Treeless saddles are all the buzz. While conventional saddles with wooden or fiberglass trees have reigned supreme for thousands of years (the first “treed” saddles appeared in 200 BC in Asia), during the last decade there has been a vocal movement toward treeless saddles.
Some people claim they are more natural, a throwback to saddle designs before the tree was invented, some say they eliminate many of the problems with conventional treed saddles by moving more closely with the horse’s back, and other people like the fact that you can use the same saddle on several different horses.
Trees were first added to saddles to help distribute a rider’s weight more effectively. This was particularly important when armor was involved. The downside of treed saddles is that they need to be carefully fitted to a horse’s back or it can cause soreness, muscle wasting, and in extreme cases, nerve damage.
Advocates of treeless saddles see them as a panacea to these problems. And they do have their place. Today’s treeless saddles are much more than just bareback pads with stirrups. Many of them feature sophisticated designs that help distribute a rider’s weight effectively over horse’s back without causing pressure points, most are very secure to ride in, and are very comfortable. However, to really protect your horse’s back, they should be used with special pads that create a channel over the horse’s spine. The pressure points that can occur with a treeless saddle are primarily either under the stirrup attachment points (if you ride with a lot of weight in your stirrups) or over the horse’s loins (if you are put in a chair seat by the saddle).
I became intrigued by treeless saddles about four years ago. It was winter, a time when I mostly trail ride, and I wanted to feel close to my horse, but I wanted more security than a bareback pad.
The first saddle I tried was a Hilason that I bought on eBay for a couple of hundred dollars. It was a total and complete waste of money! The saddle was stiff as cardboard to the point where it sat on top of my horse like a hat! The seat rubbed my legs. I tried taking the stuffing out of the pommel to see if it would fit better and the zipper broke! Since I’ve read that some people have had better experiences, I suspect there is a lot of variability between saddles.
It was about this time the the Barefoot Cheyenne became popular. I found a used one for sale on Endurance.net (this is a great site if you’re looking for used endurance and/or treeless saddles). Compared to the Hilason, it was heaven. The saddle hugged my horse. The nubuck leather was soft and supple, it was comfortable and never rubbed. I rode in it for about a year, but eventually got frustrated because it put me in a slight chair seat and sold it.
After selling the Cheyenne, I spent a lot of time researching different treeless designs. Eventually, I decided on a Torsion Extra Light saddle. The Torsion brand has been around a long time. In fact, the Barefoot saddles are patterned after them. The Extra Light is the minimalist version of the saddle. It has no flaps or fenders to speak of, just a seat. When you sit in this saddle, you can feel your horse’s back and yet you feel completely secure. I’ve had a few “interesting” rides on my TB gelding in this saddle and never felt unbalanced. I have the version in Buffalo leather and find it very durable. When I bought this saddle it was not available with inserts. From what I read today, these can help distribute the rider’s weight and are recommended if you weigh more than 190 lbs.
A few months later, I saw a Freeform Classic for sale on the Yahoo Treeless Saddle Group. This was a saddle that intrigued me because it is modular; you can change out the seat for different sizes, and you can move the position of the stirrup attachments. My full review is here.
I have been eying the new “Ghost” saddle from Italy, especially the Phantom bareback pad.
So far, I’ve used the saddles on both my horses. One is a Trakehner with a broad back, low withers and wide shoulders. The other is a TB with more prominent withers and a short back. To date I’ve had no problems with back soreness, despite the fact that I’m not exactly a lightweight rider. I am careful to protect their backs by padding properly. I use a Saddleright pad under my Torsion and a Skito pad under my Freeform. Neither of my horses has extremely prominent withers, so I cannot say how well the treeless designs will work for that body shape. Both saddles fit both horses just fine; this is not the case with my treed saddles as one takes a wide tree and the other takes a medium.
I find both saddles to be comfortable in different ways. They each give me a closer feel to the horse and I believe that they have improved my riding. That said, with a treeless saddle the communication goes both ways. I think you need to have a quiet and secure seat because your horse feels every shift in your weight. Treed saddles are far more forgiving of rider error, so treeless saddles might not be a good choice for a rider that is unbalanced.
Since my Trakehner is so broad, I find that with the Torsion saddle, my hips are spread quite wide. I don’t have a real problem with this, but it is a design consideration for people who might find this uncomfortable. Heather Moffett sells a hip saver saddle cover that is supposed to address this issue. The design of the Freeform saddle addresses this issue in the style of the seat.
I cannot mount from the ground using either saddle. Of course, since both my horses are over 16 hands, I find it difficult to mount from the ground even with a treed saddle! Mostly, I’ve had no problem with slippage. Occasionally, my Torsion saddle will slip on my Trakehner, mostly because he’s so round. I fixed that my adding a Thinline pad under my Saddleright.
I have not yet tried a treeless jumping saddle. The Freeform site suggests that you can jump in that saddle but the flaps are way too straight to accommodate my leg in a jumping position, so I’ve not used it to jump. Currently there are two types available on the market. Ansur makes two models, the Konkusion and the Elite and Trekker introduced the Bascule last year(this is not a true treeless, but rather has a leather flex tree). I am not yet convinced that the pressure that would be created by riding in a half seat/jumping position and the impact that results when you land from a fence with so much weight in your stirrups would be adequately dispersed by a treeless saddle.
I find treeless saddles to be a great addition to my tack room. I love their light weight. I love being able to use the same saddle on both horses, and I enjoy the really close contact feel. For much of the riding that I do, a treeless saddle works fine. However, for foxhunting and jumping, I think I’ll stick to my conventional treed saddles.
While my horses have not had any problems with the treeless saddles, I do not think they are the panacea they are made out to be. Yes, they can be used on many shapes and sizes of horse, but they are not going to work on every horse. And fit is just as important as with treed saddles, it’s just different. With treeless saddles you need to be very aware of your padding system to make sure it is offering your horse’s spine (and nerves) the protection they need.
They are particularly suitable for horses with lower withers and for riders who are well balanced and who ride “lightly” in their stirrups. I would not recommend them for riders who have problems with balance.