The most important part of the English saddle is the one you can’t see.
The saddle tree is the starting point of an English saddle’s construction, and it should be the first thing to consider in your selection process. This is true whether you’ve ridden a horse three times or three thousand times.
Much like the chassis of an automobile, the tree of a saddle serves as the framework for all other parts and must safely and comfortably support both them and the rider.
The tree’s design determines some of the saddle’s most basic characteristics, including its length and width, its appearance, and, most importantly, its fit—for you and your horse. By distributing weight across a horse’s back, the saddle tree can make every riding excursion more comfortable as well as more efficient, but only if it’s an appropriate tree for both man and beast.
The Spring Saddle Tree
English saddles most often feature a spring (aka flexible) tree, which has two strips of lightweight metal acting as springs underneath the seat section. Spring trees offer more ease and flexibility than rigid trees, with extra “give-and-take”—although in this case, “take-and-give” is more accurate.
That’s because the springs take the force felt through the rider’s seat bones and give it to the horse instead. With more of the pressure of weight and movement transmitted to the animal, the rider is more comfortable. Novices may need to spend some time in the saddle to adjust to the bit of bounce created by the springs.
Get Acquainted with the Saddle Tree Parts
You may never see the individual parts of your saddle tree, but you will definitely feel their influence every time you climb onto your horse. To optimize riding comfort, it’s a good idea to learn about the parts and their functions, so you will know what to look for as you shop for a saddle.
First, let’s review the terminology used to describe specific locations on the saddle, as these terms will also apply to the tree:
- Head: This is the front end of the saddle tree formed by the inverted-U-shaped part of the tree.
- Points: These are the ends of the inverted-U-shaped arch that point downward onto the tree. Points are the lowest parts of the saddle to rest on the horse.
- Pommel: This is the highest point of the head of the saddle. Unlike a western saddle, an English saddle has no horn or other element projecting from the pommel, so its profile is trimmer.
- Cantle: This is the part of the saddle that curves upward from behind the seat. Because an English saddle has no horn projecting from the head at the front, the cantle is usually its highest point.
- Twist or Waist: Either of these terms refers to the narrowest part of the saddle seat’s curve.
Next, let’s focus on what makes up an English saddle tree:
- Base: A saddle tree starts its life as a bare-bone frame upon which everything else is built. This structural base lends its shape and size to the finished saddle, forming the seat with its curved back (cantle) and the front (head) with its inverted U at the opposite side.Once solely and painstakingly hand-carved from solid wood, trees are now just as likely to be the result of mass production using wood laminates as well as synthetic materials such as polyurethane or fiberglass (which offer the advantages of being lightweight and resisting warp).There is also a variety of materials used for padding and covering saddles, with some dressed in leather and others sporting synthetics, but first the saddle maker adds the following elements to the bare tree:
- Reinforcing Strip: The saddle maker uses a strip of steel or strong metal to reinforce the underside of the inverted-U piece at the head of the saddle tree.
- Springs: Two lightweight steel strips run along the underside of the tree from the front to the back through the widest part of the seat. These are the “springs” of the spring tree, as their flexibility gives them an elasticity that allows pressure to be transferred from the rider to the horse.
- Stirrup Bars: The saddle maker rivets each stirrup bar through the tree to the reinforcing metal already fastened underneath the inverted-U shape at the head. These bars are what hold the stirrup leathers in place, and most include a safety feature that releases the stirrups when excessive pressure is applied, to keep a rider from being dragged after a fall.
Settling for a saddle with a low-quality, ill-fitting, or broken-down tree is never a good idea, no matter how much of a bargain it seems to be. There’s no such thing as “fixing” a saddle tree, so this is something you need to get right the first time if you’re selecting a saddle.
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