Tree Sizing: Get Past the Fluff!

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:

Tree-Sketch-676x1024

 

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!

Do you have any questions relating to your horse in particular? Ask me in the comments!

35 Comments

  1. myler disability on January 10, 2014 at 1:12 am

    What you said made a lot of sense. But, think about this, what if you added a little content? I mean, I dont want to tell you how to run your blog, but what if you added something to maybe get peoples attention? Just like a video or a picture or two to get people excited about what youve got to say. In my opinion, it would make your blog come to life a little bit.

    • Justin on January 10, 2014 at 11:38 am

      I appreciate the suggestion. Did the picture of the saddle tree not come up on your computer? Or would you prefer addition visuals on top of that?

      • Kris on November 13, 2014 at 4:44 pm

        The picture of the saddle tree does not come up on my computer – not sure why. It would be helpful to see someone doing this live, though.

        • tsf on November 26, 2014 at 5:07 pm

          I’m not sure why it disappeared, but I just added it back. Should be working now.

          Just in case, here is a link to the image:

      • Suprmodl on November 17, 2014 at 10:47 am

        I couldn’t see the photo/graphic either 🙁

        • tsf on November 26, 2014 at 5:08 pm

          Sorry about that. It magically disappeared on me! I added it back just now.

          And you can see it at this link as well:

      • Lori on November 22, 2014 at 6:20 pm

        Hey Justin – In Chrome your illustration isn’t coming up. Great article anyway!

        • tsf on November 26, 2014 at 5:09 pm

          Thanks! Glad you liked it!

          As for the picture, I am not sure what happened. But I just added it back to the article. Also, you can view it at this link just in case:

    • Bud Dehner on January 31, 2016 at 5:45 pm

      Why don’t you introduce some western saddle comments on saddles, pads, etc.

      • tsf on March 1, 2016 at 2:09 pm

        We will certainly get to that!

  2. Christy on February 9, 2014 at 5:37 pm

    I have a fairly narrow TB with high withers. I finally found a saddle (Bruno de Heusch) that sits on his back without bridging and doesn’t hit his withers..the issue is, it has a very forward flap and always seems to sit with some of the flap a little bit over his shoulders. I know a saddle should be sitting behind the shoulders, but this one wont –unless I were to try to girth it at the mid-point of his barrel which I don’t think he would appreciate! It doesn’t pinch his shoulders because the panels there are so wide and sloped, its almost like his shoulder slide underneath it freely. Is this bad?

    • Justin on February 10, 2014 at 2:11 pm

      Hi Christy,
      As long as the weight bearing structure of the saddle, meaning the tree, isn’t in contact with his shoulders you should be okay. Sometimes jump saddle flaps will go forward for the riders leg, which is normal. If you run your hand down the portion of the saddle that goes over his shoulders, you should be able to flex that part of the saddle/flap easily away from his body. This will let you know that the tree is not interfering with his shoulders. If the part over his shoulder is hard or leaving a lot of pressure, then we may have an issue.

      Hope this helps,
      Justin

      • jodi penn on February 12, 2014 at 12:55 pm

        It has always amazed me how many horses there are at top level competitions competing sore. So many professionals do not take into consideration the issue of poor saddle fit and the damage it does to the horse’s performance.

        • Justin on February 17, 2014 at 2:33 pm

          It is sad for sure. But I think the sport as a whole is getting better and more knowledgeable about the importance of saddle fit… just think 20 years ago the term saddle fit barely existed!

  3. Joy on June 15, 2014 at 6:08 pm

    Hey Justin

    thanks for the info, i don’t think i can ever have too much and saddle fit is a very dynamic topic that must be considered and solved repeatedly along the course of a horse’s gymnastic development

    i especially appreciated your comments on longitudinal balance, i have struggled with this problem and had great difficulty finding knowledgeable help, in fact my most frequent response (even from professional saddle fitters) was a deer in the headlights look – everyone’s saddle fit awareness journey seems to involve re-inventing the wheel somewhere along the way and longitudinal balance is a difficult pit to climb out of, all beams of light shining into the pit make the going easier!

    I’m glad I found y’all!

    • tsf on June 16, 2014 at 12:25 pm

      Thanks Joy it is so great to hear that you enjoyed the article! Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      Justin

  4. Kphillips on July 8, 2014 at 5:05 am

    My question is what brands have any of you found to be best fitting for a high wither sloping down to a wide shoulder? My ottb has great conformation aside this oh so frustrating trait. I’ve been trying saddles for almost two years to no avail. I realize he needs a half pad to fill in the slope at the tip of his scapula meeting the base of his mountain peak withers lol but I want to try to find the truest fit possible, and preferably something that could be flocked, I’ve been advised to stay away from the adjustable trees. Thank you in advanced!

    • tsf on July 8, 2014 at 1:54 pm

      Thanks for the question. The best way to look at it in your case is by tree point length and angle. As long as you find a saddle with a long tree point and an open head, you will be in good shape for wither clearance. The long points allow for wither clearance while making contact in a safe place on the back. The open head design will keep from causing acute pressure points where the tree point makes contact with the back. As for brand names, it’s hard to say because every brand has variation in their different models. I’d call around to brands to get their thoughts on which model has the longest tree points. Hope this helps!

    • InBetween on August 11, 2014 at 11:28 am

      Thanks for these tips — I’ve not seen them anywhere else, and I’m hoping they’ll be helpful in my increasingly frustrating search.

      I’m in the same boat with my horse. She’s exactly in-between sizes on everything, and I don’t feel I’m getting great advice from my fitters because they all rep various brands and are not always objective.

      Based on your advice, I will look for “long tree points and open head” designs. But in my experience, manufacturers don’t publish specs on tree points — you must rely on the non-standardized “tree width” measurement, which as we know is not especially reliable or consistent. Is there a way for consumers to get these specs that you know of?

      • tsf on August 11, 2014 at 11:58 am

        You bring up a good point, actually acquiring the right info isn’t always easy. Any fitter worth his/her weight in salt should have answers for all of these questions with the saddles they offer for sale. Or at the very least they should be willing to get the info from their bosses (if they don’t know or are unwilling to share, I wouldn’t want to work with them anyway).

        As for the situation where you are buying a saddle without a sales rep, you can get a rough idea by comparing one saddle to another. The most obvious would be comparing a 20+ year old saddle to a modern English-made dressage saddle. In most cases the the old one will have much shorter points. You can feel this by bending the panels of the saddle in the front. Somewhere near the upper/mid area of the thigh block you will notice it goes from rigid to soft. The end of the rigid area is the end of the tree point. Now this is not a precisely scientific way to compare, but it will give you an idea of the relative differences between each saddle you try.

        Justin

  5. Sheena on July 10, 2014 at 11:15 am

    To Vague not enough info..no pics…so can you say whether or not you should have so many inches between the withers and the gullet? Do you want the saddle sitting up on their back or flat on their back ect…many people won’t get the blog!

    • tsf on July 14, 2014 at 4:20 pm

      Hi Sheena,
      Thanks for the constructive criticism. Every horse, saddle and situation is very unique. If you have specific questions about your situation please email care@totalsaddlefit.com and we’ll be happy to help you individually.

  6. Beverly on September 7, 2014 at 7:25 am

    My horse is an Icelandic and while the saddle seems to fit in all the above mentioned points, it slips to the side while I ride. This is very annoying for me and the horse.

    • tsf on September 9, 2014 at 11:34 am

      Beverly,
      Icelandic horses can be tricky, as they don’t have as much to hold the saddle from shifting left to right. Often a wider gullet, with broad panels can help this. It will bring that lateral stability that he needs, as many popular saddles are designed more for a warmblood’s build. In addition to this, it is important to make sure the panels are soft enough to mold to his body (as opposed to dense bubbly panels that make minimal contact) and create a stable foundation.

      Hope this helps!

      Justin

  7. Denise on September 16, 2014 at 3:20 am

    I am at a loss. I have a 7 yr. old dutch warmblood mare who is still a saddle fitting nightmare. She has a broad short back. Withers are at a 90 degree angle. Her withers are low with little height above her scapulae. Her shoulder blades stick quite far out (like a football player with shoulder pads). Her ribs carry a lot of meat quite high up on her body. And, her shoulders are long and sit farther back than her girth groove. Her lower back lifts when she moves and she has long, powerful hind legs. This shoves the saddle even farther forward onto her shoulders. So, she uses her hind end and lower back and “hunches” her shoulders. She also slopes slightly down hill to her withers. It is impossible to get her withers/shoulders up and she is “stuck” there. It is a viscious cycle. She is very sensitive to pressure on her trapezius muscles, but I can’t find a saddle that will stay put and not interfere with her shoulder blades and stay off her traps. She is very athletic and talented, but can’t get out of her own way with a saddle. If I girth her up tight it is worse. The saddle that works best is an old MW Albion 5000 cross country saddle that has the tree points angled out and that sit on the top of the panel rather than integrated in the panel. Can you help? Any advice is much appreciated!

    • tsf on October 8, 2014 at 2:59 pm

      Hi Denise,
      Sorry to hear about your saddle fit challenge. From the sound of it, she seems prone to pull a saddle over her shoulders regardless of the fit. Now you certainly want a good fitting saddle, and likely a saddle designed for a pony build would be your best bet. It would sit more stable than a typical saddle for a TB or Warmblood, which is a big element of keeping a saddle in place.

      Now in terms of making do with what you have, I would strongly suggest one of our Shoulder Relief Girths. This will give her up to 2 inches of extra shoulder clearance right away, and for a much more affordable price than a new saddle.

      Thanks!
      Justin

  8. Denise on September 16, 2014 at 3:22 am

    I should edit my post to add that she is a dressage horse and I need a dressage saddle.

  9. sam on October 23, 2014 at 9:27 am

    Hi

    Very helpful article! One question I do have is…. I have a horse I show jump with, he is a wide tree fitting but he has very broad shoulders which makes a lot of saddles tip back, the ones that don’t however, the panels are on his shoulders, although the tree isn’t! As I do a lot of jumping at quite a substantial height I need a jumping saddle, is this a problem? I know ideally you don’t want anything in contact with the shoulders but it’s proving impossible 🙁

    • tsf on November 26, 2014 at 4:49 pm

      Hi Sam,
      It sounds like you may benefit from one or two changes to your saddle. Of course a Shoulder Relief Girth will hep it get off the shoulders, but you can do more with your saddle if that isn’t enough.

      First I would take a look at where your billets attach. If they are in the rear half of the saddle, you could have them reattached farther forward on the tree. This will help keep them from pulling your saddle forward.

      Second, if you are looking for a more substantial solution, you may want to look into a jump saddle that has “long tree points”, this will help keep the saddle balanced and away from the withers. Many times older or short point saddles let the saddle sink down behind the shoulder, and/or pinch around the withers.

      Let me know if this makes sense.

      Justin

  10. julie on November 12, 2014 at 4:34 pm

    One thing that wasn’t mentioned is the two types of trees . The V shape which is standard and the hoop tree which most Arabians need and other low withered round barreled horses need. Also might be a solution for warmblood mentioned above.

    • tsf on November 26, 2014 at 5:01 pm

      Great point Julie! A “V” shaped gullet plate (or hoop), wouldn’t do much good sitting 8 inches above an Arabians back!

      As you fine tune saddle fit, that shape certainly plays a big role. It can be the difference between a stable/planted saddle and a saddle that slides all over the place.

      Justin

  11. Kate Rakowski on November 21, 2014 at 2:20 pm

    I have a TB with really high withers so that if the saddle clears his withers there is no way to make the saddle sit level without a back riser pad. Any ideas?

    • tsf on November 26, 2014 at 5:18 pm

      Hi Kate,
      You’re Definitely not the only person with this issue! High wither thoroughbreds can be really tough to fit for a jump saddle, and many jump saddles out there have small gullet plates in the front which exacerbate the issue.

      In your particular case there’s not very much you can do to avoid having to use riser pads. You are much better off using riser pads to level out the saddle than to risk riding without them. The only other solution I can think of would be a new saddle or new panels for your saddle. If you got new panels with a much deeper rear gusset, it would take the place of the risers and make it a better fit. This is something you probably want to ask the manufacturer of your saddle about, as they’d be one of the few people that could do it.

      I wish I had a more “simplistic” answer for you… but this is horseback riding!

      Justin

  12. Brita Rizzi on December 10, 2014 at 5:23 am

    Great article and well explained – I would just like to add the following:

    The angles of the rails of the tree (the part which goes horizontally from the head plate to the cantle and connects the front to the back) is of utmost importance too. TB’s need more angled rails to lift the saddle off the withers than flat backed horses which need a more open angle. I hear a lot of riders who want this narrow twist (which is usually created by the angle of the rails – the steeper the angles the narrower the twist). A really broad backed horse does not only get pinched by a too narrow head plate in front but can get equally pinched further back by a too steep angle of the rails.

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