TREE POINT LENGTH: 2nd in Series of Tree Point Characteristics (The Dr. Ruth Edition)
In the first post of the series, we listed the 5 characteristics of Tree Points (Width, Length, Angle, Flair, and Shape/Material), and discussed what Tree Width is and why it is super important to have the correct width for your horse.
This post is going to cover what Tree Point Length is, how it affects the Tree Width, and how long Tree Points should be.
Tree Point Length is pretty self explanatory - it is simply “the length of the metal bar (the Tree Point) that extends out from the pommel”. Simple, right?
Now is the time to cover your children's eyes, as I've been told that the next drawing belongs in a Dr. Ruth manual.
Tree Points come in all different lengths depending on which brand of saddle you buy, and just to make saddle shopping really fun - cue the eye roll and sarcasm- for consumers, none of these lengths can be found ANYWHERE online. Believe me, I’ve looked. But why would you need to know how long your Tree Points are anyway***?
***These posts are NOT designed to prevent you from having a professional Saddle Fitter look at your saddle. Even though I’ve been a Fitter for over 16 years, I make sure a colleague I trust comes out to look at my saddle regularly. The goal of these posts is to get you interested in saddle fitting, get you educated on the complexities of a good fit, and understand why it takes more than a 4 day class to become a competent Fitter. There is SO MUCH MORE than just making the saddle wider and adding more pads. I’m very happy I’m running into so many people who want to learn the hows and whys of saddlery. But as I’ve said before, get you a Fitter who looks at saddles like Meghan looks at Harry, or Kim looks at Kanye, or Kanye looks at, well, himself. You catch my drift.
Let’s get to it then:
We’re going to discuss 2 important aspects of Tree Point Length:
1. How it affects Tree Width and the fit of the saddle.
2. Why it is important to fitting your horse anatomically.
How does Tree Point Length affect Tree Width?
This is a HUGE reason tree sizes aren’t standardized. Just look at the below drawings. If you don’t have the same Tree Point Lengths, you cannot have standardized Tree Point Widths (AKA tree sizes). This is one reason why the HDR “medium” doesn’t match the Stubben "medium", the Prestige "medium", or any of the other brands.
Please note as you study the diagrams: These drawings aren't to scale (obviously) and I'm not using any "real world" actual tree measurements. I'm simply trying to show you the difference Tree Point Length makes on Tree Width (tree size) as simply as possible.
You can clearly see that the shorter Tree Points will meet the horse's side at a different angle than the longer Tree Points of the same width. Thus, the fit of the saddle is proven to be affected by the length of the Tree Points.However, the width of the saddle is just one thing the length of the Tree Points affect! Read on to learn WHY Tree Points should be a certain length for your horse.
Why is it important the Tree Point Length fits your horse?
Function #1: The Tree Points need to be long enough to reach the musculature of the ribcage, so no weight is placed on the withers or Trapezius. You learned from previous posts that the horse bears the weight of the rider and saddle on the ribcage and the musculature that attaches to it, more specifically the Latissimus Dorsi and the Longissimus Dorsi. The length of the Tree Point should be approximately the height of the horse’s spinous processes (wither bones) over which the Tree Point sits. The goal is to get the supporting structure of the saddle (the Tree Point), which is cushioned by the panel and the flocking inside the panel, to sit on the muscles that attach to the ribcage***.
***I know what you’re thinking: But won’t the bottom of the tree point then dig into the ribs? Not if you have the correct LENGTH. We don’t want them so long that they poke into the ribcage, but they do need to make it to the weight-bearing muscles, and they are cushioned by the panel, which gives us some leeway. However, I'll explain 2 actual cases I've had where the Tree Points were either too long or too short in just a minute.
Function #2:The Tree Points act as the "legs" of the saddle. They are designed to keep the saddle stable, centered, and immobile. The girth keeps the saddle on the horse's barrel, but the Tree Points keep the saddle in the right place.
Which horses have it easiest in the saddle fitting world? If you think about the horse as a person, he’d have a “Dad Bod” - not too skinny, not too fat, with some withers (not too high or too low/mutton), and just enough pudge to make a whole lot of off-the-rack "regular tree” saddles fit pretty okay without trying too hard. These are the ones you could ride bareback without rupturing anything, and the ones Saddle Fitters look at and almost cry with relief when they walk into your barn. (So if you see us grab a Kleenex, just give us a second. We’re probably thanking the Saddle Gods for our good luck. Or we could be hiding the fact that we're downing another Zoloft with some 3 day old coffee we just found in the backseat. Truly, you never know with Saddle Fitters. We’re a squirrelly bunch.)
But you’re not reading this post because you have a horse like that. You’ve made it this far because you’re likely having issues with one of the horses I’m about to describe: The extremes - like the high withered, A-frame TBs (very common) and the moderately-withered but extremely wide barreled horses (more rare in my neck of the woods) - are the ones who are impacted most by incorrect Tree Point Length.
Let’s discuss why:
EXAMPLE #1: THE HIGH-WITHERED GUY. Your not-so-average OTTB has less available surface area to place a saddle - due to his narrow A-frame, a large Trapezius, and high withers - than your average "Dad Bod" horse. Making a comparison: the OTTB is to an "average horse" like a supermodel is to us "average Joes"; we all have the same anatomy, there's just less of it with a supermodel and an OTTB. This means that we need to be EXTRA careful to avoid the tall spinous processes (AKA the withers) and Trapezius. In order to do this, we need the Tree Points to be long enough to reach the musculature of the ribcage.
So what happens if the Tree Points are too short for this OTTB? I’m actually dealing with this issue right now: I have a client with a high-withered, super narrow horse who rides him in a short tree point saddle. The tree width is correct for the horse - meaning the Tree Points lie evenly along his side, but they are about 2 inches too short, and thus do not even come close to reaching his ribcage. They just kind of hang out over each side of the Trapezius, which isn’t a supporting structure. This is akin to building a house on a soft foundation. The saddle - despite being the correct width - falls down on his withers, slides back during work, and shifts side-to-side. Despite adding a corrective pad AND a breastplate, the saddle still rocks and slides backward badly***. How do I know it’s the Tree Point Length causing this? I put another saddle that had the same tree width but longer tree points on this horse and the issues stopped.
***A corrective pad with shims is one of those "last resort" things I go for, mainly because padding and shims will still allow the saddle to move around on the horse's back. The saddle is stabilized by the Tree Points; correctly fitting ones keep the saddle (and you) centered over the horse's back. The more shims/padding/stuffing you add under those Tree Points, the further away they get from the horse, and the more likely you are to destabilize the saddle. In some cases, this just means that the side of the pommel will hit the horse's withers and pinch, and/or the rider will ride with more weight on one side of the horse. In more extreme cases, I've seen someone end up underneath the horse after adding a thick pad. Adding shims or pads doesn't even come close to stabilizing the saddle like a good fitting tree does.
EXAMPLE #2: THE MODERATELY-WITHERED HORSE WITH A VERY WIDE RIBCAGEis the opposite; he doesn’t have a bunch of exposed bone, like the OTTB, that we need to avoid, as his spinous processes are quite a bit shorter. Therefore, it won’t take as much Tree Point Length to get clearance at the pommel or reach the ribcage. However, despite being an easier fit than the OTTB, we still have to have the RIGHT fit.
One of my clients has a wider barreled horse that she was riding in a saddle that was customized for her other high withered, very narrow horse. The two horses were the same tree size (width), but the spinous processes were different lengths.The owner said that after using the saddle for a few weeks on the wide barreled horse, the horse became sore right where the bottom of the Tree Points rest on the horse’s ribcage. When we checked of the saddle on the horse’s back, the Tree Points fit the horse’s shape correctly (meaning the width was correct), but the very bottom of the points were about 1/2" too long and were creating a pressure point only in that area. The best way to solve the problem is to ride the horse in the same Tree Width, but shorter Tree Points. Most people would just assume that for the wide barreled horse, the saddle is too narrow, but this is incorrect, because the Tree Points made good contact down their entire length.
Now, you could absolutely widen the tree to get the bottom of the tree points away from the horse, but that presents a whole other set of issues:If we widened the tree, you would lose stability of the saddle and put pressure on the withers. The horse would then potentially get sore in a different area, and now the rider is unstable. By doing this, you're just swapping one set of problems for another. Because the Tree Point length discrepancy wasn't too extreme for my client's horse, we temporarily solved the issue by adding a Mattes fleece half pad under the saddle to cushion and elevate the points until she could find a different saddle.
And here’s where the problem starts. Most companies have trees with tree points that they (whoever that is) consider to be an “average” length (whatever that means). The vast majority of saddle companies buy pre-made trees in bulk from manufacturers in England or Argentina; I would guess at least 80% of existing companies do this. The rest make their own saddle trees. In the remaining 15-20% who make their own trees, many of these companies only make one or two trees, usually in 2 - 3 different tree widths but of the same mold, which means they have the same tree point length. This leaves us with an even smaller few who make multiple trees in multiple tree point lengths. This leaves our 2 extremes, the high withered OTTB and Mr. Some-Withers-with-a-Wide-Barrel with much fewer brand choices when it comes to saddles that will really give them a good fit.
The two pictures below show a few of Stübben's patented trees in varying Tree Point lengths. The ability to build any saddle the rider chooses with the correct Tree Point Length for the horse gives the Fitter even more options for a truly correct fit.
To summarize: Having the correct tree width is extremely important, but as you saw with the 2 horses above, correct tree width must be combined with correct Tree Point length to be effective.
Next up: Tree Point Angle, what it is, and how it affects the fit of the saddle and shoulder freedom!