Thursday, May 19, 2011

Favorite Products: Freeform Treeless Saddle




I am a real stickler about saddle fit. I was forced to become knowledgeable in this area when my morgan, Gryphon, outgrew the lovely Rodrigo Pessoa Gen X jumping saddle I had. It fit him fine as a three year old, but as he filled out through the back and shoulders, he became quite wide and my beloved saddle just didn't work anymore. We went through several saddles over the years, as he kept changing shape and I kept changing disciplines (went from jumping to dressage to rugged trail riding). It was ALWAYS a nightmare trying to find a treed saddle that would work for him, and when something doesn't work for Gryphon, he tells you ALL about it by bucking, doing caprioles, etc. So, once I decided that trail riding was going to be my main activity, I sold my $5,000 custom made dressage saddle and decided to go treeless.

What I have learned in the ensuing years is that not all treeless saddles are created equal -- not even close! Some are little more than glorified bareback pads, providing no support for the rider and doing little to distribute the rider's weight over the horse's back. I tried many and bought a couple before finally finding my "dream saddle", meaning one that is beautifully made, distributes weight very well, and is extremely comfortable for both me and my horse. What is this saddle, you ask? The Freeform Classic, made by Le Selle Italiene in Italy, but I have since also bought a Freeform western style saddle for my husband, and it is also wonderful.

Here are some specifics about why I truly love my Freeform saddle:

  • The leather is beautiful, and the craftsmanship is top notch.
  • For a saddle of this quality, the price is very reasonable.
  • The saddle is designed to distribute the rider's weight very well. Everything from the underlay to the girthing system contributes to this quality -- very important in a treeless saddle. It becomes even more important if you are a heavier rider like my husband, who is 6'2" and 200 lbs. 
  • I feel really balanced in this saddle, in part because of the completely adjustable stirrup position. The stirrups can be moved as far forward or as far back as you like by simply lifting up the seat (which velcros on) and moving the part that the leathers attach to.
  • The seat is incredibly comfortable. I struggle with chronic pain issues in my back, knees and hips, and I can ride much longer in this saddle than in any other, by far.
  • I feel extremely secure in this saddle, no matter how steep the terrain or how rowdy the horse.
  • It fits just about any horse: I've had it on my morgan, my big APHA, and now on my wee Welsh pony, and it works beautifully on all of them. They move well, do not get sore anywhere and seem relaxed and happy in the Freeform. This particular one would not work well on a horse with really high withers, but Freeform now offers ones with a cutback option to accommodate such horses.
  • Freeform has some really cool options -- like the fact that you can order different sized seats and use the same saddle for different sized riders. Some models have movable thigh blocks, as well, though mine are fixed.
  • The guy who won the Tevis Cup last year (intense endurance race, for those who don't know), was riding in the exact same saddle as I have. I always figure if it works for the endurance crowd, it works! There are even some "heavyweight" class endurance riders doing very well in the Freeform saddles -- a testament to the excellent weight distribution this brand provides.
  • The gal I bought my Freeform saddles from, Candace Kahn at ActionRiderTack.com, is awesome to work with. She is extremely knowledgeable and bends over backwards to make sure you get the right saddle with the right accessories, and that you are happy with your purchase. I highly recommend buying from her.
There are a couple of points to be aware of with this saddle, which I would say apply to most if not all other treeless saddles:

  • Personally, I would not do any real jumping in a treeless saddle. Though the balance of the Freeform is terrific, I do not feel that any treeless saddle can really distribute the impact forces generated when a rider in a two-point takes a landing off of a big fence. Your weight can come down pretty hard in your stirrups at that moment, even though you should be taking some of that load through your calf and lower thigh contact. I've hopped over the odd obstacle on the trail and have no problem with that, but that's about all I would do.
  • The Freeform, like many treeless saddles, requires that you use a special pad with inserts that slip into special pockets. The inserts create a channel for the horse's spine. Some treeless saddles do have a channel built in, but the inserts have the advantage of being customizable. My morgan's spine, for example, is very wide -- and I mean the actual bone column. I was able to easily adjust for this by trimming the inserts in his pad. You can also swap them out if they wear down or if you decide you need something different in there.
  • Treeless saddles can tend to roll more than treed saddles. The pad I use has real sheepskin underneath, which help prevent slippage, but I still prefer not to mount from the ground unless I absolutely have to. Of course, I prefer using a block whenever possible, as it is easier on my body AND it puts less torque on the horse's back. This has been proven in studies -- mounting from the ground can make your horse sore!
Happy Trails!