The saddle tree is where it all starts. It is the saddle’s basis, the framework upon which everything else is built. You will never have a high-quality saddle without a high-quality tree.
The saddle tree’s role is to evenly distribute the rider’s weight across the horse’s back, making the horse more effective and comfortable. The two parallel bars, the fork that binds the bars together in the front, the cantle that holds the bars together in the back, and the horn are the five main pieces of a tree. The gullet is the cutout or tunnel underneath the fork.
The gullet channel is the open space generated between the bars.
The saddle tree’s bars are the saddle’s real weight-bearing surface. They are the part of the horse that comes into contact with it. With a 150-pound rider up, the well-fitting bars of a western saddle will impart only 3/4 pound per square inch to the horse’s back. With the same rider up, an English saddle, which has a much smaller surface area, will apply around 1 3/4 pounds per square inch. This is why, despite their heavier weight, western saddles are more easier on the horse.
The entire length of the bars must be in even contact with the horse’s back to distribute weight evenly. To maintain strain off the spine, the canal between the bars must be wide enough. Furthermore, the gullet height and width must be adequate to relieve pressure on the withers and shoulders.
The design of the bars determines how well a saddle tree will fit a horse’s back. The bars have three curves that will determine fit:
- The tree’s bottom curve is called a rocker.
- Twist – Curve each side of the tree from front to back.
- The front and back borders of the bars have a flare.
Construction Of A Saddle Tree
Saddle trees have been named “trees” because they are traditionally made of wood. Ponderosa Pine, Beachwood, Ash, Cottonwood, and Douglas Fir are commonly used because of their flexibility. After the tree has been built, a wet covering is stretched over it and allowed to dry and shrink, reinforcing it even more. The customary covering is rawhide, with bull hide, the largest weight of rawhide, at the top of the line. Canvas, cheesecloth, and lower-quality skins are examples of lower-quality coverings. Some saddle makers are beginning to embrace new fiberglass coverings. After the covering has dried, the rawhide is sealed with a final coat of varnish. As a result, the tree is extremely sturdy while still maintaining some flexibility.
Saddle builders believe a bull hide covered wood tree to be the best saddle tree construction. It is also the most expensive tree-building project. Saddle trees can now be manufactured for around a quarter of the price of wood trees, thanks to new synthetic materials. As a result, synthetic trees are now used in the majority of produced saddles.
Synthetic trees are made of plastic or fiberglass in a mold process, and their quality varies greatly. Ralide is the best of the synthetics and is believed to be a suitable strong material.
There are also potential drawbacks to synthetic trees. They lack the flexibility of timber trees. Because they are constructed with molds, little variety is possible, resulting in cookie-cutter saddles. Furthermore, synthetic materials do not appear to be as capable of holding nails and screws as wood, making them less durable.
Synthetic materials have a role in saddle trees, no doubt. They are perfect for the budget-conscious casual rider. A bull hide covered wood tree, on the other hand, is the way to go if you want a quality saddle that will last a lifetime and can handle everything you throw at it.
Types of Saddle Trees
It may come as a shock to learn that there are no industry standards for saddle tree measurements and terminology. Trees are measured differently by different tree manufacturers, and even the identical trees are given distinct names. So you might assume you are comparing apples to apples, only to discover that saddle maker A’s definition of a Wade tree differs from saddle maker B’s. Trying to become a saddle tree expert is not worth it. You can not win this game. To help you through the process, seek the assistance of experienced horsemen and saddle makers.
We urge you, at the risk of alienating some people, to be weary of gimmicks like flexible trees. They may appear to be a nice idea in theory, but if they were the best option, only the greatest bespoke saddle designers would use them, and they would not be seen on most low-cost saddles. They are more of a reaction to the trend toward synthetic trees on manufactured saddles, which do not flex and fit as well as a wood tree. You will not need a gimmick to suit your horse if you have a high-quality saddle with a high-quality wood tree.
There are many different sorts of trees to choose from. It is crucial to understand that the name of a saddle tree refers to the fork style on that tree. The other components, such as bars, cantles, and horns, can differ; nevertheless, if the fork is the same, it will be given the same name. So when you hear names like Wade, Bowman, or Association, know that each of those names only refers to a specific type of fork on the tree.
There are certain generic categories for bar types depending on gullet width, however the widths and names of the groups are not always agreed upon. It can be really aggravating.
When it comes to saddle buying, you will even see names flipped within categories, causing a lot of confusion. I will offer the following categories and gullet widths from Richard L. Sherer’s “Horseman’s Handbook of Western Saddles” at the risk of more confusion and debate. Please keep in mind that neither the dimensions nor the names are standardized.
- Regular Quarter Horse bars – gullet width: 5 3/4 inch
- Semi-quarter horse bars – gullet width: 6 inch
- Full quarter horse bars – gullet width: 6 1/4-6 1/2 inch
- Extra wide quarter horse bars – gullet width: 6 3/4-7 inch
- Arabian bars – gullet width: 6 1/4 -6 3/4 inch (has a flatter pitch than quarter horse bars)
Over 80% of today’s horses, according to saddle manufactures, have conformation that will easily fit them in a regular semi-quarter horse or full-quarter horse tree. Fit will not be an issue for most consumers. The more difficult part will be selecting a saddle with a high-quality tree. You should now have enough knowledge to ask the appropriate questions. And, if all else fails, pricing will be an excellent indicator of quality.