Modern saddles provide new options for tree type, with the goal of sparing a horse pain from localized saddle pressure. But new Swiss research suggests that, at least when a horse trots, tree type makes little difference in pressure distribution along the horse's back.
All the saddles in this study (specifically, race training saddles), whether equipped with a traditional wooden tree, a flexible synthetic tree, or no tree at all, registered "surprisingly high pressure levels" in the hind third of the saddle at the trot, according to Selma Latif, DVM, Dipl. IVCA, researcher in the equine performance center at the University of Zurich, lecturer at the animal hospital of the University of Bern, and independent equine chiropractor practicing in Bern. The elevated pressure is due primarily to the rider’s position during this gait, she added.
"The high peak pressures observed at the trot in all saddles may limit the activity of the horse’s back, which is of particular importance since the trot is also an integral part of the daily work of a racehorse,” Latif said during the presentation of her results at the Swiss Equine Research Day, held April 30 in Avenches.
Using the Pliance-X System, a pressure-sensitive mat consisting with 256 sensors, Latif and her colleagues originally set out to prove that normal wooden trees cause greater pressure under the rear part of the saddle at the trot, canter, and gallop, compared to flexible trees or no trees. However, by measuring saddle pressure on racehorses' backs with various racing saddles during these gaits, they disproved their own hypothesis.
"The flexible tree did represent the best pressure distribution, but it still caused remarkably high pressure in the rear part of the saddle at trot," Latif said.
Even so, the flexible tree does appear to be a better solution (because the distribution is the best with the flexible tree) when a horse gallops because of the improved load distribution lengthwise, she added.
The treeless saddle showed high-level pressure points, which were probably painful for the horse, according to Latif. "This saddle showed absolutely no distribution of pressure," she said. In all the saddles at a gallop, pressure in the withers reached levels already found to be associated with back pain in previous studies.
Although some riders might consider a treeless saddle more natural, Latif said this doesn't mean the saddle is more comfortable for the horse--at least in the case of racing saddles. "In a completely natural state, we wouldn't be riding horses," she said. "But since we do ride them, we have to keep working to find the right solution, including the right saddle tree that will lead to the best welfare for the horse."
The group's research, which also has been investigating saddles in disciplines other than racing, is ongoing, Latif said.
The three racing saddles used in the study were (left to right): a saddle with a normal tree, a saddle with a flexible tree, and a treeless saddle.
Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.