Flexible tree western saddles may be right for you if you ride several different horses, want a traditional look but less weight, and your pocketbook can withstand the sticker shock.
What sets flex-tree saddles apart from their rigid-tree counterparts is the use of lighter bars. Typical wooden bars have been replaced by high-density foam firmed up with armor coating (yes, the same stuff used to line and seal truck beds). The result is a lighter saddle, and the manufacturers’ theory is the flexibility of the somewhat moldable bars will make the saddles fit more horses.
Manufacturers also suggest the bars’ flexibility allows a horse to move away from pressure points. Obviously that’s a good thing if the discomfort is minute or slight, but there’s a limit to the problems a flex-tree saddle can help. It isn’t going to correct bridging — the saddle sitting high on the horse’s back instead of down in place--which occurs when you use a saddle too narrow for the horse.
Though narrow-backed horses and those with high withers may not be the best candidates for a comfy flex-tree fit, horses with an average back and withers and/or those with a well-sprung rib cage might benefit from the flexible tree. Horses with particular conformation problems need with the help of a saddle-fit expert. Manufacturers include Big Horn, Circle Y, Fabtron, Reinsman, Royal King, Tex Tan, Simco.
It’s About Weight
In addition to simply making the bars flexible, two tree manufacturers, Ralide and Simco, have expanded on the flexible-bar concept: They make a single-piece flexible tree. Both are made from a strong, non-porous and flexible material, the kind of stuff used to make seats in riding lawn mowers.
While Simco’s SimFlex tree uses fiberglass-covered wood for its swell and cantle, Ralide’s Flex Tree is a true one-piece design, like their standard trees. The entire Ralide Flex Tree flexes rather than just its swell and cantle.
Other manufacturers, such as Royal King and Ortho-Flex, have gone further still. Both have trees designed to offer maximum contact along the bars that self adjust to the horse because of the way they are attached to the swell and cantle and their flexibility. Ortho-Flex’s bars are panels attached to the swell and cantle.
If lighter (23 to 27 pounds) sounds good, you may be one of the thousands of female riders manufacturers are targeting. In fact, this was the first reason that manufacturers gave when asked why they added a flex-tree line to their existing saddle designs. In theory, women don’t want the challenge of hefting a 40-pound saddle and trying to place it on a horse’s back as if it were a feather.
In addition to shedding pounds through changing the bar material, some manufacturers, like Tex Tan, have eliminated leather in areas like the stirrup leathers or lined their fenders or skirts with a closed-cell synthetic foam material, or used a lighter, “softee” leather on the seat jockey and fenders. The lighter weight, somewhat easier-care saddles might also appeal to recreational riders.
Other manufacturers, like Royal King, use extra-heavy skirting leather and stuff the skirts with neoprene for shock absorption. Still, their Veriflex saddle weighs in at 27 pounds, a far cry from a heavy ranch saddle, the only type we didn’t find in a flex-tree saddle.
Except for these differences, the flex saddles seem much like rigid-tree saddles in the twist, rock and flare of the bars and the angle at which they come off the swell, though Tex Tan makes the front of their bars flare more.
In generally, most of the flex-tree saddles we found had MSRPs that ranged from around $800 to $1,700. However, it pays to shop around. Selling prices were from $200 to $500 less than suggested prices. It pays to do a search for prices before you head to your tack store, as you may be able to use the information as a negotiating tool.
We rode the Reinsman Flex Tree and TexTan Flex on a variety of horses and conditions. The horses included a high-withered 15.3-hand Quarter Horse, a 15-hand Morgan with well-sprung ribs, and a 15-hand Paint, all weighing around 1,000 pounds. We also rode a variety of larger Quarter horses, some high-withered Thoroughbreds and several Arabians. We galloped, ran patterns like the cloverleaf, went on trail rides, did a lot of turning on the fore and hindquarters, lateral flexion and upward and downward transitions.
Flex-tree saddles have some distinct advantages in terms of rider comfort, portability and weight, but we didn’t find a universal fit for all our horses.
Of course, the horse comes first. We believe the flex-tree saddles does give the horse a different feel from traditional rigid-tree saddles, and you may want to be sure your horse accepts the feel. Not all our test horses were happy. Our riders, however, were pleased.
Our test saddles were comfortable, and we felt secure in them. They had a nice look and were well constructed. However, if all you’re looking for is a less weight, you might prefer a synthetic saddle built on a traditional tree. For a lightweight leather saddle, though, the flex tree saddles may be the best way to go.