and I saw no way that a treeless saddle would be secure for me, especially if the horse did a sudden unplanned turn.  Related to that is that I could not see being able to mount from the ground if I needed to. 

Third is that I did not think they would keep me reliably off the horse's spine, a definite factor with my poor balance.

I made this decision before I made a point to look for negative comments about the treeless saddles.

I wish I could afford your system for the horses I ride (custom saddle with frequent fittings) but I do not own the horses I ride and besides I am on disability and will never be able to afford your wonderful saddles.  I make do with my three ancient (over 30 year old) European made leather saddles, and a Wintec, using a Corrector pad/shim system under them.  Since I can only last 30 minutes at a time on horseback I have made it work.

I do wish I could afford your saddles though!


Comment by sorsiair on February 7, 2011 at 12:57am

I have a treeless since December and only used it a couple of times. It seems to fit my horse back way better than my other one I used for years. After riding (over 1h), I always look for sweat marks and the padding I used is so thick and so well made, I truly believe he doesn't get any pressure on his spine. The sweat marks were perfect. I will get another fitting done soon with this saddle & new set up. It is very comfortable and feels like an in-between an english and a western saddle.  I am only 110 pounds and I think that saddle keeps me high up enough away from his spine that I comfortably can go for many hours on it. I am aware of sensitivity on my horse back on a daily basis. 

The Wither got measured before and it fits him really well. I know there is no pressure on his wither with that saddle. I think it can be so different depending on horse's back shape and owner's weight.

Comment by Marlene Thoms on February 4, 2011 at 1:40pm
I have a tricky to fit Arabian and like many people do not have a huge budget for very expensive saddles, or a selection that will fit his seasonal body morphing. Fortunately my Guy tells me pretty quickly if a particular saddle isn't right, or even if I have not placed a saddle quite right. He is pretty picky and sensitive as far as comfort goes and in fact notifies me if his girth has loosened or pad has gone a bit crooked. I don't do dressage, but I do go for longish rides on hilly/rocky trails, and if he goes happily, and his sweat patterns and movement are looking good after a ride, I'm pretty sure I've got the right saddle fit for him. I am not especially heavy, and use my muslces as well to ride as well balanced and gently as I can. He happens to go best in a particular treeless saddle, and I will be testing another model this year just out of curiosity. I think treeless can be a good choice for the right rider/horse depending on many factors, if the rider is sensitive to their horse's response.

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