What Is A Treeless Saddle And Are They A Good Or Bad Thing?

If your horse is hard to fit or has a wide back, or if you don’t feel close enough to your horse while you’re riding you may have looked longingly at a treeless saddle and wondered whether or not they’re any good. Any internet search will bring up a mix of opinions with just as many people in favor of them as there are against them but what’s the truth? This is something that I’ve been considering myself so I thought I’d share my findings with you, and hopefully shed some light on whether treeless saddles are a good or bad thing.

What is a treeless saddle? A treeless saddle is a saddle that doesn’t have a rigid internal frame (known as a tree). The lack of a tree means that the horse can move freely and that the rider feels closer to the horse.

What is a tree?

Traditionally saddles have been made with a solid, rigid structure in the middle that’s designed to conform to the horse’s back and the rider’s seat. While they’re commonly made from fiberglass, metal, or plastic today, in the past this frame was made from solid wood which is where the term ‘tree’ comes from.

The rest of the saddle is then built around the tree with the leather or synthetic material either being nailed or stapled to it. This then gives a sturdy structure that distributes the rider’s weight evenly across the horse’s back.

Horse riding saddles are traditionally made with a tree

What is a treeless saddle?

Sometimes referred to as bareback pads, treeless saddles don’t have the fixed, inflexible tree that forms the basis of conventional saddles. This makes them much lighter and easy to use, especially for people that aren’t able to lift a traditional saddle onto a horse or for those that ride multiple horses every day.

The lack of a tree means that treeless saddles sit closer to the horse while also allowing the horse to move freely and without any restrictions on their shoulders. They also offer the rider a more natural, closer, almost bareback ride which is why they’re extremely popular with endurance riders.

One of the main advantages of treed saddles is that the rigid tree provides them with a gullet that bridges the horse’s withers and alleviates the pressure but many modern treeless saddles are built with some sort of gullet that works in the same way.

What are the pros and cons of a treeless saddle?

As much as we’d all like to have one saddle that works for all horses in all circumstances this simply isn’t possible and while most people use treed saddles it doesn’t mean to say that treeless saddles are a bad thing. There are plenty of advantages and disadvantages to using a treeless saddle.

Advantages of a treeless saddleDisadvantages of a treeless saddle
Allow horse to move naturally Can cause pressure points where stirrups hang
Allow for longer stridesWon’t distribute rider’s weight evenly
Horse has greater freedom of movementWon’t keep rider off of the horse’s spine
Flexes with the horseNot as secure as traditional saddles
Rider is closer to the horseRider sits wider than on traditional saddles
Good for horses that are hard to fitSpecial pads are needed to increase stability 
Can be used for multiple horses with different back shapesCan slip if you’re trying to mount from the ground
Lightweight and easy to liftCan become hot for the horse and rider
Pros and cons of treeless saddles

It’s interesting to note that while people tend to have strong opinions on whether or not treeless or treed saddles are better, most people can’t tell the difference between the two. This of course changes as soon as they sit on them.

A treeless saddle can be very good for horses that are hard to fit

Are treeless saddles good for horses?

Regardless of whether you’re in favor of treeless saddles or against them there’s no denying that they do has some advantages. To start with they’re much lighter, easier to use, and often cheaper than traditional saddles but beyond those advantages, they can be extremely beneficial to horses that have suffered pressure sores and discomfort from poorly fitted traditional saddles.

For horses that have very wide backs, uneven shoulders, or swaybacks there’s no doubt that a treeless saddle is often the best, if not only, option. They’re lighter on the horse’s back and help to balance the rider in such a way that the pressure and force are distributed over the horse’s back and towards their rib cage.

Then of course there’s the unrestricted movement that the lack of a tree provides the horse with, especially on the shoulder.

Are treeless saddles bad for horses?

As with every contentious topic, there will be strong arguments against and the debate around treeless saddles is no different and while they do have a range of benefits there are also disadvantages. Not least because with long-term use they can cause localized pressure sores that can, if not addressed, cause permanent injury.

By design, treeless saddles don’t have a rigid structure that bridges the horse’s spin and therefore reducing the pressure on this sensitive area. Instead, they rely on a rider’s ability to balance themselves and remain there regardless of the horse’s movements.

One common mistake that many people make with a treeless saddle is presuming it’ll fit any and every horse, but this just isn’t the case. There’s no doubt that they can fit a range of different horses out of the box so to speak but there is no such thing as a magic saddle that fits every horse and a poorly fitted treeless saddle is just as bad as a poorly fitted treed one.

Do you need to use a pad with a treeless saddle?

Just as opinion is divided over the advantages (or disadvantages) of treeless saddles, so is the case with using pads under them but I’ve found it’s even more important than it is with a treed saddle. While most people use a thin pad under a treed saddle to prevent chaffing (and to prevent the saddle from being damaged by sweat), with treeless saddles they increase the horse’s comfort and offer more stability.

That doesn’t mean to say that you can use any old pad though, you need to use one that’s designed specifically for treeless saddles. They’ll not only help to distribute the rider’s weight but will also address any dips or hollows in the horse’s back or behind the shoulders. They will also protect your horse’s spine and loin area.

The good news though is that treeless pads are available in a wide range of styles, materials, and patterns so you’ll be sure to find one that’s right for your chosen discipline as well as your tastes.

Its important to use a pad under a treeless saddle

Conclusion 

Most people these days don’t have the time to learn to ride properly (in the same way that people like the Native Americans could) which is why we need a saddle, to not only protect the horse but to also keep the rider balanced and this is where a treed saddle shines. That doesn’t mean to say though that you should never use a treeless one, it’s just a case of when and how.

If you’re a lighter rider, have a good (and proper) seat, and don’t stand in the stirrups a lot (such as when jumping) then there’s nothing wrong with using a treeless saddle sometimes or in the short term. The reason I, and many other people, say short term is because with a treeless saddle the pressure and force are confined to a smaller area. This isn’t an issue if you’re only using a treeless saddle occasionally, but if you imagine tapping your leg it’s not going to hurt if you do it once or twice. Hit your leg in the same spot for a prolonged period of time though and the tendons will soon start to hurt. 

Related questions

Do treeless saddles fit any horse?

Just like treed saddles, there are different types of treeless saddle, and not everyone will fit every horse although they will fit a wider range of horses without the need for any adjustments or alterations. They just won’t fit every single horse.

Can you use a treeless saddle for jumping?

Treeless saddles have been designed for pretty much every discipline going and jumping is no different but many saddle makers advise against using treeless saddles for jumping. This is because, unless they have specially designed stirrup bars, the stirrups hang from one place, and when jumping the rider’s entire weight is focused on that area.

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