Last week we started the discussion of synthetic vs natural materials by addressing the issue of saddle pads and cinches. Today we will address the pros and cons of synthetic saddles.
Saddle Trees 101
A saddle tree consists of six essential parts:
- gullet channel
The bars form the base of the tree. They run parallel with the horse’s spine with one on either side. They are the part of the saddle that is actually weight-bearing. The fork hold the bars together in the front, forming the gullet, which is the cutout underneath the fork, and the pommel which supports the horn of the saddle. The gullet, of course, is the part that goes over the horse’s withers and is where we have to be careful of pinching or rubbing on the withers. The open space between the bars along the spin is the gullet channel which allows for air flow and protects the spine so that the saddle isn’t putting pressure and damaging the vertebrae. The cantle holds the bars together in the back and forms the back of the seat.
Fitting a Saddle Tree
The fit of a saddle tree is determined by the shape of the bars. The bars are the weight-bearing part of the saddle. Well fitting bars on a western saddle will apply approximately 3/4 lbs of pressure per square inch with a 150 lb rider. In order to ensure even distribution of weight, the bars must be in even contact with horse’s back and the gullet channel must be wide enough to keep pressure off the spine. How well a tree fits the back of a horse is determined by the shape of the tree. There are three possible curves to the bars:
A tree with twist is curved from front to back on each side of the tree. A rocker tree is curved on the bottom of the bars. A flared tree is curved at the front and back edges of the bars.
Wood trees are still commonly used in high quality leather saddles. They are generally constructed using softer woods such as beachwood, ash, and cottonwood. These wood allow a little more flexibility in the tree so it isn’t so rigid against the horse’s back. High quality saddle tree will then be covered in rawhide or the heavier bullhide and varnished to seal the rawhide.
A wood tree cannot be made in a mold like a fiberglass tree. Wood trees must be made individually with much more attention to detail. This ensures better fit and support to your horse’s back than mass produced fiber glass trees or treeless saddles.
Of course, all the attention to detail will show up on the price tag. Leathers saddles with quality wood trees will run up to 25% more expensive than synthetic saddles. A saddle with a wood tree will also be heavier.
A better fitting tree distributes the weight more evenly and makes the saddle easier to carry despite the weight. Even bars also make a more balanced seat. Padded seats are all the rage now in many disciplines, but they change shape over time as they become packed down. This changes the balance of the seat and negatively impacts performance in high speed, high precision events. Hardseats are the way to go. A quality hardseat will be just as comfortable as a new padded seat, but it will maintain the same level of comfort for the life of the saddle. Leather fenders do require some breaking in, but using heavier metal stirrups helps give you more leverage so they break in much faster. The pain of breaking in new leather fenders is worth it in the long run as they provide more stability to your leg. A quality leather fender will not be bulky under you leg on provide you with any less feel than a synthetic one as some people are prone to assuming.
Fiberglass trees are the most common type of synthetic trees. They can be found in cheap leather saddles as well as fully synthetic saddles. Fiberglass trees are mass produced in molds. As the molds wear over time, imperfections start to appear causing variances in the quality from on tree to another. Many fiberglass trees have little bumps and ridges that attest to this process. Even the tiniest bumps unbalance the bars and dig into your horse’s back.
Some people prefer synthetic saddles because they do not require breaking in like leather saddles. However, the synthetic fenders are not going to give your leg the stability it needs, especially for events involving speed, fast turns, or quick stops. The seats are usually padded due to the nature of the construction. Many people prefer padded seats no matter what kind of saddle it is, but padded seats change over time. They become packed down and change shape, throwing off the balance and stability of your seat. Hardseats can be found in synthetic saddles, but the nature of the mass produced tree makes them uneven and uncomfortable. Those bumps and ridges from the poorly maintained manufacturing molds are magnified when you have the misfortune of sitting on them.
Photo by EliTucker