SADDLE TREES …which is the best type?
Does a modern, composite synthetic saddle tree really make much difference to the overall performance of the saddle and comfort of the rider, or is just cheaper to produce, thus increasing saddle manufacturers’ profits ?…
History : Saddle trees are the basic framework around which all ‘horse riding’ saddles are constructed, and were designed with contours to suit the back of the average horse, with a comfortable seat to suit the style and shape of the rider. The Romans in the 1stCentury BC were one of the first civilisations to use a basic wooden frame-based saddle, and wooden saddle trees are still prominent in many brands, especially in English and French-made saddles, using different shapes of tree to suit the different disciplines of horseriding. Many saddle manufacturers seem happy to keep using the traditonal laminated beechwood with steel reinforcing plates fitted to the arch, and spring steel strips placed longditudionally to give flex and comfort in the seat, as the horse and rider move. The original British design of this type of saddle tree was registered with a British Standard number in 1985, and BS6635 is still existence, with a few alterations. The registration of an item as important as a saddle tree is very essential, so as to protect the buyer from saddles made on sub-standard trees, which are not adequately safe for the horse and rider.
The use of synthetic materials for the manufacture of saddle trees is now prolific, and even brands who still use traditional wooden trees in their older long-established models offer new, extra ranges of their saddles with a synthetic tree.
Now we will look at the types saddle trees currently used in ‘english saddles’:-
# Traditional wood and steel saddle trees are still commonly used by many top saddle brands, particularly in high quality saddles in all disciplines, and are still commonly used in top French made ‘custom saddles’. Normally they are made made by hand, constructed with laminated beechwood, with treatments to ensure ultimate strength and longevity, plus steel plate reinforcements in the arch. The solid metal stirrup bars are then fixed firmly to the tree, normally with strong, heated rivets. Also, ‘spring trees’ will normally be strengthened over and under the arch of the saddle, and lengthways, with spring steel strips fitted to allow a certain amount of flexibility for the movement of the horse and the rider.
Many top brands, for example Albion Saddlemakers, Euroriding, Adam Ellis Saddles, Ideal Saddles, Amerigo, Bliss of London, Black Country, Cardanel and Harry Dabbs all still mainly use this type of traditional saddletree in their saddles. Some saddlemakers, such as Albion, manufacture their own trees, and they have also developed a traditional type tree which can be altered in width safely, by slightly adjusting the width of the arch… this must be done only by a registered Albion saddler/saddlefitter. Now their ever-popular SLK dressage saddle range now can be ordered with this unique “Adjusta-Tree” technology, thus making an Albion saddle even more desirable saddles for the serious dressage rider. Albion also have their Platinum range of saddles, which all have a traditional wooden tree, but with a unique interchangeable ‘head and panel’ system which allows part of the tree and panel to be exchanged with different width modules.
However, one of the disadvantages of the traditional wood and steel type of saddletree is that generally they can be heavier, when compared to the modern synthetic trees. German Saddlemakers Passier have for some years used 2 types of tree in their saddle ranges, the best known being their PS wooden tree which has steel and leather used in the structure of the tree, plus bamboo strips giving flexibility to the seat. The PS tree can be altered in width if needed.The other tree some Passier saddles have is synthetic but has very strong alloy gullet plates, which can be altered in width to enable a fit for different horses. This alterations should be made by a qualified Passier saddlefitter, although it is quite an easy operation, and can be repeated many times if different horses are to be fitted. Both of Passier’s types of saddle tree have short gullet plates, which gives more freedom to the horse’s shoulder movement.
# Synthetic saddle trees are now probably the most commonly used type, being generally light in weight and probably now the strongest type of saddletree. The latest trees having been developed and improved massively over recent years due to the creation of incredibly strong synthetic composites, often with carbon-fibre added to give virtual unbreakability on stress areas. Some saddlemakers provide an ‘unbreakable’ warranty for this type of tree, although certain conditions do apply. Most of the best synthetic saddle trees are adjustable for width (usually by a heating and bending process) which is a great ‘selling point’ for riders looking to purchase a top quality saddle with optimum versatility. The main benefit is that the saddle can altered in width for a horse which has changed back and wither shape, possibly because of fitness, sickness or just ageing, and also with the advantage that the saddle may be used on a different horse. However, this type of gullet adjustment system can only alter the fit at the withers, as the back of the tree cannot be widened to match the extra width of the front arch. and if the new horse is a broad backed breed it may not result in a wide enough gullet and panel width at the rear.
Saddlemakers Prestige of Italy and Kieffer of Germany now have superb ranges of dressage and jumping saddles which all are built on immensely reliable, strong and lightweight saddletrees with deep, half-deep and flat seats. Both of these manufacturers are now offering saddle ranges which have trees specifically designed to give maximum comfort for the skeleton of the female rider. Both of these companies ranges are proving to be very popular, with more models constantly being introduced to attract even more comfortable rider customers to their superb products.
Some ‘English’ saddles (many made outside the EU) have a more basic synthetic tree which has replaceable steel reinforcing plates in differing width fittings for the gullet, which can be easily purchased and replaced by the owner in a few minutes. Up to 7 fixed gullet widths may be available with this type of saddletree, depending on the brand of saddle. These gullet plates are generally unique to the particular brand of saddle and are very popular with riders who regularly like to use one saddle for different horses.
The LARIOT company based in England is probably Europe’s largest, and maybe now the world’s largest saddle tree manufacturer, and is at the forefront of innovation and development in this sector. They have recently invested in some very hi-tec equipment to help them in their quest to make the best new synthetic saddle trees in the world, as well as making their existing range of superb traditional wooden trees. They have produced a new wooden saddle tree, called ‘Fusion’, which is a laminated wood tree which has carbon fibre modules added. A true combination of the traditional and the contemporary.
# Carbon Fibre/Carbon Composite saddle trees are now being offered by a few saddlemakers. Obviously this is a very modern trend heavily researched by just a few saddlemakers with a view to achieving the ultimate strength, combined with flexibility and the lowest possible weight. So far our opinion is that the extreme cost of saddles with this type of saddle tree is not justified by the possible small advantage offered to the horse or the rider. They are not easy to adjust, and this operation can be quite expensive for the customer.
We also understand that when a manufacturer claims that their saddles have a ‘carbon-fibre’ saddletree, technically this is incorrect, as carbon fibre on it’s own, although immensely strong, does not have the flexibility suited to a riding saddle. So Carbon composites are mainly used, differing slightly in composition according to the brand. Actual carbon fibre itself can be used for the front arch of the saddle tree, and certain areas which need the most strength, and there is a company who offer .
There is some discussion in the equestrian trade that using an element of carbon fibre in the construction of a tree is somewhat unneccessary, and can add significantly to the cost of the saddle. But the fast development of synthetic composites, for many industrial purposes, can be equally as strong, light in weight, and easier to produce, and are the ultimate solution for the structure of a high quality saddle.
The Barnsby Saddle Company, who claimed to be the oldest British saddlery company, unfortunately went into administration in 2014, after just having introduced a new adjustable saddle tree after 6 years of development. They named it the ‘i tree’ and it was basically a carbon fibre composite construction, with heating elements built in at the front. An electronic device was then connected to a point in the front of the tree and heat of up to 140 degrees was applied allowing the front of the tree to be closed or opened as required, to obtain the correct fit for the horse. Unfortunately the itree did not attract the sales Barnsby had hoped for, so ultimately the company ceased production.
On or two of the very traditional French saddlemakers have recently introduced the carbon composite synthetic tree into some models of their jumping saddles, which are becoming popular in North America especially, which is their target sales market.
But please remember if you are buying an adjustable saddle… There is no ‘adjustable saddle tree’ that will correctly fit a broad-backed Cob Horse as well as a Narrow TB, as the amount of adjustment is very limited, and the panel does not adjust !!
We are happy to give your our opinion on any aspect of saddle tree technology, so please email us … or if you have any comments or bad experiences with the tree in your saddle we would be very pleased to hear from you.
All saddle advice we offer is independent and unbiased. Your positive or negative comments are valuable to us.