by Cynthia Cooper
Flexible saddle trees are becoming increasingly popular, reflecting the growing awareness and concern of today’s riders for their horses’ well-being.
Why a flexible tree ?
As with many consumer products in general, technology has evolved products throughout the years. We watch flat screen color tv’s and no longer 10″ black and white tv’s – we drive technically advanced cars, the same goes for the saddle tree – it has evolved into a new, advanced generation of saddle tree that is quite different from conventional trees being used for centuries made out of wood and covered with hide or fibreglass.
Riders, trainers, and constructors of equipment developed the flexible tree saddle after becoming dissatisfied with traditional saddles. They kept encountering poor performance saddles that caused sore muscles, white hairs, muscle wastage or a “deadened” communication between horse and rider.
Building a saddle with a flexible tree that can adjust to the conformation of the horse significantly widens the range of horses that the saddle will fit. Perhaps an even greater benefit to a flexible tree is the fact that the tree will move with the horse instead of against it. When a horse turns or bends his body the tree will “get out of the way” of the horse’s shoulders and hips. Close contact, lightweight and relief from pressure points to the horse’s back are primary benefits to the flex tree, achieved by using materials that result in a thinner, lighter tree bar.
Do I need a saddle with a flexible tree ?
Of course if you use a western saddle for heavy duty ranch work or steer roping a felxible tree is not for you, but most other horse sports such as reining, dressage, jumping and even endurance are based on ‘feel’ and being felt by your horse.
Bridging and pressure points are virtually eliminated by the saddle’s ability to conform to the horse’s back as compared to a ‘rigid’ piece of wood placed on a horse’s back.
Borderline fitting problems can be solved by the ability of the bars of the tree to conform and ‘give’ just enough to avoid pinching and bridging.
One of the commonly used saddle trees for flexible western style saddles is the Equi-flex. Equi-Flex saddle trees are made up of separate components. They retain a traditional rigid fork and cantle in order to avoid wither pinching and spine irritation caused by tree spread or flattening. The traditional rigid bars, however, are replaced by bars molded of a specially developed elastomer, a material similar to a rubber-like work boot sole.
Equi-Flex Flexible bars are molded to shape, not cut from a flat sheet.
The flexibility ‘enhances’ an already proper fit, it doesn’t attempt to create it.
Kuda Saddles are one brand that is made in the USA with the Equi-Flex tree, and are now available in Australia.
Another USA made flexible tree has been designed by Boz Saddlery who have a range of western style saddles and bareback pads. They are also available in Europe and the web site has a long list of design features apparently not available in any other saddle.
In Australia the Mackinder Flex Ride saddle is used by many endurance riders and is built on a flexible foam tree, allowing both medial and lateral flexing.
Other internationally made flexible tree saddles available in Australia are stocked by Horse-Connection who currently sell the Hidlago range and are working on their own ‘leather tree’ Australian style stock saddle.
the Wow saddle features a laterally flexing tree by the use of a “Y” bar made from rigid Carbon Fibre that is as strong as steel embedded in the body of the tree so the head of the tree swings from side to side as the alternate shoulders rotate back under the tree.
There are also several brands of saddles that have flexible bars rather than flexible trees that aim to give a better fit, especially for wider horses. Orthoflex, Amera-Flex and Reactor Panel saddles are some examples made in the USA who all have a variety of designs to accommodate most equestrian sports. If you search on these names you will spend hours reading and drooling over saddle designs, wondering if you can afford them and how to get them shipped to you when you live in another country!
From many hours of reading rider testimonials on these web sites it seems their horses definately prefer a flexible tree that accommodates movement but also supports the rider, girthing and stirrup systems. Most flexible treed saddles are not limited to lightweight riders (unlike many treeless saddles) so it seems this is where the future of saddle making is heading – comfort for the horse and support for the rider.
Now if I can just find a way to manufacture my flexible tree saddle in synthetics, this will give riders even more choice.