The size of a saddle tree makes a huge difference in saddle fit. Readers will remember that recently I bought a saddle on eBay that didn’t work out at all. One of the issues was that the tree, which was described as medium to medium wide, was way too narrow for Freedom.
When I challenged the seller on this she told me that it fit her client’s horse perfectly and he was a medium. Now I have three thoughts about this. First, more than 50% of the time when someone tells me their saddle fits, they’re wrong. Second, medium means different things depending on the manufacturer. And third,even when a saddle is marked with a specific tree width, if it’s a used saddle, someone could have adjusted the tree so that it’s wider or narrower than its original measurement. I have a County saddle that is marked as a medium but must have been widened by a previous owner as it fits like a wide. In general, a tree will stretch slightly so it’s not unusual for an older saddle to run a bit wider than it’s “official” size.
What is a tree, anyway?
The saddle tree is the rigid structure that gives the saddle its shape and helps distribute the weight of the rider. Remember, the tree size is not the same as the gullet size.
Traditionally, trees were made of wood. Then spring trees were developed which combined wood and steel. Today, spring trees are still prevalent but you also see manufacturers using synthetic materials such as polyurethane, often reinforced with fiberglass.
Trees are available in different sizes — some manufactures give a centimeter measurement, others use narrow/medium/medium-wide/wide. This is a somewhat approximate measurement since no two manufacturers seem to use exactly the same method and the measurements are based on the distance between the tree points. Since the length of the tree points differs by saddle manufacturer it’s almost impossible to compare them. Therefore, although your horse may be a medium-wide in some brands, he might need a wide (or a medium) in another! If the tree is too narrow, then those tree points will dig into the trapezius muscles (behind the shoulder blade). If the tree is too wide then the saddle will sit on the withers, potentially pinching the nerves that run down the spinal cord.
So, how do you measure tree size?
There are three basic ways to measure the size of a tree on a used saddle. Most commonly people provide the measurement of the distance between the D-rings of the saddle. While this may/may not correspond with the position of the points, it’s a common distance that allows you to compare different saddles.
Another low tech method to estimate the width of a saddle is to clench your fist and put your knuckles up to the front of the saddle. A woman’s hand will generally measure about four inches across. If there’s 1/2″ to 3/4″ of space on either side of your fist, the saddle is approximately a medium tree. If there’s 0″ to 1/2″ then the tree is narrow; and if there’s more than 1″ of space on either side of your fist, the tree is wide or extra wide.
Then if you want to get really technical, pull out your protractor and start measuring the angles of the points! According to an article on the Lorien Stables site:
- A narrow saddle has an 86 degree angle.
- A medium or regular saddle has a 90 degree angle–a “right angle,” like the corner of a square.
- A wide saddle has a 94 degree angle.
How does the saddle tree width influence fit?
A tree that is too narrow for your horse will perch the saddle high on their withers and tip the rider toward the cantle. This is a problem because it puts too much pressure on the back of the saddle — and the weakest part of the horse’s back: the loins. If you are tipped slightly back, you may feel like you are “behind the motion” of the horse and always working to keep up.
A tree that is too wide, puts the pommel of the saddle onto the horse’s withers. Add the rider and you are putting a lot of pressure right onto one of the nerves that runs down your horse’s back. In addition, the position of the saddle tips the rider forward, putting the rider out of balance.
A saddle that fits properly, will lie flat on the horse’s back with the deepest part of the saddle level. Not only is a properly fitting saddle more comfortable for the horse, but it puts the rider in a more balanced position, too.