The Ongoing Controversy – Treed or Treeless Saddles – Part II, by Jochen Schleese

After having discussed the points on this topic made by Barbra Ann King in the last blog, I now take my prerogative as author of this blog to elaborate on the concept of treed saddles and what are essentially ‘bareback pads’ – the appellation of ‘treeless saddle’ is somewhat of a misnomer.

Particularly of interest is her view that these ‘treeless saddles’ could be deemed superior to even a perfectly fitting treed saddle. Forgive me if this blog gets a little long; I think I will break it down into another two parts and continue next week. There’s just so much to say!

(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 a 180 lb. 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 horses 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 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 140 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.

Much scapular 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 why 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 ‘vise-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 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 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 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 so many more treed saddles on the market, and that treed saddles have been so ubiquitously successful.