Equine Welfare

The PATH Intl. Equine Welfare Committee encourages positive and engaging educational exploration from our readers - we'd love to hear your feedback! Please let us know if you have any questions about our tip or have a suggestion about specific topics you would be interested in learning more about in the future. Email Marcie Ehrman or Jo Anne Miller, PATH Intl. Equine Welfare Committee co-chairs. Thank you!

The Case for Treeless Saddles

By Trish Broersma, member of the PATH Intl. Equine Welfare Committee

About 15 years ago I had the opportunity to help a friend condition her endurance horses. She saddled up her Arab for my first conditioning ride with her treeless saddle, and we headed out for over 2 hours of trail riding, mostly at a trot on “technical” trails, meaning there were hills and hairpin turns and varied terrain. At that point, I had never ridden a horse who was physically conditioned for such rigorous work, and I surely was not conditioned for it myself, spending most of my time as director and instructor at a therapeutic riding program. That first conditioning ride was enlightening. Over the ensuing months as I conditioned her horses two or three times a week, I noticed how much I liked the treeless saddle: it was very light weight and extremely comfortable to ride for long distances (culminating in my first 50 mile endurance ride six months later). Right away, too, I noticed how I could feel every little movement of the horse under me, encouraging a great sense of oneness.

What is a treeless saddle? Its primary feature is the underlying construction without a rigid tree. Instead the tree is constructed of flexible, synthetic material that molds and responds to the moving shape of the horse’s back and also adjusts as the horse’s back changes with conditioning and aging. Growing popularity has led to many brands of treeless saddles that offer a huge variety of features. The challenge with evaluating the many choices for a therapeutic riding program is to look for adequate protection for the horse’s back, and balance and comfort for riders, especially those with the special needs of our population.

After a couple of years of helping my friend, I purchased an Anglo-Arab mare for the purpose of trail and endurance riding. I initially utilized the high quality saddles that I already owned for my other two horses and my students, because they fortunately fit this mare: an endurance trail saddle, a western saddle, and a dressage saddle. They were fine, but I kept recalling the features of the treeless saddle that they did not offer, so eventually I began to research the possibility of purchasing one. I borrowed a variety of them from friends in the endurance world, and did trials with various models from a local tack store that specialized in treeless saddles. Interestingly, none of them worked. Many of them were extremely comfortable and had extraordinary craftsmanship. But none of them worked because the mare was very round in her barrel and had a flat back with somewhat low withers, so that the saddle slipped slightly as we negotiated the twists and turns of the trail, or even in arena work. I did not have the “feel” that I had experienced before. Instead I felt insecure and tense.

Rather than turning my back on treeless saddles, however, I kept looking for a solution, for one main reason: I noticed that the mare and my other horses clearly preferred the treeless saddles. How did I know this? First, when I approached them with my choice of a saddle for the day’s ride, whether it was for me or one of my students, I noticed that they’d move away or swish their tails or show other polite(and sometimes impolite) opinions of my choice when it was not my latest trial treeless saddle. I paid attention to their signals for nearly a year, and their consistent favorite was the treeless saddle which they welcomed being placed on their backs. I also noticed that they had significantly freer range of motion with a treeless saddle. They were clearly happier, yet I clearly was not happier when riding my main horse, the mare. I was not willing to make an investment in a new saddle that did not work for everyone.

After about a year of this process, I was given a young Rocky Mountain gelding who had different conformation issues from the mare and my other horses. Instead, he had a weak back with a protruding spine which, I suspected, required a treed saddle to protect that area. I knew, however, that the incomparable freedom of movement provided with a treeless saddle was important for him because he has the long stride of a gaited horse which is often restricted by conventional saddles. Fortunately, I discussed this issue with treeless saddle professionals, and I discovered that one line of treeless saddles, at least, provides a variety of features that attend to all of my horses’ issues.

These saddles provide significant versatility in response to a wide variety of horse and rider issues. One saddle can be readily customized and adapted with features like removable seats with low and high twists and cantles, providing good fit for both my children and adult riders, removable panels on the underside for horses that need more spine protection, removable knee and thigh roles, adjustable placement of stirrup leathers, specialized saddle pads for various horse fit issues, girth adjustments for variations in each horse’s conformation for best girth placement, and more. Limitations do arise with heavy riders and for jumping. In recent years, I’m hearing of more and more therapeutic riding programs choosing these saddles, finding these adaptive features helpful.

Surely they offer a fine solution for my horses and my students. I thank my horses for consistently letting me know what they preferred. And because of their persistence, I’ve become a fan of treeless saddles, along with them.

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