We hope you will find this next section useful. It is quiet long and covers a lot of aspects, you may want to revisit this page if and when you run into questions.
General introduction to the treeless principle, fursaddles and leather-tree saddles. Some of the info here is not specific to the saddles in our shop and draws on my experience with saddles I fitted and sold in the past. This section is intended to give you an overview on the various flexible saddle solutions:
Treeless saddles are constructed of several layers of leather, foam, wool, synthetic fur, felt and/or other shock absorbing materials like Carbon, Prolite and PU. The idea is for the saddle to mould softly around your horses body and to follow every move, without restriction. This allows the horse’s stride to lengthen and the movement of the shoulders and back is free and more powerful as the horse moves forward with more relaxation and ease.
Balance, harmony and improved comfort for horse and rider, are the most obvious advantages for the rider choosing a well made flexible saddle.
The Hidalgo saddles have a supportive, structured seat with a good twist, made of sandwiched layers of leather. Behind the pommel sits in the front of the seat section sits a reinforcing piece of metal which ensures that the saddle does not flatten out and keeps its twist. The panels that velcro under the saddles are filled with a mix of foam and felt and ensure reliable spinal clearance and allow to adjust the saddle for optimal fit via the spacing of the panels. We have shims available which velcro between the panels and the saddle base that can be helful for horses that are extremely uphill or extremely downhill built. The frontshims also provide lift/ more wither clearance for high withered horses.
The Christ fursaddles provide some but not a huge amount of spinal clearance and only very little protection under the stirrup rings. The fur-saddles are not intended for continuous stirrup heavy riding, no jumping, no two pointing please. Rising trot is fine but not for miles without breaks. The fursaddles are sophisticated bareback pads and should be treated as such.
Why a treeless or flexible saddle? we were taught that the rigid tree is the most important structure of a saddle, so why the change in direction?
Most saddles with a traditional rigid tree are fitted to the ‘stationary horse’ This is highly deceptive and too often does not allow for a moving back and shoulders. The horse’s back and shoulders move constantly while in motion and a saddle has to accomodate this movement with your weight on top. Your comfort is also important, yes, that’s agreed. But lets not forget that the horse did not choose to be ridden. He/she is not and was at no time in history naturally designed to carry the weight of a person on his back. It is therefore our responsibility to ensure the horse’s comfort so that they do not suffer physically for our joy. Horses also change shape a lot during their lifetime and often from season to season. To be fair a traditional/rigid saddle would need to be adjusted whenever this takes place. Responsible horse owners in Europe meanwhile have their saddles checked on the moving horse with a high tech pressure testing system every few months (2-4 times per year is recommended) and then they have the saddle adjusted accordingly and scanned again to make sure all is good. Many professional saddlers in Europe do own such a pressure testing device meanwhile. To my knowledge only a single one of those computerised pressure mats exists in Australia.
Because horse and rider are two constantly moving beings/structures while engaged in riding, it makes a lot of sense to place a structure between them that has some ‘give and flex’ rather than something that is hard and rigid – I hope this makes sense to you.
Lets talk about PAIN A badly fitting saddle can cause excrutiating pain. If we create pain while riding, depending on the horse’s temperament and degree of pressure during training, we often find our horses numb, less responsive, listless, giving only 20-30% unless pressured hard, joyless and lacking forward motion. These horses are ‘shut down’, this state is also called ‘learned helplessness’ in equine behavior jargon. Unfortunately many experienced as well as inexperienced horse people often think of such a horse as quiet and obedient – sorry folks in my books it is no compliment to any trainer / rider ever if a horse has to resort to this state. This is what ‘breaking a horse’ in the true sense looks like, and you are breaking the spirit along side the body.
In horses who are not shut down, pain usually causes a heightened flight response or even aggression/fight – the flight and fight behavior is what scares most riders since those types of behaviour are ‘accident prone’. These situations often escalate due to a huge misunderstanding since the horse is only trying to tell us that she is hurting and her vocabulary to explain this to us is very limited. It saddens me that so often a horse ‘misbehaving’ due to pain leads to abuse of the horse and or rider injury or just a communication break down between horse and rider. It is as natural for the horse as it is for you and me that they want to get away from the pain, our nervous systems are not so differently wired in this regard. So please always investigate the fit of your gear when your horse presents out of charakter behaviour or behaviour deteriorates under saddle or he/she starts to act strange while saddling up. Once you have investigated your tack and found no issues, best get an equine therapist to see to your horse. If you can establish that the reactivity or shut down is due to ‘saddle pain’, well than you need to address the saddle issue asap and I would recommend that saddle does not go near your horse again unless it has been adjusted to fit again. To keep riding in an ill fitting saddle is unfair and may lead to injury of horse and rider… if a horse is started in an ill fitting saddle as is very often the case since the breaker wants to feel safe and (only feels safe in that old stocksaddle that supposedly fits every horse) the horse/pony may never ever forget that riding equals pain – that’s unless you get that saddle off her back as soon as you notice that it is pinching and hurting. Best choose someone to start your horse who is saddle savvy and has a variety of saddles to choose from – hopefully there will be one amongst them that fits your horse.
It is our aim to make the riding experience as comfortable and enjoyable for horse and rider as physically possible. Our saddles are suitable for most disciplines and they fit most shapes of horses. Hard to fit horses are our speciality: No withers, Short back, Long back, Wide horse, Roach back, missing topline, sway back, left /right Asymmetry and horses recovering from injury or saddle pain. We can however not fit horses with very high withers and deep wither pockets due to our preference of a flexible pommel.
Due to our background in physical therapies (Natalie had a thriving bodywork practice for close to 20 years and worked on a wide clientele that included Olympic athletes) we also try to take the riders physical issues into account when fitting saddles.
To get our recommendation regarding which saddle and saddlepad set up would work best for you and your horse(s) please email Horse Connection to request our saddle fitting questionnaire. The assessment of suitability and our recommendation is fee and obligation free.
Please note that a treeless saddle when it is fitted or set up incorrectly or it is badly designed or lacking the right type of underlay can create numerous problems for your horses backs. I invite you take advantage of my saddle fitting expertise, we have in-depth experience with several different systems of flexible saddles and have literally fitted thousands of saddles over the last 14 years. Since I am also just human and sadly not perfect I offer a 7 day return clause/option which applies to the purchase of most items of this shop. When it does not apply you will find it is clearly advertised as such.
This shop exists for the horses first and foremost, the biggest motivator to keep Horse Connection going is to serve horses and give something back to those amazing creatures who give so abundantly to us. Natalie and her agents reserve the right to refuse a sale if your horse is too physically immature or too unwell to be ridden or if you are too big for your horse (rider weight and gear combined should not exceed max 20% of the bodyweight of your horse). Some call us rude for this others love us very dearly for the exact same thing. We run this business in accordance with our expertise, values and beliefs and when you contact us you enter into our little world. We dearly hope that you will enjoy and benefit from the experience.
A saddle fitting questionnaire is available on request. If you would like a consultation to work out which type of flexible saddle, saddlepad and inserts are most suitable for your situation please email me and request our saddle fit questionnaire. We draw on 11 years of fitting flexible saddles full time and are familiar with most brands of treeless and flexible saddles on the world market. What may be the most suitable set up for you, may or may not be available from our shop, if we don’t have what you need, we will pass you on to the appropriate dealer. Please note that people interested in saddles we have in the shop will enjoy preference over people wanting to pick our brains re other brands of treeless saddles when we are busy.
A saddle without a rigid tree? How can this work?
The accomodating structure and flexibility of good quality leather-tree saddle enables the horse to move without losing its natural grace and will enhance performance as well as joy.
No saddle should put pressure on the horse’s moving scapular nor should it load the horses loin area behind the last rib (T 18) The area on the horse’s back equipped to carry us comfortably is in fact a lot smaller than most of us think. This is particularly true if you own a horse that is short in the back. The further we move our balance point away from the horse’s center of gravity the more likely it is that saddlefit related soundness problems will occur. Soft structured treeless/flexible saddles due to their flexibility wrap the riders weight around the horses center of gravity rather than to spread the riders weight over the long back muscles parrallel to the spine. Saddles with decent panels ie the Hidalgo’s will transfer your weight in a similar manner to a traditional saddle, meaning under the panels.
Treeless saddles are available in different styles and various construction details
A truly flexible saddle can be flexed in all directions. They are usually an ‘easy fit’ and it is possible that one saddle can be adjusted to fit all your horses.
There are saddles with rigid gullets/pommels and those with flexible pommels. Some have options to shift the stirrup plate, others have a ‘one position suits most’ type stirrup hanger. Some saddles have a big footprint and others have a small foort print in the same size. Some will provide rider support via a structured seat while others have zero structure to the seat. Some provide good leg contact others have way too much padding in the wrong places for a good contact. Some saddles have the girthing and the stirrups attachments running over the spine in the same spot – that is a design booboo these saddles should not be used for stirrup heavy riding ever. My preference is the 3 point girthing of the Hidalgo’s, which does not run over the spine at all. Most treeless and leather-tree saddles you can shift from horse to horse with no or minmal adjustments to the saddle or the padding underneath.
The achilles heel of all treeless saddle is the hardware causing pressure points. We have seen this on occasion with just about all treeless saddles we have had in the shop when they were used for endurance. The worst saddle in this regard is the Ghost saddle, followed by the BF’s… extra special care is needed if you use these saddles for endurance, the heavier you are the bigger is the risk. If you ride with more weight in one stirrup than the other that is also a ticket for pressure points if you ride stirrup heavy (two point) over long distance.
We never had a report of stirrup pressure from a Hidalgo. The leather-tree combined with the Hidalgo panels provide much better protection for the horses back than all treeless saddles we have had in the shop.
Some treeless saddles don’t have any inbuilt spinal clearance. These saddles rely solely on the saddlepad and inserts to generate spinal clearance, we do not recommend these saddles for horses with higher or long withers or missing topline but they can still be a good choice for round well muscled horses. Many of the cheapo treeless saddles but also the original Freeform and Bob Marshal saddles are in this category. In the Horse connection range the fursaddles do not provide heaps of spinal clearance, we do not recommend that they are used with stirrups on horses with long bony withers. As a bb pad they are fine to use also on higher, long bony withers but not with stirrups. Except for the fursaddles which really are bb pads Horse Connection has not sold saddles that do not provide decent and reliable spinal clearance since 2011.
A great variety of horses can be fitted with treeless and/or flexible saddles that have velcro panels. I like velcro panels a lot because they can be exchanged when they wear out or as is the case with Hidalgo they can be exchanged for longer, shorter, thicker or thinner panels as the need arises. Velcro panels also allow to alter the balance point for the rider.
On the other hand we have many treeless saddle types/models/brands with firmly built in panels or no panels. If the padding under the hardware and under the riders seatbones wears/compacts, these saddles are unfortunately ready for the bin. They can not be restuffed nor can they be repaired. Therefore beware if you buy this style second hand, if they were used for endurance chances are they would have had it.
Leather tree saddles have been around for 15 years now and have gained in popularity especially amongst riders who like the idea of a flexible saddle but they either find treelss saddles uncomfortable or they shy away from the risk of stirrup hanger pressure. The very first leather tree saddle was designed by Brent Banderup (classical master) and manufactured by Stueben and LaSelle, it looks similar to the spanish Hidalgo’s. I have fitted and sold leather-tree saddles since 2011 and I ride in a Hidalgo Valancia Light saddle. Leather -trees saddles offer a firmer structure than most treeless options, they offer better rider support, more twist and the riders weight is distributed well. These saddles are very forgiving if they have a flexible pommel. If a leather-tree saddle has a rigid pommel that can not be exchanged for a different size pommel, well than this saddle is just as limited in the way it fits horses as any tree’ed saddle that can not be adjusted. This is the reason why we chose saddles with a flexible pommel at the expense of not being able to fit horses with very high withers – but for all conformations except very high withers they work great and you will not run into problems when your horse changes shape.
Lateral Stability on round horses
Well may it be known that I am paranoid of saddles slipping ever since I ended up under my mare’s belly tangled in the stirrups when a Canadian made treeless saddles (not one from my shop!) rolled with me when my mare dropped a shoulder. This accident resulted in an extreme dislike for saddles that wobble about and research into what makes saddles stable and which saddles are stable.
One of the many reasons why I have gone back to the Hidalgo’s is that these saddles are so stable. There are also certain girths and pads and tricks you can use to increase stability with any and all saddles, we will pass this on to you on a need to know basis.
Doesn’t this mean that I end up sitting on the vertebrae (spine) of the horse?
The short answer is: Not if the saddle is adjusted to fit your horse properly
The seat bones of the rider are naturally positioned to the left and right of the horse’s spinous processes and not on top. Additionally, the cushioned saddle sitting area plus the therapeutic saddlepad inserts and/or the panels of the saddles protect both horse and rider from pressure points.
If you do feel your horse’s spine under your pelvis, your horse will feel your pelvic bones too! this is to be avoided unless you ride bareback or in a bareback pad for short duration only.
The treeless riding feel – who benefits from it?
The experience of sitting in a soft structured treeless saddle like the Christ fursaddles, Barefoot, Blackforest or saddle of similar look and construction is similar to bareback riding, only safer in that the rider is supported by the front and rear raised parts of the saddle and fenders or stirrup leathers are usually attached, but they are removable. You sit ‘wide’ in these saddles, they do not provide a twist which can be a hindrance for riders comfort especially if you ride a flatbacked or horse with wide sprung ribs. These saddles also give minimal seat support to the rider and require good core strength/ a person who is ‘riding fit’. These saddles are popular for balanced riders and those prepared to work on their balance. However if you lack core strength, have a lordosis, have balance issues due to pathology or if are an aging rider – you are probably better of with a saddle that has a more ergonomically designed seat with a twist like the Hidalgo leather-tree saddles.
Would a treeless saddle be a good choice for me? and if so which one and how would it have to be set up?
Treeless and flexible saddles are suitable for most types of riding except showjumping and polo and some limitations apply to fast sports, i.e. I would not recommend to barrel race in a saddle that is not very stable laterally. We have worked out a questionnaire which gives us sufficient information to fit a saddle to you and your horse long distance. We usually ask for two specific photo’s: one side on straight showing the whole horse close up and one photo taken from behind the horses rump showing the withers, shoulders and back from above.
Provided you have a well fitting set up, to ride in a leather-tree saddle is the most comfortable way to be on a horse. Once you have ridden in one for a while you will be surprised how uncomfortable, hard and rigid your former favourite traditional saddle now feels… and you may not like your super wide treeless saddle as much once you have discovered the Hidalgo’s, exceptions apply of course.
The bottom line is if both you and your horse are really happy with your tack think twice about changing your set -up. If you doubt your horse is comfortable in your saddle or if you pull up sore during or after riding that is the time to look into a new saddle.
Are there restrictions to the use of the saddles and accessories?
1. Any soft structured treeless saddle and all fursaddle should only be used with a special additional pressure-absorbing underlay at all times if stirrups are attached. This underlay needs to have top quality shock absorption, a contoured shape allowing for the horses wither, it needs to create a channel over the spine and it has to be made from a breathing skin friendly material. Generally our policy is that we will not sell a saddle on its own unless you already own a treeless pad and inserts that we consider suitable for your horse, rider weight and discipline of riding. The harder you work your horse the better the padding needs to be, therefore we offer top of the range therapeutic saddle pads and a variety of inserts for different applications. If other dealers claim you do not need one of those pads with a treeless saddle you may choose to believe them to save money but you will do so at expense of your horse’s comfort. Flexible saddles that do not require a proper treeless pad have thick large panels either built in or attached via Velcro and they will be filled with a material that will not compact down much with the riders weight in the saddle.
2. Riders weighing over 70 kg and all endurance riders will need to use a good quality treeless pad with inserts under their Hidalgo saddles, some exceptions apply for people who don’t ride for long hours and or if they ride horses with excellent topline. We sell the Hidalgo’s to well balanced heavier riders to 95 if they are happy to use a treeless pad with inserts for all riding and only use the felt/foam mix panels. The weight limit for the fursaddles is 90kg when used without stirrups, less with stirrups, how much less depends on rider balance and the built of the horse.
3. Treeless and leather-tree saddles are not suitable for show jumping, polo or cross country. Occasional jumping up to a meter is fine, please beware of the pommel or horn when you do. We do not recommend the Hidalgo saddles in our shop for regular jumping over 80cm. We ask you to please not jump at all if you are riding in a fursaddle with stirrups.
4. There is no twist offered with these listed soft structured saddles: Barefoot, Blackforest, T rsion, Tuend and our Christ fursaddles and therefore you end up sitting wider than bareback on your horse due to the padding of and under the saddle. Rule of thumb if your hips hurt regularly after you get off your horse you would benefit from a saddle that offers you more twist. Please note that it is unwise to ignore aching hipjoints as this could lead to increased or even chronic inflammation. Many of us find as we get older that the saddle we loved so much as a younger person does not support our body sufficiently as we age. Yes this is in part why you see changes in my shop from saddles with no twist and no seat support to more ergonomic seat designs, supportive seats and twist… while the necessary flexibility to allow the horse to move freely is of course still our first priority, this is a given with all saddles we sell. But the more balanced and stable we are in the saddle effortlessly, the quieter we sit and our horses really do like it best when we sit quietly without shuffling and rebalancing in the saddle constantly.
5. Beginner riders would be well advised to take riding lessons with a good instructor, it is simply fairer on the horse and a lot safer for the rider. Dressage is the foundation to any style of riding, so it is the best place to start. Beware of instructors who will ask you to nag your horse rather than to help you to improve your balance, aids and timing re release of pressure. Generally we find the best instructors have a back ground in classical dressage or centred riding techniques. A bareback pad, fursaddle, treeless or leather-tree saddle can be a wonderful training aid in establishing a centered independant seat and to teach you sensitivity to your horses movement. You will have a definite advantage in these saddles due to the close contact and you will therefore learn faster than in a treed saddle. You are not held in a position but will learn to carry your own bodyweight in a balanced way which your present and future horses will appreciate.
6. We recommend the use of a well fitting breastplate with all of our saddles for hill work/ riding in steep country. A breastplate will stop your saddle slipping sideways or back in hilly terrain and works like a safety belt in case you are riding with a loose girth. Terrible accidents with all sorts of saddles could have been prevented if only the rider had remembered to put that breastplate on. To ride endurance without breastplate means asking for trouble and there are discussions going on to make the use of them compulsory.