Focus on Saddle Fit: The Tree

Focus On Saddle Fit:  The Tree. 

When it comes to fitting your saddle, it’s important that you don’t overlook the most essential component of your horse’s comfort: the tree.  Many of us look at only one area of the saddle tree to determine the fit: the width, or angle of the tree “points”.  What’s equally crucial to the determination of fit are the angle of the tree’s rails, the length of the tree, and the depth or curvature of the tree itself.

Think of it:  the tree is the skeleton of the saddle.  As such, it’s vital that its shape match the shape of your horse’s skeleton.  But in order to be able to identify how the saddle’s tree is fitting your horse, you must first be able to identify basic parts of the tree.

Aspects of the Tree That Must Be Considered When Fitting Your Saddle:

  • Gullet & Head Plate

    Homemade Tree

    This example of a "rigid" tree (one that does not have steel springs). The bottom most part shows the gullet plate and tree points. The rails run the length of the tree and are typically steepest where the stirrup bars are located.

  • Tree Points
  • Rails/Waist
  • Overall Length
  • General Shape

The Gullet and Head Plates
The gullet and head plates add strength and stability to the pommel.  On a traditional wooden tree, there are two such plates, one on top and the other on the bottom of the gullet head.  They are rigid and bolted together by steel rivets.  Some of the adjustable trees have only one gullet plate that is removed to allow for width adjustment.  Still others have no plate at all (whose benefits and detriments will be discussed in a future article).

The gullet plates govern the general shape of the tree’s head, and should be taken into account when fitting the saddle to your horse.  A Wide or U  head is best suited to a broader horse with more “well-sprung” ribs, while a Vee head is the optimal choice for a more angular kind of horse with a more severe wither.

Tree Points
The tree points are what determine the width of the tree at the horse’s shoulder, and vary by manufacturer.  The points are the part of the gullet plates that extend into the flap of the saddle.  While the British standard oversees these widths, to some extent it is impossible to generalize them.  The statement “My horse is a ‘medium’” means something different to every brand.

When it comes to saddle fitting, the tree points should be parallel to the part of the horse’s trapezius muscle that is located behind the shoulder blade.  Note that when in motion, this area can fill out, depending on the horse, which is why relying solely on a static fit (just looking at in on the crossties) is inappropriate.  A horse that is a very uphill mover, for example, may go up half a tree size while in motion.

When checking the tree points, you’ll want to place the saddle on your horse’s back, making sure that the front edge of the tree point (typically visible when you lift up the flap) is around 2” – 3” behind the edge of the shoulder blade.  The points should lie flat against the muscle.  If the top of the tree points make the most contact, then the tree may be too wide.  If the bottom part of the tree points makes the most contact, the tree is too narrow.  I say may be too wide because there are instances when the flocking has settled too much in front so that the saddle sits low, making the angle of the tree slightly off.  Lifting the front of the saddle up slightly to see if adding a bit more wool will make it parallel to the trapezius muscle is a quick trick to help assuage those concerns.

Getting the correct width is critical to your horse’s comfort.  The idea that if it’s a little wide it’s ok is erroneous and can cause just as many problems as having tree points that are too narrow – you still have the undesirable effect of having a pressure point; it’s just located in a slightly different area.  That said, it can be possible to make minor corrections using a properly shimmed saddle pad that can add lift to the front while dispersing pressure points.  My favorite pad for this?  ProLite (see my website for more information).  ProLite pads are the only corrective pads recommended by the Society of Master Saddlers because, unlike the dozens and dozens of pads out there, they have been tested with Pliance technology.  They have been shown to help alleviate pressure points.

The Rails
The rails (or waist) of the tree are the part of the tree that connects the pommel to the cantle.  They are, in my humble opinion, one of the number one oversights that cause an ill-fitting saddle, and unless your saddle fitter is SMS trained, chances are they fail to consider their importance during your fitting.  The rails absolutely MUST align with the slope of the horse’s back, or else you run the risk of causing excess pressure along the horse’s spine, and an increased risk of pain, edema along the spine, nerve damage (exhibited by the tell-tale white hairs), and muscle atrophy along the back.

The rails often dictate the “twist” of the saddle’s seat, loosely defined as the width experienced by the rider.  While the twist is important to the comfort of the rider, if it causes the rails to be too steeply angled for the horse’s back, it can cause the aforementioned problems.  Sadly, many manufacturers fail to take this into account when it comes to the design of the saddle, and some of the most popular brands (among jump saddles especially) have a narrow “twist” that fails to meet the comfort requirements of many of the popular modern breeds of horses.   It is therefore essential that you as the rider have an adequate understanding of what will fit your horse best and what brands are able to best accommodate you and your horse.

It is possible for saddle makers to create the feel of a narrow “twist” on a tree built for a broader-backed horse, but this is typically a customized feature that even the most “custom” of saddlers fail to make available.  Solid plastic trees that are poured into a mold can often have flat rails but a narrower twist, as the saddle maker uses the foam in the seat to dictate the width for the rider.

While I hate to stereotype, I often find that the popular French and Italian saddle brands are the worst offenders. I speculate that it might have something to do with the fact that there is no industry standard like there is with the Society of Master Saddlers, and the research that is done by the Society and made available to saddle makers helps create more “horse friendly” trees.  But I digress.

Unfortunately, when it comes to rider’s preference for a narrow twist, in some cases, a compromise must be made, and at the risk of erring on the side of being extreme, I argue that it should be in favor of the horse’s comfort.  After all, the horses are the ones carrying us about and doing their best to live up to our expectations as riders.   We as riders have some capacity to adapt to our tack, whereas the horse is forced to endure the pinching along the spine.

In order to check whether the rails of the saddle are in alignment with the shape of your horse’s back, you’ll need to place the saddle on your horse’s back (in the proper position!) and girth it up (without a pad).  Lift the skirt of the saddle (the piece of leather covering the stirrup bars).  The angle of the tree just visible under the leather should be parallel to the shape of your horse’s back, just as the tree points should be parallel to the trapezius muscle.

Depending on the type of tree, there may be steel “springs” running along the length of the tree.  These are most commonly found in more modern wood trees.  While the name evokes images of a tightly coiled piece of metal just ready to bounce away, steel springs are used to provide stability and some flexibility to the tree while eliminating much of the weight found from older, “rigid” trees.

Length of Tree

 Since the tree is a rigid structure, it is vitally important that the length of the tree is appropriate for the length of your horse’s barrel.  While ideally, the saddle as a whole should not extend past the 18th Thoracic Vertebrae, it is sometimes inevitable that it does.  As long as the tree is not too long for the horse’s back, a little extra length in the panel is acceptable.

You can determine the length of the tree by looking at where the cantle starts.  The place where the seat curves up into the cantle is where the edge of the tree rests.  It should be as far away from the last rib as possible.

Depth or Curvature of the Tree
The term “weight bearing surface area” when it comes to saddles may evoke images of the panels of the saddle being broad enough to have as many pounds per square inch touching the horse’s back as possible, as this has everything to do with the horse’s comfort.  But what you may not realize, is that the tree’s shape, depth, and length have just as much to do with the weight bearing surface area.

The tree’s shape needs to be amenable to the shape of your horse’s back.  A flat-backed horse should not be ridden in a saddle with an excessively steep or deep tree, as all of the weight bearing surface area is concentrated over the wither.  Riding such a horse in a sharply curved tree will result in rocking and bouncing, and is not terribly comfortable for the horse.  In times past, before the use of composite or plastic trees, the deeper seated saddles had to have trees with a significant arc to them, and between rocking and having too little surface area, horses ridden in these saddles often had back issues.  Fortunately, modern saddle design and technology is allowing for deeper seated saddles without sacrificing the horse’s comfort.

Finding the Right Tree for Your Horse
Unfortunately, many saddle manufacturers are secretive when it comes to what’s in their saddles.  Innovative tree designs are closely guarded, which of course does nothing to help the consumer find the right structure to fit his or her horse.  Asking questions about tree composition and design are a good way to help make an informed decision.

Questions to Ask:
* What kind of tree?  Wood?  Composite? Plastic? Is it adjustable?  If so, how?
* What tree widths are available?  Do the trees come in half sizes?
* What are the rails like, and can you have flat rails for a well-sprung horse while keeping a narrow twist?
* What kind of warrantee does this tree have?

More and more saddle companies are now offering saddles that have some degree of adjustability to their saddles’ trees.  It just makes sense: you never know how your horse may change, or if you may end up with a completely different horse requiring a completely different saddle some years down the road.  But just because they claim to be adjustable doesn’t mean that they’re adjustable enough.  This goes back to the angle of the rails.  If you’re just widening the tree points of a saddle to accommodate your flat-backed horse with well-sprung ribs, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the critical area behind the stirrup bars will be at an angle appropriate to his back shape.  Remember: the angle of the tree points is one small component of saddle fit.  The rest of the tree has to fit too.

Copyright 2012, Anderson Equine Saddle Fitting Services, LLC

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