Saddle Fit and Treeless vs. Conventional Saddles: Back Pressure Evaluated

Saddle Fit and Treeless Saddles
Okay I just had to share this with you because I am really thrilled that someone of Dr. Clayton’s reputation has substantiated what I have been preaching about treeless saddles for the last couple of years. Now you don’t just have to take my word for it! This was a recent article appearing at which I am putting in my blog this week to share with you.

Treeless vs. Conventional Saddles: Back Pressure Evaluated
by: Christa Lesté-Lasserre
November 23 2011,

Treeless saddles are often said to be more "natural," more comfortable for riders and/or horses, or more universally fitting for all equine back shapes and rider seats. But according to a leading equitation scientist, the tree still seems to serve a very important purpose: regulating pressure distribution.

"What you can see with the treeless saddle is a very definite concentration of pressure right underneath the rider's seat bones," said Hilary Clayton, BVMS, PhD, Dipl. ACVSMR, MRCVS, Mary Anne McPhail Dressage Chair in Equine Sports Medicine at Michigan State University, during the presentation of her study at the 2011 International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) Conference, held Oct. 26-29 in Hooge Mierde, The Netherlands. However, that's not the case with a well-fitted conventional saddle, which pressure mats reveal applies much more even pressure with lower peak forces across the horse's back, she said.

"That suggests that the tree is indeed doing what it's supposed to do, in terms of spreading the force over a larger area of the horse's back," she said.

In her study Clayton fitted eight purebred Arabian horses with pressure mats under their saddles and had them ridden at a slow, sitting trot in a straight line by the same, experienced rider. The rider rode each horse once with a treeless saddle and once with a conventional English saddle custom-fitted to an Arabian horse. The saddles weighed exactly the same, and the rider rode without stirrups.

What Clayton and her colleagues found was that the conventional saddle was much more effective in spreading out the pressure on the horse's back caused by the rider's weight, Clayton said. Generally the treeless saddles resulted in higher peak pressures, and more sensors detected significant pressure levels (higher than 11 kilopascals--a number that's significant in the appearance of clinical signs of back pain and injury, according to Clayton)--meaning a larger number of high individual pressure points.

"For the conventional saddle the loading was approximately equal across all thirds (of the saddle from front to back), whereas for the treeless saddle we had a very definite concentration of loading in the middle third (where the rider sits)," Clayton said.
Pressure would be even higher with a heavier rider (the study rider weighed 125 pounds) and at faster gaits, she said.

Even so, conventional saddles are not necessarily ideal, according to Clayton. "The tree is a somewhat rigid structure, and the fact that it is rigid means there is need for the tree to fit correctly both to the horse and to the rider," she said. "A lot of riders have become very frustrated because it has become difficult to find a tree that does fit comfortably on both the horse and the rider."

Thus it's important to ensure your saddle fits your horse and isn't causing him back pain, and a qualifed saddle fitter can assist in this task.

It would be interesting to see in further studies if a treeless saddle might still be an improvement over a poorly fitted conventional saddle, Clayton said. Additional studies should also test different kinds of treeless saddles.

(and we have an idea for a Saddle Fitting Challenge for the new year through Saddlefit4Life - so stay tuned!)
Jochen Schleese, CMS, CSFT, CEE

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Comment by Saundra O'Reilly on December 5, 2011 at 9:29pm

If you ever get the chance to visit Hilary Clayton's lab at MSU jump at the chance. It's a fascinating place!

Comment by Saundra O'Reilly on December 5, 2011 at 9:26pm

I have been on both sides of this story.

I had a Connemara who loved his treeless dressage and jumping saddles. He went beautifully and his big wide round back finally had a perfect fit. I thought all my saddle fitting problems were over forever!!


Then my Connemara X QH said "Not so fast sweetie, and proceeded to demonstrate her unhappiness with the miracle tack in so very many ways, to the point where she would arch and flare whenever she saw it coming. I eventually ended up getting her a nice German made treed trail saddle, and she became her sweet, carefree self once again. Lesson learned.. "one saddle fits all' is a myth

They don't talk , but they never lie...

Comment by Marlene Thoms on November 29, 2011 at 11:12am

Although it would be ideal if finances never entered the issue of saddle fit, they are a fact of life for most horse riders. The best treeless saddle and quality pad cost half what the best treed saddle cost that also fit my horse, and it was a lot harder to find. For riders who have spent far too much buying and rejecting saddles, this can be a pretty expensive venture. Custom fits don't always work out perfectly. Witness the large number of treed saddles for sale, "ridden in only a few times", "my horse outgrew it". An ordinary idiot like myself can fit and pad a treeless saddle, and change it if my horse changed, and my guy has morphed a great deal since I got him. Much more difficult and expensive process with treed saddles.

Comment by Marlene Thoms on November 29, 2011 at 10:14am

It's encouraging to see research being done on this important topic. And that Dr. Clayton recognizes that different kinds of treeless saddles need to be included in the comparison. If this test was done on one particular treeless saddle, it should not be posted as representing treeless saddles in general. There is a huge range of treeless saddles being used, and just as important the type of padding used with them, which varies even more that the saddles themselves. Another point to consider is that, under a treeless saddle it is possible that some horses (mine being one) moves more freely and sometimes more vigorously than under some traditional saddles. So higher forces may be generated, and also really effective underpads are essential. Good choice of horse for testing, those "Springy Arabs" are an interesting ride for sure. Thanks for sharing the study results.

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