Does the Tree Fit the Shape of My Horse’s Back?

Dr Kerry Ridgway

Take time to educate yourself because an ill-fitted tree will cause permanent, long-term damage to your horse. And there are no pads, shims, adjusting, nor gadgets that will make it right if it is the wrong shaped tree for that horse!

The saddle tree is indeed the primary element to consider in saddle fit. It is the fundamental heart of the saddle.

Many saddle makers will seduce you with marketing gimmicks, especially pads and shims and want you to believe that everything can be modified to fit, no matter what the tree is. It is actually hard for a consumer to find out what type of tree is in the saddle. Magazines display fancy choices like colour binding, comfortable seats, close contact feel, narrow twist, deep seat, all relating solely to the rider. Hardly anything is said about the tree. The only measurements that are mentioned are the gullet width of the tree, possibly narrow, medium and wide, there is no real standard between brands, so the medium width of one company could be the narrow one with another manufacturer. Most mass producers rely on a rounded bar crown so they make contact with the horses back in a very narrow area, they fit a lot of horses but are not comfortable for the horse and can cause damage long term.

Therefore, when we talk about saddle fitting, we want to make sure that not only the head of the tree fits but the whole shape of the tree follows the contours of the horse. It is essential to consider at least, these 3 elements:

  • the width of the tree at the withers.
  • the tree bars over the whithers, in reference to angle, width, flare, wither relief and crown.
  • most importantly the mid tree behind the scapula. Rarely is this area discussed of looked at, width and angle are very important.

The first thing is that the tree must be wide enough at the withers. If it is too narrow, the bottom of the bars of the tree will be driven into the shoulders. It might lead to irreversible long-term damage, eventual unsoundness and/or premature retirement of the horse.

If the tree is too wide, the saddle will tip down in front and will rock back and forth and possibly from side to side. The back half of the saddle might also twist.

Reading most saddle fit info, all bridging and rock problems can be resolved with gullet width change. Widening the bars can move the contact point of the bars off the muscling and onto the ribs or tendons causing more problems. The bars need to lie on the longissimus muscle and the rock of the bars needs to match.

Then, what about, interchangeable gullet plates or the adjustable gullet systems? They have definitely been one of the best innovations in the world of saddle making. It sounds so brilliant; just a few screws and you can adjust your saddle in minutes. Easy! And of course, you can fit any horse in the barn! This is actually misleading marketing. It might definitely help a horse that is getting pressure on the withers by too narrow or too wide a saddle, but it is not the answer to every saddle fit problem.

Getting a proper fit across the withers is indeed a highly important aspect of saddle fitting, but it is not the only factor; the rest of the variables needs to be addressed too.

The tree must not only be wide enough for the withers, but it has to accommodate the horse’s shoulders. They should be able to rotate freely, and for that to occur, the tree angle must match the shoulder angle.

The scapula motions upward and backwards as the horse moves. Any impediment to the scapula movement can lead to serious physical and behavioural issues, as the digging of the tree bars into the shoulders can be, not only extremely uncomfortable or painful but create scar tissue and even damage of the cartilage. We have observed too often muscle atrophy in the area behind the withers. The typically wasted muscles are the trapezius, spinalis, and or rhomboid, usually due to tree bars being too narrow. However, whether too narrow or too wide, it will prevent all of the back muscles from contracting and extending properly and have a negative impact on the psoas, as well as on the pelvis and croup muscles. It will definitely affect how the horse is using himself and how willing he is to engage his hindquarters. Muscle damage over time due to an ill-fitted tree can mean permanent damage, and when you see white hairs, the injury is already quite significant.

So, how can you tell if the tree angle matches the shoulder angle? If you don’t have any fancy equipment or haven’t done any back templates, put the saddle on the horse’s back without a pad and make sure that the saddle is behind the shoulder blade. Check both shoulders, since we are often confronted with horses with asymmetrical shoulders. In that case, you always want to fit the bigger shoulder.

Close your eyes and softly pass the tip of your fingers between the saddle and the horse, following from the top of the withers and down over the shoulder. You should feel that you have the same space top to bottom, which would mean that both angles are parallel.

Some more innovative saddles have flared tree bars which usually allow for better use of the shoulders and less pressure on sensitive areas, as long as the angles match.

One simple way to check is to do up the girth pretty tight and run your hand down the front of the saddle and under the panels and feel for acute pressure points. This takes a bit of practice, try a number of saddles and horses to build up experience.

Now that we have looked at the front of the tree, we still need to make sure that the rest of the tree fits the shape of the back. Equine backs come in all shapes, sizes and combinations. For that reason, your saddle search must start with a good analysis of your horse’ s built and a solid understanding of the different elements of a saddle tree.

The bars in a Western saddle are designed to distribute the rider’s weight evenly over the horse’s back while keeping pressure off its spine. The bars are the two strips that run parallel to your horse’s spinal column and are connected in front by the swells and in the back by the cantle.They have their own set of variables (the most important ones being the curve, angle, and length). The curve of the tree should follow closely the contour of the back and match the shape. The tree, being the skeleton of the saddle, must fit the area just behind the shoulder blades, the wither pocket area and should follow the curve of the spine, going toward the croup. If built correctly, it will provide stability and support to both the saddle and the rider.

Remember though that most saddle fitting evaluations are unfortunately done in a static state. Therefore, you want to allow some room for the back to move up when the horse is working and it is of course, dependent on its level of training, and/or ability to collect.

We did state that there are hundreds of variations in equine backs and that to make an informed decision, you will have to assess your horse’s confirmation. Broad back with high withers? Round barreled horse? Swayed back? High croup? Long/short back?
You might think that a shark withered horse is going to need a narrow saddle, but many of these horses have withers that taper into a broad, athletic back, and a well-sprung rib cage. It would not make for a happy horse to have one of these narrow fitted saddles.

Remember that the saddle industry evolved from fitting saddles to military and workhorses to making them for sport and performance horses. Saddles used to be built one at a time and custom fitted to each horse. Most of the saddles nowadays are unfortunately generic to a certain extent, and mass produced.

The whole industry focus shifted to designing pieces of equipment that are pleasing to the eye, comfortable to the rider, but at the detriment of the horse’s own well being.

The horse and rider’s comforts are both essential and the saddle should be designed to encourage the best possible communication between the two. Unfortunately, matching one complex shape to another is not that simple, especially when the static object (saddle) is meant to be the interactive link between two dynamic elements (horse and rider). Marketing campaigns have succeeded to some extent in convincing many riders that the saddle can be made to fit, with altering the pads, shims. It is easy to assess if the bar points are a reasonable fit for the angle of the shoulders. Unfortunately, it is much harder to discern whether the contour of the tree is well-matched to the shape of the horse’s body. A confusing factor is that the leather frequently obscures the features of the tree and might not mirror its intrinsic curve or angles.

For your next saddle, ask the saddle maker or fitter, what type of tree is being used? Research size, shape, angulation, design. It is through a thorough understanding of the fundamental role of the tree in saddle fit, that we can be more assertive in seeking better-fit solutions and being provided with specific information. We, as consumers should demand accurate details about the trees that are indeed the foundation of the saddles. Our horses deserve it!

Secondly, pay attention to the true fit of the tree itself. Don’t be fooled by fancy gadgets and elaborate options. It is true that you can do a lot with shims and pads adjustable stirrup bars, but it will be more in terms of fine-tuning, balancing and compensating for individual conformational or physical issues. Nothing will be able to compensate adequately for a serious mismatch between tree and horse.

So, next time you search for a saddle, remember that good saddle fitting begins with knowing about the tree, the shape of your horse and truly fitting the tree to the horse!

Posted in Saddle Fit.