Reason #4 to order a hand made tree - better fit for the horse...

Posted by RodandDenise on June 20, 2012

We are no longer building saddle trees, but we have two videos about how Western saddles fit horses available on our website.

due to larger surface area, more combinations of the Factors that Affect Tree Fit being available, the rider being positioned more central on the bar and the tree maker having the ability to do what you need.

When it comes to fitting trees to horses, the amount that is known is miniscule compared to the amount there is yet to learn, but there are a few basic principles that we do know.  One is that the greater the surface area of the bars, the greater the surface area over which the pressure from the saddle and rider is distributed, resulting in a lower pressure under any one area.  This is one of the areas a hand made tree has an advantage.  Another principle of saddle fit is that all horses are not built the same, and there a number of factors that affect fit which need to be mixed and matched to fit the different body types.  The true custom saddle tree maker has an advantage here too.

Bar surface area


Bar width is very important when it comes to total surface area on the horse.  The yellow poplar we use is not cut to a standard width.  When we go to choose wood, we pick boards that are wider than what we need, or else we laminate extra pieces on the edge of narrower boards to make them wide enough.  This costs more in time and money than buying wood in a standard 6" width, but we believe the benefit to the horse is worth it.  Here's a comparison of different bar widths.

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Here's our regular bars.  Our Wade bars are 1/4" wider front and back than our regulars.

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Here is a higher cost wood and rawhide production tree.

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And here is the most common molded synthetic tree.

Measuring bars on the trees hanging on our wall downstairs, which we collect as we duplicate them for various reasons, the widest I could find on a production tree was 5 3/4".  Some were as narrow as 5".  That means everything else in the tree has to be that much closer to a perfect match in shape to get enough surface area on the horse to keep the PSI down.  The wider bars on hand made trees are definitely an advantage.

Ability to mix and match other variables

Most people understand that there are no standards in the saddle tree industry, and that terms like "semi-quarter horse bars" have no specific meaning, especially between makers.  But there is a generalization that can be made, based on the history of those terms (as best I understand it).  Originally, there was a fit called "regular bars".  The bars were fairly close together and the angle was fairly steep.  Then with the advent of the larger quarter horses, there was a need to fit wider, flatter (less angled) backed horses.  So the industry made "quarter horse bars", which was a fit where the bars were spread farther apart and placed at a flatter angle.  Then there were horses between those two, so they came up with a "semi-quarter horse bars" fit, with a bar spread and angle between "regular" and "quarter horse".  As horses got bigger and wider, there was a need for a fit with even more spread between the bars and a flatter angle yet.  This was called "full quarter horse bars".

So what happens if you have a smaller horse, but with a flatter (less angled) back?  If you go with the "standard" type fits, when the bar width is correct, the angle is too steep and only the bottom of the bar is on the horse.  If the angle is correct, the bar spread is too wide and only the top of the bars are on the horse while the bottom sticks out the side.  But bar spread and bar angle are independent measurements.  They don't have to change together.  We find that a lot of horses from smaller breeds (Arabs, Spanish mustangs, Icelandics, etc.) have flatter (less angled) backs, so we make trees that have a 3 3/4" or 4" width but with flatter bar angles.  On the other side, we have more makers ordering wider hand hole widths for working cowboys in western Canada and the northwest US, but still with the bars at 90 degrees.  They are using bigger, wider horses but their backs are still the same "angle".  You can't buy those combinations "off the rack", though there is a good percentage of horses that they fit.

So, do we built for "just that one horse"?  No, we always build for a body type of horse.  But there are a lot more body types out there than just the center of the bell curve, and the run of the mill saddle doesn't fit those body types very well.  It isn't a problem for hand made makers to build for the less common body types.  We just set up our lines and angles differently as we mark out the forks and cantles and then build the tree the same way we build all the others - one at a time.

Centralizing the rider on the bar

Another thing that is an advantage is where the rider sits relative to bar length.  As we build our trees, there is a set length ahead of the fork cut and a set length behind the cantle cut.  The distance in between is what changes for room for the rider - and we change that at 1/8" intervals. (Most hand made tree makers do this as well.) The result is that there is always a consistent amount of bar behind the rider to help distribute their weight more evenly across the horse.  The other method most commonly used - making bars a specific length and moving the cantle forward and back on the bar to get the right seat length - means that in a longer seat the rider is positioned closer to the back of the bars.  The result is more pressure toward or on the back bar tips which can make the bar tips dig into the horse and cause pain and damage.

Getting what you need the first time

When ordering a true custom, hand made tree, the tree maker is making what you need rather than trying to figure out which of the configurations he has on hand will most likely work for your needs.  One customer came to us recently after being told "That is what is available.  Which one do you think you can make work the best?"  And their horse wasn't an uncommon body type!  While our most common configurations work for the majority of horses, we can help our customer (if they want us to) figure out what is best for their customers.  And if they are fitting an odd-to-them body type (as happened when one of our good customers who normally builds for in-working-shape western ranch horses was confronted with a very wide, round backed barrel racing horse) we can work through what they might need to order differently for that customer.

So, am I saying that ALL hand made trees will fit ALL horses better than ALL production trees?  No, not at all.   But what I am saying, though, is that hand made trees have larger bars and therefore more surface area on the horse, which results in lowered PSI.  And that because hand made trees are made individually, combinations of variables can easily be made that are not available from trees made in molds or from large runs of duplicated trees.  The more central position of the rider on the bars also makes a big difference in the fit for the horse.  And the better fit that results from all these things is another reason to buy a true, hand made saddle tree.

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