Treeless Fights Tradition

The look of a traditional saddle built on a rigid tree has elegant lines that follow the contours of the horse’s back when he’s standing on the crossties. When the weight of the rider is added, however, the tree can press into the horse’s back and make the moving picture much less satisfactory, especially to the horse. In order for a treed saddle to work well, it needs to fit the horse and rider with precision and have well-padded panels to reduce pressure points.

A treeless saddle removes the inherent pressure points except those from the rider’s own seat. In some regards, this is rather like a thick bareback pad with the added stability of stirrups. It drapes over the back and sides rather than perching. There’s no gullet, and there’s no twist to fit up into the rider’s pelvis. The rider feels more of the motion in the horse’s back than she would in a treed saddle.

As you would suspect, treeless saddles are generally more suited for disciplines where the riders really sit on the horse, such as trail riding and dressage. They aren’t as popular yet for jumping, although the trend is nudging in that direction. Because they’re so lightweight and relatively less fatiguing for the horse, they’ve found popularity in endurance where the synthetic materials and unusual appearance aren’t a concern.

With a foundation of padding rather than a tree, the look and feel of a treeless saddle take some getting used to. Some have more-prominent pommels and cantles added for stability and appearance, but they still don’t have the sleek outline that a tree imparts. The appearance on a saddle rack, however, is different from the appearance under a rider.

The weight is also significantly reduced, with treeless saddles generally ranging from only eight to 20 pounds. Many of the models come with a nylon cover — often very bright — although traditional leather can be found. We feel one useful option is a suede-type cover on the seat.

Treeless saddles also tend to sit farther back, which doesn’t seem to bother the horse but does bother some people, at least visually. We think this position is a clear benefit to the horse, since most riders tend to “seat” their treed saddles too far forward. This is more comfortable for the rider but restricts the shoulder blade of the horse when it can’t rotate easily under the point of the tree.

Another difference is that the stirrups usually attach farther back and higher up than on a treed saddle. This puts less pressure on the horse’s back. It also has a clear benefit for the rider who has trouble keeping her legs directly under her body. The arrangement of the billets is usually traditional. If the horse is a lot bigger than his rider, a mounting block or someone to hold down the offside stirrup may be needed.

One significant enticement of a treeless saddle is that it can fit most conformation types, and thus one saddle can fairly easily go from horse to horse and won’t need to be replaced or restuffed when a horse changes shape as it matures or becomes more muscled. The saddle is fitted more to the rider than the horse. The standard measurements seen on treed saddles don’t usually apply here, and each manufacturer seems to have their own system.

That doesn’t mean, however, that adjustments for individual horses can be ignored. Depending on the manufacturer, some have fairly elaborate pads and blocks that can “customize” the fit for the horse and the rider, but this often can be added to the saddle pad or used with a removable attachment. Since these saddles are often handmade, it’s also fairly easy to get the fit and features you want added at the time of purchase or retrofitted later by returning the saddle to the manufacturer.

Unless a treeless saddle clearly does not suit a particular horse or rider from the onset, we think that a rider should give this saddle a good trial over several days because it’s such a very different feel after being used to a treed saddle. Treeless saddles certainly show promise for horses with wide backs and flat strides and limited shoulder freedom but not always for horses that are big movers with a lot of swing and air time in their strides.

Another departure from tradition is that treeless saddles aren’t usually available through tack shops or catalogs. The normal course is through distributors, who have test models available, or direct from the manufacturer. Some allow a test-ride period, but the saddle must be returned in unmarked condition, so you need to devise a way of keeping the stirrup leathers from rubbing the flaps.

Some of these manufacturers are also marketing an array of accessories specific to treeless saddles, including saddle pads (especially without a seam down the middle), girths, saddle bags/packs and breastplates/cruppers. The arrangement of the D rings isn’t always the same as it is on a treed saddle, and often they need to be special-ordered.

We found several brands of treeless saddles. The closest “dressage-look” is the Ansur, with a base price around $2,000. Most saddles resemble an “endurance” look, with starting prices ranging from $675 to $1,800. Cover materials can run from traditional leather in the more-expensive saddles to nylon in the trail/endurance saddles. Treeless saddles generally hold their value well when sold used.

Ansur saddles ( 360-835-1545) are handmade in Washougal, Wash. The Classic model is a dressage-type, while the brand also has jumping, endurance and Paso Fino models. Several layers of leather, foam and padding replace the tree under the rider’s seat. The saddle comes in five sizes, from youth to medium.

Ansur doesn’t use the “L” word, and medium would relate to a person over 6 feet tall who weighs more than 200 pounds.

When you call the company, you talk to a person who investigates what you and your horse need, and the website also helps with detailed information. A special support system can be built into the saddle for riders who want it. Ansur designer Peter DeCosemo said that about 25 percent of horses may also make use of supplementary pads, such as a withers pad for horses that are built downhill or pads that will stabilize a saddle on thin horses.

We test-rode a basic Ansur Classic on three different types of horses (Thoroughbred, Thoroughbred-Hanoverian cross and a draft cross), with four different riders, without using the supplementary pads that Ansur has available to customize the fit. Two of the horses showed more swing through their backs, and the draft cross clearly showed more shoulder freedom. One tossed his head more in the treeless saddle than in his usual tack. The saddle clearly slipped to both sides on the slender Thoroughbred but stayed in place on the warmblood and draft cross.

The riders missed the stability from their treed saddles, both in how the saddle felt on the horse and how the lac k of a twist meant they had to clearly rely on their own balance. Without a twist, the saddle gave the sensation of sitting more on a wide board than on a narrow rail, sort of like sitting on a Thelwell pony with the rider’s legs coming out to the side instead of draping down. Walking and posting trot were no problem, but it was harder to sit the trot, just as it would be bareback. Cantering was OK, except when the saddle edged to the side on the Thoroughbred.

DeCosemo said that some horses will react negatively because they can feel seat aids more clearly, and the rider will have to tone down those aids. He emphasizes the value of a trial period to get used to the new feel overall: “Five minutes for the horse and five to six rides for the rider.”

Although the Ansur Classic comes fairly close in resembling a traditional dressage saddle, there are some differences. The pommel is wider and doesn’t have a gullet. The cantle is not as prominent.

The biggest difference on the outside is the cover for the stirrup bars, which is attached with a discrete leather thong. With a rider sitting in the Ansur, however, the cosmetic difference is negligible.

Bottom Line
A treeless saddle has intriguing possibilities for a rider who hasn’t found satisfaction with traditional treed saddles, especially if the horse has a wide, flat back, if the horse needs more suppleness through its topline, or if the horse is hard to fit.

Be sure to have a lengthy conversation with the manufacturer’s rep or distributor, since the fit and measurements may be specific to their models. Don’t buy any treeless saddle without a trial period, and then make use of that time. Be absolutely clear on the return policy, especially if ordering custom options.

Also With This Article
Click here to view ”Going Treeless.”

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