Saddle Fit and Saddle Tree Designs
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Saddle making history shows us that saddle trees looked almost the same for 4,300 years. When the horse was a necessity for mankind, it was important to keep them healthy and sound for human needs. Once the horse became more involved in sports, saddle tree design started to change for the various disciplines in both English and western riding. All trees should have a common goal: bridge the withers, distribute the weight, and balance the rider. Most horses have a 4”x 16” long saddle support area on each side of the spinal column, which can be evenly divided into three parts on each side: the front and rear fields should each carry 30% and the middle part carries 40% of the saddle and rider’s weights.
Army and western trees are big and distribute the rider’s weight over a large surface as the rider sits for a long time on a horse’s back. These trees have longer bars in the front and in the back, to allow the load of extra weight or gear for the job that needs to be done. The rider sits in the middle or to the rear. The longer the rider needs to sit in the saddle, the wider the tree needs to be in the middle for the horse to be accomplish a “tree lift”. This happens when the horse raises his back in the middle, and the saddle tree lifts from the middle to the front of the shoulders and rear parts of the tree on the horse’s loins.
The racing tree is completely the opposite, with very little weight bearing surface. It is very narrow or ends in the middle, as the jockey never really sits on the horse’s back. The Stirrup leathers are hung on the stirrup bar/gullet plate, and the jockey basically stands in the saddle.
The English tree allows the rider to sit to get the weight off the forehand of the horse by engaging the horse’s back. The rider needs skill to lightly contact the seat, while allowing the horse to lift its back so the hind leg can step underneath closer to the horse’s centre of gravity and decrease the weight (pressure) on the front legs. The top of the horse’s back (where the saddle tree sits) is relatively straight, while many English trees are somewhat curved. The wider the tree in the middle, the less pressure will be exerted on the horse’s loin or shoulders. If the tree is narrow in the middle or straighter on the bottom, there will be excess heat/pressure in the shoulder and loin area.
Some saddle companies have recently come up with some rather arbitrary saddle tree designs, with misleading advertising and misconceptions about the horse’s biomechanics. They seem to misunderstand this principle of necessity that the saddle tree needs to be wide in the middle, while having a slight rock—a design feature which has been followed for over 4300 years. Most horses have a 4″ wide by 16″ long saddle support area on each side of the spinal column (measured from the base of the withers to the 18th thoracic vertebra). Imagine you divide this evenly into three parts on each side. The tree should be designed so that the front and rear fields each carry 30% and the middle part carries 40% of the saddle and rider’s weights. If the horse’s back moves up and down, the lower amount of pressure will be on the front and rear portions. Some saddle designs put large surface area in the first 30% of the area, very little in the middle, and a little more in the back—approximately 50/20/30%. Some saddles use ‘posts’ to suspend the saddle tree in the front and back areas, while the middle has barely any weight-bearing surface (approx. 40/20/40). We see atrophy and white hair that appears on the horses back in the front or in the back, yet rarely in the middle—often attributed to poor saddle fit. You will only see white hair in the middle of the horse’s back when the horse has been ridden for extended periods of time in a treeless saddle, but that’s a whole other topic! While we have scientific diagnostic tools such as fiberoptic cameras, heart monitors, thermography, and computerized saddle pads to prove the feasibility of saddle designs, the information these tools provide is sometimes discredited and questioned because of personal opinion and bias. As I always say, ‘sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know!’
I hope that people will continue to form their own opinions based on doing their own due diligence and research to protect their horses from long-term back damage.