Saddle Fit and Saddle Trees - Treed vs. Treeless Part 2

The Controversy continues...

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 so many more treed saddles on the market. Could it be that treeless is simply a fad? 


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. But - if this is truly the best thing for the horse, why have none of the long-established traditional saddle makers jumped on the bandwagon?

Think of this 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 come off the forehand. 


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 long-term damaging 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 Indian pony (which was of course, traditionally ridden bareback), and common knowledge states that the bone density usually only holds up for an 800 lb 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 - esp. the chapter on Saddle Construction, p. 37 - Treeless saddles. She mentions how important it is to keep the weight off the horse's spine.

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 - bottom line is you should ride in whatever you are comfortable in, because no matter how well your saddle fits your horse (bareback pad/treeless saddle or treed saddle), 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 far superior to a treeless saddle. 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 and more apparent and available. Time will tell who is right….


Jochen Schleese, CMS, CSFT, CEE

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Comment by Jochen Schleese on February 24, 2011 at 12:11pm

There are analysis systems like the computerized saddle pads and thermography, which always show the pressure point on the spine and withers of the horse and the very small weight bearing surface (the saddle support area of the horse). So far I have not heard or seen any treeless saddle which can actually give the necessary support and protection to the horse and human spine - especially in the long term. These saddles may work for a while as a relief from a badly fitting treed saddle, but do this exercise: tap the tendons on your hand with your other forefinger for about 5 minutes (if you can last that long). Although it's painless at first, it becomes irritating after a while, and - I promise you this - if you do this for 45 minutes a day every day for a week you will end up with a pretty sore and possibly inflamed tendon. I'm sure you understand the analogy. But again - people will do whatever they think is right, whatever they're comfortable with, whatever they believe in. What I'm saying is that nowadays there is proof to back up these comments; we're out of the realm of personal opinion.

Comment by Anke Johnson on February 23, 2011 at 6:07pm
What would you say about the newer "breed" of treeless coming out on the market that have a twist, and a support system for the horse including a gullet and panels that distribute rider weight evenly, and support what you're saying abut equine anatomy?  Ansur comes to mind.  I'd love to know your thoughts!:)
Comment by Geoffrey Pannell on February 17, 2011 at 5:31pm
Very good blog Jochen, some of the hippies will not like to be told that treeless is a second-rate option. However I think youv'e made some good points here.  
Comment by Jan Jollymour on February 17, 2011 at 2:40pm

Sandals are great for a stroll on the beach, but when you train for a marathon you really want a shoe...


My experiences with treeless saddles have been uncompromisingly negative.  They slide all over the place, they're very unstable both laterally and longitudinally, and that movement will, over time, result in pain.  Where do people think galls come from??

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