While we have offered information in the past about different treeless models, there are considerations that you will want to take into account in order to determine if a treeless or traditionally treed saddle may be best for your horse.
First of all, rider weight is of significant importance. A rider over 165 pounds, even on a treeless design that affords some spine clearance, is likely to put undue pressure on sensitive areas of the horse’s back. Keep in mind that the longissimus dorsi (long back muscle) is designed for locomotion, not weight bearing; yet, that is where we place our weight. Thus, we must be truly considerate of how we put that weight upon the horse and do everything possible to alleviate stress. Most treeless designs are simply not made to allow enough weight distribution for the heavier rider; thus, they are likely to cause discomfort, potentially even long-term injury, to the horse’s back.
Look carefully at the design of the treeless saddle. The best-made options (such as Sensation Ride saddles from Nicker’s Saddlery, Specialized Saddles or Barefoot saddles) have weight-distribution features that will keep undue pressure off of the horse’s spine. For the lighter-weight rider (sub-165 pounds) these saddles can be very comfortable for most horses, even on long distance outings, providing that rider is fit and well-balanced.
Models such as the Bob Marshall, Circle Y treeless or Hilason treeless barrel saddles, do not afford ample clearance over the spinal column; while you can use a specially made pad that will lift the center of the saddle off the spine, they are best used for shorter rides. Barrel racing, poles and trail rides of just a few miles are generally fine.
Some young horses do best with a treed saddle, as the weight distribution will be significantly better, providing you have made sure the fit is correct for the horse. The more solid form of a traditionally made saddle can provide extra security for the rider as well; a benefit when working through the sometimes frisky antics of a young or green horse.
Circle Y makes a quality Flex 2 tree that is used in many of their saddle models. It is a bit more forgiving than an entirely solid tree and may be a good option for a horse that is a challenge to fit, yet not an ideal candidate for a treeless saddle.
When fitting a saddle with a tree (whether rigid or flexible), you must be certain that there is ample wither clearance, that the tree and gullet width are adequate to allow for free movement of the shoulder without pinching, and that both the length and rock (curve) of the saddle’s bars fit the horse’s conformation. A horse with a short back will be injured by bars that are too long. The lumbar vertebrae cannot sustain pressure or bear weight; their thin, shell-like structures are delicate and easily prone to injury. Likewise, a horse with significant curve to their back will be uncomfortable in a saddle with very straight bars. If your horse’s back is straight, you cannot use a saddle that has a lot of rock to the bars without causing pain. Be aware, conscientious and shop carefully.
Above all else, listen to the horse. He is the best saddle-fit expert on the planet and will let you know (some more adamantly than others) if his tack does not fit. The horse knows better than anyone.
Good saddles are not cheap. Don’t try to cut corners. Placing a poorly constructed and improperly fit saddle on any horse is asking for problems. You certainly wouldn’t want to walk even one block in a pair of shoes that were too short, too long, too narrow or too wide. Fit matters.
Padding can help to some degree, although no saddle pad can compensate for a saddle that just does not fit. What a pad can do is make the properly fitted saddle more comfortable, cushion the weight upon the horse’s back, aid in managing moisture or prevent saddle roll.
As you select your pad, consider the length of your horse’s back, any conformational anomalies that could dictate the need for custom padding (a high wither or sway back, for example) and his general preferences. Some horses are bothered significantly by saddle movement. For them, a Reinsman Tacky Too pad (with non-slip bottom) can be a great help. Many riders and their horses appreciate the breathability of pure wool pads. Diamond Wool and 5-Star pads are popular and well worth the investment.
As with a good saddle, you’ll expect to pay a decent price for the well-made pad. If you want quality performance from your horse, invest in quality tack.
Spend the necessary time and effort to know your horse and respect her needs regarding correct fit and comfort. Then spend the money required to outfit her with a proper saddle and pad. With the right tack, you’ll enhance your horse’s ability to work effectively, and cooperatively, and help maintain her long-term, pain-free health.