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