By Justin Baghai
Tree width is the number one metric riders use when trying to determine if a saddle will fit their horse. You’ve probably heard (or said yourself) something to the effect of “My boy has big shoulders, so he needs a wide” or “my skinny little Thoroughbred needs a narrow”. While these statements in many cases are true, they are also incomplete. There are two more super important factors in fitting trees:
1. How do the tree points contact the horse’s body?
2. How does this tree size effect the balance of the saddle longitudinally (front-to-back)?
For the first issue, let’s make sure we are on the same page of what a “tree point” actually means. The red line in the image below shows the tree point, which starts at the top of the tree head (pommel) and goes to the end of the point:
Saddles are made with all kinds of varying tree point lengths. This is because a high wither horse will need a different tree than a mutton-withered pony. Long tree points will allow more flexibility in fitting high wither horses, while short points are often good for low wither horses because they keep the saddle from perching off the back. Since most riders don’t know how long or short their saddle’s points are, all we need to be concerned with is how the points make contact with a horse’s back. It is vitally important that the inside “faces” of the tree points touch your horse’s back, as opposed to the tips of the points poking into the back. This is ultimately a determinant of how well the rider weight is spread out behind the horse’s shoulders.
The simplest way to check the contact is to girth your saddle TIGHT, then run your hand down the front of your saddle under the panels and see if there are any acute points of pressure. All saddles will have some pressure there, as a saddle’s structure needs to be carried somewhere, but the area should be bigger than the point of your finger. Try this with your saddle and as many friends’ saddles as possible to really get a frame of reference by comparing them.
One mistake a lot of people make is to feel under the tree when they are on their horse. This will almost always show a “problem area” because as a rider leans forward to feel under the saddle, her weight is going to be tilted to the front of the saddle. If you want to feel the saddle with a person in it, ask a friend to sit balanced in the seat on your horse so you can get an accurate feel!
Now on to point number two. The longitudinal balance of the saddle often gets overlooked as riders tend to focus more on the front of the tree and the width associated with it (N, M, MW, W, XW). Not only does the tree width need to be right to fit behind the shoulders, but it also has to keep the saddle balanced. I can’t tell you how many times this part of the equation get’s omitted!
If the saddle balance is pitched forward (bench seat) or backward (chair seat), it doesn’t matter how the width of the tree fits because a rider’s weight is going to be forced into a small area of the horse’s back at the low point of the saddle.
Out of love for their horse, many riders opt for overly wide tree sizes with the hope of protecting their horse or giving him a lot of space. While it is certainly better to err a little on the wide side (rather than too narrow), the mark is often over shot. Then the saddle ends up (somewhat ironically) doing the opposite of what the rider wants by being too low in the front and distributing too much weight right behind the shoulders! So be sure you check on whether the saddle sits balanced with a rider in it…meaning are the shoulders, hips and ankles lined up along the vertical? A friend with a camera can help you be the judge. Good luck out there!