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The Saddle Search – Part 2

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Western Saddles R&D
It's interesting how little most of us notice the differences in something until we really start looking. For our example, take our topic: saddles. As I started looking deeper into the different western saddles, I was amazed by the variability.

Something for EVERYBODY (Standards? We don't need no stinkin standards.)
I found light synthetics weighing in around 20 lbs. to heavy, multi-layer, leather saddles built traditionally and weighing almost up to 60 lbs. I found thin metal horns about an inch in diameter to large horns of almost 3 inches in diameter. Many saddles were designated for a specific activity, such as training, shooting, cutting, roping, youth roping (toddler roping?) As I started sitting on many saddles, they ranged from the painful to the truly comfortable and most everything between. Tie points varied from the sparse to those with hardware all over the saddle skirt, back of the cantle, front of the pommel, even the rider side of the pommel for tying a coat.

Now, I've ridden many horses and they came with various saddles, but the perspective changes when you take a hard look at them and really try to understand the differences. AND ALL THE CLAIMS, from universal "fit" and comfort ascribed to flex saddles versus more traditional manufacturers claiming flex saddles fall apart quickly while "their" saddles are built to last a lifetime (it's not clear if this is your lifetime, the lifetime of the horse, or merely the lifetime of the saddle, which for all I know, might be for only a few months). It was at this point that I decided I needed to learn more, a lot more, and I started investigating saddle trees, how they're built, and of what materials.

Saddle Trees
I found that even the tree material varied widely. Traditionally, they were made of wood. What wood? Well, various woods, of course! (Various woods???) But wait, there's more. New technology also offers aluminum trees, wood and aluminum trees, wood and steel trees, fiberglass trees, graphite fiber trees, and still more (the mind boggles).

So I backed up another step and just started studying tree designs. Anyone that rides likely knows a tree is the frame of a saddle and it needs to fit the horse — what does that mean? Well, what it means is very important.

It means the tree is the primary saddle structure, the purpose of which is to distribute your weight as the rider, smoothly and evenly over the horse's back with NO pressure points. The tree's purpose is ONLY to properly fit the horse — it has nothing to do with rider comfort (though a substantial case could be made that a raging, rearing horse with a sore back attempting to dump his rider will likely make that rider less comfortable).

While the tree's purpose is easy to understand, it's not so easy to fulfill that purpose properly because the shape, roundness, length, and other parameters of the backs of horses vary all over the place (just like the butts of riders). And the tree has to have some "give" to accommodate normal changes in weight of the horse. Plus, if you change horses, can you use that expensive saddle on your new horse(s)? Well, it depends. Some saddle retailers and manufacturers have exchange programs while others will actually change the tree or modify it to fit almost any horse. Considering I want to get something I really like, that really fits my horse and me, and will likely not be cheap, taking the time to learn all this was beginning to feel like a great idea and provided comfort I'll make a good selection with which I'll be happy to own and use for years to come.

After learning about tree construction, I was much better able to ask smarter questions. For example, I learned that fiberglass trees are very strong and hold up well under frequent, hard, long-day workloads (think cattle drives), BUT, once formed, they really can't be adjusted for a different horse or even the same horse if he's young and growing or undergoes serious changes in weight.

Similarly, I learned that aluminum trees can be adjusted, but only by those having the ability to heat the tree for reforming. Some will hammer the tree into another shape, but that purportedly will eventually crystallize the metal's structure, therefore weakening it — not good for horse or rider. The same is true for spring steel trees used in some pony saddles. Essentially, all metal trees are just more work to reform. I didn't find any all steel trees for horses, possibly because they weigh too much (or I just wasn't thorough enough).

Wood trees can be sanded or planed for small changes, but not large ones. Conversely, completely replacing a wood tree with a new one can accommodate a different horse with different dimensions. It appears that combination wood/steel or wood/aluminum trees offer lots of flexibility and changing horses can be accommodated by drilling alternate holes for adjusting the tree or replacing only select portions of wood or the metal bars (whether steel or aluminum) to address a different horse size. So much for trees, but you get the idea.

de gustibus non est disputandum — loosely, "there's no disputing taste" — or looked at another way: "there's a butt for every saddle"
Mind you, not everyone agrees when it comes to saddle trees and you'll find many conflicting opinions (as with all things horses). Another very popular form of late is the "tree-less" saddle which adherents claim is the most comfortable in that it conforms to the shape of the horse. Dissenters claim that, without a more rigid form, the treeless saddle soon just spreads out and no longer disperses the rider's weight evenly, putting more pressure on the spine.

I found no way of corroborating all these claims as I read manufacturer's materials and investigated online. So I finally decided that some form of saddle tree was going to be in my saddle because they have withstood the test of time. We all know horses that have been successfully ridden most of their lives with no back pain from a properly fitting saddle. Until I see positive results of something better, I feel I should go with something that works and has a track record to prove it.

incisum acies — "The Cutting Edge"
As my investigation continued, I came to the conclusion that the saddle horn, in any form, just had to go, at least on my saddle. That pelvic scalpel sends a chill down my spine even on small jumps. I've never gotten hurt from one, but being originally trained as an engineer (probably obvious as I lay out all this detail) I have studied and believe in statistics and probability, and I know that darn horn will get me sooner or later. It just sits there, patiently waiting, biding its time — I know it can outlast me and eventually be my undoing.

A Hornless Western Equivalent Saddle
Fortunately, Western saddle makers have received many requests over the years to produce saddles without horns and they're called "endurance saddles". Whether or not most of the requests for such a saddle truly came from endurance riders is anybody's guess. I've known of the existence of endurance saddles and have occasionally seen them, have even tried several, but I hadn't really investigated them…till now…

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Besides being an avid trail rider, Jerry Tardif is a technology consultant and a horse and nature photographer in SE Connecticut — see his work at: www.jerrytardif.com. He is also co-founder and President of QueryHorse.

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