A Saddle for All Seasons: The Benefits of an Adjustable Tree

Let’s face it: horses change.  Whether it’s a youngster just being started under saddle, a horse that has had some serious time off, or one whose weight seems to fluctuate given the time of year,  a major change in a horse’s condition can have a serious effect on the fit of your saddle.  Historically, this often meant having to replace the saddle with something of a better fit (or run the risk of harm to both horse and rider should the decision be made to continue riding in an ill-fitting saddle).

Considering how many horse owners have a veritable tack shop all their own, it’s no wonder that more and more saddle manufacturers have developed saddles whose trees can be adjusted.  But it’s important to know just how adjustable a saddle is, as well as how much it costs to adjust.

There are several different types of adjustable trees on the market now.  The following is just a short list of some of the saddles that offer them.

Changeable Gullet Saddles
The changeable gullet system revolutionized the way we look at saddles and saddle fit in many ways.  The idea that the consumer need replace the saddle every time they turn around was put to the wayside.  While there have admittedly been some bumps in the road, the ability to swap out gullet plates was a great idea that has evolved into a legitimate means by which to alter the saddle to suit the horse.

Saddles like Wintec / Bates, the newer Pessoas, Anky Dressage Saddles, Shires and Ovation saddles (to name a few) have the ability to be quickly and easily changed, with five different widths to choose from.  The biggest limitation with these saddles, however, has been that only the tree points adjust to the desired width; the rails of the tree remain static (although the newer Wintec/Bates saddles also adjust in the rail area to some extent.

Saddles built on the SimaTree (including the Thorowogood, Kent & Masters, Fairfax, and Hastilow saddles) also adjust in the rails and have seven or eight different widths (depending on the type of tree, e.g. jump vs. dressage).

As a saddle fitter, I love the adjustability of these kinds of saddles, although I wish they all had natural wool flocking (like the saddles built on the SimaTree) so I can fine tune the fit to the horse.  Cost-wise, the rider need only pay for the gullet plates should they need a change in tree size, making this a very affordable option.

Wellep Key Saddles
Saddles that have a Wellep mechanism to adjust the width of the saddle require only a simple hex key to adjust the width of the tree.  Wind the key one way and the tree widens, the other way and it narrows, allowing the rider to adjust their saddle easily.  While a great idea, it’s not without its limitations.  Firstly, in the vast majority of these saddles, the tree points are once again the only component that is altered, although there are one or two on the market (to my knowledge) that also widen or narrow at the rails as well.  Secondly, they can be prone to malfunction should dirt and horse hair find its way into the mechanism.  Given the fact that horses are pretty dirty creatures, this does seem to be a relatively common occurrence.  The trouble is once the mechanism becomes infested with dirt and hair, it can lock, rendering it unadjustable, or, in some cases, can fail to retain its shape, and can become wider and wider over time.

Saddles that have this sort of tree include Laser, Marcel Toulouse Genesis, Ainsley, among others.

Resin Treed Saddles
There are a few saddles on the market that offer a resin tree that can be adjusted on a UV machine.  What is important to note is that there is some cost involved with having the tree adjusted (averaging around $300), and, since it has to be done on a machine, the rider does not get the instant gratification that is found with either the Wellep system or the gullet changing system.  Also, these saddles do not have a steel gullet plate, so the possibility of the tree stretching wider and wider over time is very real, and more likely to happen the more the saddle is adjusted. Granted, not every saddle runs into this problem, but there’s not much one can do about it (short of replacing the tree).   Finally, the tree points are the only part of the tree that can be widened or narrowed, so if the rails of the tree are not appropriately aligned with the horse’s barrel, there will be excess pressure on either part of the spine.

Saddles with this sort of tree include Prestige, Kieffer, Sommer, etc.

Wood and/or Plastic “Spring” Trees – Are They Really Adjustable?
There are some people who (in my sincerest opinion) recklessly believe that they can adjust a wood tree.  One of the most popular ways to do this is with a device called the “Saddle Devil” (to my way of thinking aptly named), which forces the tree points wider or narrower depending on how the saddle is placed in the machine.  Not only is it typically rather expensive to have a tree like this widened, the things that can go wrong with this method of adjustment are numerous.

Every time the tree points are forced apart the integrity of the steel is compromised, so it is not unheard of for a tree that has been adjusted more than once to have the head plates in the pommel snap.  What I find all too commonly is the rivets holding the two head plates together often break, which can either lead to (or be  indicative of) breakage of the top plate.

Often times the person carrying out the tree adjustment is a company rep who, arguably, hasn’t been properly trained on such an adjustment.  I have seen a few instances where the tree has been adjusted asymmetrically (e.g. one side wider than the other) because the person performing the adjustment did it incorrectly.  I would only recommend having this done by a Qualified Master Saddler, and even then, many will tell you it’s not worth doing.

The adjustment of the tree points on a wood tree will not adjust the rails, so once again if the structure of the tree isn’t right for the horse’s back widening or narrowing the tree points will do nothing to help the horse’s comfort.

Sadly, people are often duped into buying a wood or plastic treed saddle under the guise of it being adjustable (some companies are more wanton about it than others), so they dish out several thousand dollars for a saddle that, at the end of the day, runs the risk of being ruined if put in the hands of an unqualified person.

Officially, the Society of Master Saddlers says that a Spring Tree saddle should only be adjusted within ½ tree size, and only once, so steer clear of the saddle rep telling you that it can be done within several centimeters and as often as you want.  They’re just trying to sell you a saddle.

 So the moral of the story is that there are a lot of benefits to having a saddle that can be adapted to suit a changing horse, but not all adjustable trees are created equal.  When purchasing a saddle with an adjustable tree, you owe it to yourself and your horse to find out just how much adjustability you have and how much it will cost.

Happy Riding!

Copyright 2013, Anderson Equine Saddle Fitting Services, LLC

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