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Pros & Cons of Treeless Saddles

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The saddle is more than just a pad across a horse’s back from which stirrups hang. A saddle, traditionally, consist of layers of leather and padding over a wooden or synthetic form, called a tree, that distributes the rider’s weight across a horse’s back. There is much debate over saddle trees and their potential for harming a horse’s back. Some horse owners are opting for less-rigid -- treeless -- saddles.

Basics of Treeless Saddles

An advancement on the traditional bareback pad, treeless saddles commonly use stiff, bendable pads and layers of foam as a foundation for bearing the rider’s weight. They are made of synthetic materials or leather, and are available in all varieties of western and English saddle styles. While early versions of treeless saddles had a decidedly nontraditional appearance, current models appear similar to traditional tack.

Pros of Treeless Saddles

Many people choose to own a treeless saddle because the less-rigid structure can allow one saddle to be used on multiple horses with differently shaped backs, although a true one-size-fits-all solution is unlikely. Many horses whose backs are hard to fit in a traditional treed saddle, due to width or bone structure, enjoy the conforming qualities of a treeless saddle. The lack of a rigid tree, and specifically the lack of weight-bearing tree points found on the front of a treed saddle, can reduce painful pressure points on a horse’s back. Without tree points putting pressure on the horse’s shoulders as they move, many horse owners find that their horses' strides are longer and freer, allowing better quality of movement in performance horses. A treeless saddle may flex and move with a horse’s motion. Riders benefit from lighter-weight saddles that allow them to sit closer to the horse’s back.

Cons of Treeless Saddles

Treeless saddles are not necessarily the solution for all hard-to-fit horses. They may cause pain for horses who have long, high withers or sensitive spines, which typical saddle trees bridge to avoid pressure. Specialized pads are generally necessary for fitting and stabilizing treeless saddles, adding to the expense. Makers recommend having a treeless saddle and padding professionally fit to your horse’s back. Because there is no tree to distribute a rider’s weight from front to back, pressure points from the rider’s seat bones may cause pain for the horse, especially with a heavier rider. For the rider, the wider seat typical of treeless saddles may prove uncomfortable, and the closer contact with the horse’s back may cause an unbalanced feeling for less experienced riders.

Advancements in Treeless Saddles

As technology and veterinary knowledge improve, constant improvements are being made in the design of treeless saddles. Many manufacturers are adding gullets to newer models, which allow saddles to bridge over a horse’s withers, alleviating pressure. Makers are experimenting with padding and paneling treeless saddles to better distribute riders’ weight, and building up the padding for more comfortable seating.