An article in the UK on-line magazine, Your Horse, has published an article about treeless saddles that has a lot of people talking, No Advantage to Treeless Saddles. The Society of Master Saddlers (SMS) in England has conducted pressure testing to see if treeless saddles have an advantage over traditional saddles with trees. There conclusion – after two days of “vigorous” testing – is that “there is no advantage of having a treeless saddle over a traditional treed version. In fact it claims, as a result of its findings, that a well-fitted treed version (my italics) could be more beneficial to the well-being of the horse than a treeless saddle.”
The data was obtained using the Pliance measurement system, which is a well-known technique for measuring pressure points.
In my opinion, the report raises more questions that it answers.
- To begin with, the study was conducted by an organization that has a vested interest in saddle fitting, a service that is not required for treeless saddles
- The study states that “Four different types of treeless saddle were tested and, where it was advised by the manufacturer, the appropriate pad was used. The horse was walked, trotted (rising & sitting), cantered & jumped on both reins.” However, they don’t provide any details about the brands of saddles or the pads. Treeless saddle designs differ significantly; some have gullets or inserts, others do not. Without knowing which saddles were tested, the results are difficult to evaluate. There are very few treeless saddles that are advertised as suitable for jumping, which raises another question.
- It appears that the tests were conducted on one horse using two different riders. There is no description of the horse so it is impossible to know whether it was a good candidate for a treeless saddle. A horse with very prominent withers will be harder to fit (in both a treeless and treed saddle) than one with a broader back and low withers.
- The SMS compares the fit of treeless saddles to a “well-fitted” treed saddle. The problem is, many, many people do not have saddles that fit. I frequently see people riding in saddles that either sit on their horse’s spine or which are so narrow that they perch above their horse’s back. Many people don’t even know how to evaluate saddle fit! For those people, a treeless saddle with proper padding may well represent a real improvement and be far more comfortable for their horses. I have my treed saddles fitted at least once a year, but there are plenty of people who do not know that you can — and should — have a saddle fitter check your saddles regularly.
The study did provide some findings that I found interesting:
- All of the saddles tested had high, localized pressure under the stirrup bars. This was improved, in most circumstances, when the saddle was ridden without stirrups or with single thickness, dressage style stirrup leathers.
- Also tested was the effect of a different weight rider. The regular rider was substituted with a heavier rider. Whilst the second rider’s actual weight was heavier, they could be described as having a ‘lighter’ seat. The Pliance system showed that the pressure produced from a heavier, ‘lighter’ seated rider was less than that of the lighter weight, regular rider thus indicating that the rider’s style has an influence on the pressure exerted under a treeless saddle.
So, to me this boils down to the fact that treeless saddles are most suited to riders with good balance and a light seat. I am not a lightweight rider, yet I’ve ridden both my horses in treeless saddles without any adverse affect to their backs.
I’ve seen some excellent comments posted about the article on-line. Here’s the one closest to my own view, which was written by FreeformUK on the New Rider Message Board:
“Saddle fit isn’t just about weight distribution and this is what people are focusing on when comparing treed to treeless. It’s also about room or flexibility to move so the horse’s muscles can function correctly without hinderance and many SMS fitters are still fitting the horse they see in front of them which means in many cases, they are fitting to atrophy rather than fitting to allow that atrophy to recover. As this happens, it becomes a spiral, the muscle doesn’t recover and often it deteriorates further so the saddler fits an even narrower model!”
Another poster, Tinypony, wrote on the Horse and Hound Online Forum:
“At a clinic I ran last year we tested several treeless saddles using a Port Lewis impression pad and it did highlight pressure problems with certain saddles. The one with the blocks had pressure at the back – this was because the rider wasn’t sitting correctly and was leaning back on the cantle. (You would also get this if the saddle was too small for the rider). The older-style Ansur had pressure on the sides of the wither, and we couldn’t quite work that out, but it was probably because they are very flat, and the numnah recommended didn’t add a gullet. A Torsion saddle showed horrendous pressure under the stirrup bars, and a slight line over the top of the back – well it seems the bars are hung off a single strip of probably webbing in the fabric of the saddle… and the rider was quite reliant on her stirrups. My saddles with their pads performed well in our amateur testing, with different riders.”
All in all, I don’t think that the article creates a compelling argument against treeless saddles. Rather it underscores the need for all riders to become educated about proper saddle fit and learn what works well for them and their horses. Certainly more research is required to help riders evaluate their choices. Treeless saddles are used successfully by many endurance riders who cover hundreds of miles in them. How could two days of “vigorous testing” provide such a negative result?