Saddle Tree Terms- Understanding Western Saddle Trees
Most saddles of any style are built on a saddle tree, a wooden or fiberglass “skeleton,” over which leather and padding is installed. Essentially, a saddle tree consists of four parts: the pommel, the cantle, and two tree “bars”. The saddle tree bars are long, flat pieces of wood, fiberglass, metal, or a flexible composite material. These lie along each side of the horse’s spine and help to evenly distribute the rider’s weight along his topline. Tree bars have varying angles to suit different-shaped horses: a steep downward angle for a steep-sided or “A”-shaped horse; an average angle for a less steep but not barrel-shaped horse; and a wide angle for a wide, “O”-shaped barrel.
The rocker of the bars describes the amount of “dip” at the center of the tree bars, from front to back. Some saddle bars are nearly straight from front to back, while other are made to match the topline of horses with hollow (sway) backs. Many so-called “gaited horse saddles” fall into the latter category. If the horse isn’t already hollow-backed, he needs to hollow his back to avoid contact with the saddle’s rocker and over time, this will cause him to become hollow-backed.
The term “twist” of the saddle tree can be confusing as it refers to two different things related to the configuration of the tree bars. The twist of the seat refers to the how close the tree bars are built at the narrowest part below the rider’s seat. Those looking for a “narrow twist” are referring to a narrower seat. When the tree bars are positioned wider apart, the seat has a “broad” or “wide” twist.
The twist of the saddle bars describes the width of the tree bars between the rider’s legs as well as the angle of the tree bars on the bottom flat portion, from front to back. Toward the withers, this is quite a steep angle, as there is a sharp drop-off at each side, but the angle becomes flatter as it goes across the back, and is flattest toward the back edge of the bars. (See figures A and B below)
These photos illustrate how the twist relates to the way tree bars conform to the shape of the horse’s back. The front portion of the horse’s back, just behind the withers, drops off sharply, while the back is flatter toward the loins. The twist in the bottom, flat part of the tree bars allows them to accommodate this varying degree of incline where the back edge of the saddle bars sit. Tree bars are twisted from front to back in order to follow these contours. My hand in A shows the degree of incline at the front of this horse’s topline and in B shows the degree of incline where the back edge of the saddle bars sit. Saddle tree bars are twisted from front to back in order to follow these contours.
Trees (and saddles) come in innumerable configurations. A problem when choosing a saddle is the lack of common specifications regarding the angle of the twist of the tree bars. One manufacturer will have a tree with “semi-Quarter-Horse bars” that measure very closely with another company’s “full-Quarter-Horse bars”. A rider whose horse been successfully fit with one of these saddles may mistakenly assume that any other saddle with a similarly labeled tree will also be a good fit. That may not be the case, and it could be many months before the horse exhibits obvious signs of distress. If the rider assumes the saddle has been working well up to that point, she may not recognize the problem that actually underlies her horse’s issues.
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Learn about the tree in the Imus 4-Beat Saddle HERE