As a saddle fitter/researcher horse owner and general Facebook stalker I often see posts and comments from people talking about ‘fully adjustable saddles’.
So what is meant by fully adjustable?
When a saddle fitter or saddler alters a saddle to fit a horse there are two main areas of adjustment. The front arch of the tree (or gullet plate) and the panel (by adding or removing filling).
It is important to understand that even when a saddle is described as ‘fully adjustable’ it means that the front of the saddle can be made wider or narrower and that the panel can be altered in some way, either by adding or removing flocking, foam or air.
Now here’s the important part. Any adjustments made to the tree will only change the angle of the flare at the front of the saddle and will not change anything further back like the angle, width or position of the rails. Neither will you be able to adjust the width of the head plate. There is one exception to this and that is the curve of the tree will always increase as the angle of the flare increases (sometimes dramatically). This is often undesirable and can cause the saddle to rock back and forth.
This applies to the majority of English saddles on the market with the exception of a few brands where the width of the head can also be adjusted but these are the exception rather than the rule.
What does this mean for horse owners?
Essentially this means that an adjustable saddle on a plastic tree can only be adjusted to fit your horse if your horse suits the shape of that particular tree and panel design. Plastic trees are very expensive to design/set-up and therefore there is a relatively small selection of shapes and sizes whereas designing a new wooden tree is relatively inexpensive. To give you some perspective I would say that for every shape of plastic tree there would be over 100 shapes of wooden tree.
Most adjustable saddle manufacturers will build their saddle range on approximately three trees, some even less.
As you can imagine with the variety of horse types this ‘one tree fits all’ approach doesn’t always work and your saddle fitter can only do so much even with a ‘fully adjustable’ saddle.
Adjustable or Non-Adjustable – Which is Best
There are several saddle brands out there which are marketed as adjustable or fully adjustable. These usually have a removable gullet plate or are built on a plastic tree which can be altered in a saddle machine (essentially a hydraulic jack which presses the saddle in or out).
What many people do not realise is that almost all saddle trees are able to be adjusted in this way to some extent so even those not marketed as ‘adjustable’ ARE technically adjustable* just maybe not to the extent of some of the plastic built couterparts.
When determining which is best it really does come down to the individual horse and rider and many aspects needs to be considered.
For me personally when I go out to fit a saddle I can usually look at the horse and know what type of tree will suit it. I have the luxury of choosing from hundreds or trees with different shapes, styles, angles and widths and I can have the saddle built around the appropriate tree. Yes it’s more expensive but I’m usually happier with the fit than if I were to choose an off the peg, adjustable saddle.
That being said, sometimes an adjustable saddle is perfectly fine and does the job well enough. The determining factor for me is usually budget but if the horse is a suitable shape for a plastic treed, adjustable saddle then there’s no reason why I wouldn’t use (a well designed) one. I often find there is a compromise somewhere (if not for the horse then for the rider) but sometimes a little compromise is unavoidable.
So in conclusion, don’t be fooled into buying a fully adjustable saddle without first getting advice from an experienced saddle fitter. It may cost you more time and money in the long run! Your saddle fitter will be able to discuss all of your options with you and make recommendations based on your specific needs.
*Always contact the saddle manufacturer to discuss adjustment options
Article by Lisa Fay
Lisa Fay is a Qualified Saddle Fitter, Qualified Master Saddle Fitting Consultant and Equine Ergonomist as well as lead designer and researcher at Coast Performance Saddles and Co-Founder/Research Director Master Saddle Fitters International.