Wednesday, November 4, 2009

From the Tree Up: Sub-topic - Adjustable Trees and Changeable Gullets


Please note that this post is not intended to bash, slander, bad-mouth, short-sell or otherwise denegrate  saddles with adjustable trees or changeable gullets. When used as intended, they can fill spots that other saddles don't, and - in some cases - offer far better quality than fixed-tree saddles costing about the same.  Lately, however, I've been running into quite a few folks who have some rather serious misperceptions about these saddles, and I'd like to make an effort to correct them.

"Since I don't have a horse yet, I'm going to get a saddle with a changeable gullet so it will fit whatever horse I get."

"I ride a lot of different horses, so I'm going to get an adjustable-tree saddle so I can fit all of them."

"My trainer wants me to get my own saddle, so I'm going to get a(n) _________ (fill in the blank from above) so I can fit the different school horses I'm riding."

As I said in the preface, I've been hearing a LOT of comments like these lately -  and given the ads you see for the changeable gullet / adjustable tree saddles, it's not surprising that people can come to believe that these saddles will be the answer to any and all fitting issues
  • From the Wintec/Bates web site:  "... achieve an optimal fit," "... the ultimate in ease of fitting," "...unsurpassed flexibility in achieving an optimal fit."
  • From the Laser web site:  "... completely user friendly and allows the rider to adjust the saddle to fit almost any type of horse."
  • From the Kieffer web site:  "Now the RIDER can alter the tree width by using the provided tool in order to adapt the tree width exactly to the back of the horse!" 
  • From the Thorowgood web site: "... comes with the award-winning Fish™ adjustable fit system which allows you to tailor the fit of the saddle to your horse’s individual requirements."
To the credit of all these companies, they do recommend that the consumer consult with a saddle fitter - it's right on their web sites along with the promotional stuff.  But given the comments I hear, I get the impression that most people get to the "fit almost any horse" inference and are so jazzed that they never get to the "consult a saddle fitter" part.  Not the fault of the companies - after all, the function of good ad copy is to sell the consumer on the product, and it's up to the consumer to read the fine print.  Caveat emptor and all that.  But in the interest of education ...

The two most popular misconceptions about these saddles are:  a) these saddles can be made to fit any horse that comes down the pike, and b) they're the ultimate answer if you have two very dissimilar horses that you're trying to fit with one saddle.  I'll tackle these in order.

First, these saddles will not fit every horse out there.  The adjustable tree / changeable gullet (known hereafter as AT/CG) addresses only the width at the front of the saddle - it does not change tree shape, channel width or panel configuration.  (Yes, the older Wintecs did sort of go all banana-shaped when you put in the extra-wide gullet, but they seem to have addressed that issue in the newer saddles.)   To illustrate, here's the front of the Wintec Isabell with the medium gullet installed:

And here's the same saddle with the extra-wide gullet installed:

The gullet is obviously wider with the xw plate installed.  However, that's really all that changes.

Here's the underside of the saddle with the medium gullet installed:

And here's the same view with the extra-wide plate installed:


There's a little more space between the panels at the very front with the xw plate installed, but no difference further back.  So, if tree width is the only fitting issue - if the tree shape and panel configuration are correct - then changing the gullet can save the day.  But if the panel configuration or tree shape don't suit the horse, you can change gullets and play with shims (or flock, in some cases) until the cows come home, and the saddle still won't fit.

The second misconception I'd like to clear up is that an AT/CG saddle is the answer to the "one perfect saddle for my two (or more) horses" scenario.  Even if the tree and panels are correct for all of your horses, and width is all that would need changing, the AT/CG system was not meant to be changed with great frequency.  Initially, the AT system - developed by Maj. Jeremy Beale - was meant to address the fitting needs of one horse (specifically an event horse) who went in and out of condition depending on the season.  The first adjustable system (or the first I'm aware of, anyway) was the Wellep mechanism, which was on a screw mechanism, and this system - like any mechanism - wore out after multiple adjustments (and I'm talking about constant adjustments to fit multiple horses rather than the use for which it was intended).  So the next incarnation was the Varilock Head, which is based on locking gear teeth rather than a screw system.  This is a sturdier mechanism, but still not meant for constant adjustments.  (There's a video on narrowing the tree on the Laser website at  Unfortunately, it's not a great quality video and it's pretty tough to see much, but the explanation helps.  Hopefully they'll post a better one sometime soon.)

As for the CG saddles, anyone who's ever had the experience of changing a gullet will tell you that it's not something they want to do on a daily basis.  While there's no mechanism per se to wear out, screw holes will get stripped, tree points will snap, the tree will become weaker after repeated changes, and the fabric on the point pockets will start to wear.

So, to reiterate:  AT/CG saddles, when used as they were designed to be used, can be a big plus.  But like most innovations in the saddle fitting world, they aren't for everyone, and they're not a cure-all for every saddle fitting woe.


Richard said...

I think that the myths are perpetuated by some of the larger Saddlery chain stores as well. I Owned a Wintec 500 Dressage saddle as my first and it was sold by the salesperson as It will fit any horse.

Jennifer said...

Yes! So glad to see this in print. Would you be willing to take this one step farther and post pics of AT/CG saddles and horses that they don't fit?

Andrew Campbell said...

Kitt: I sell shotguns for a living and we have many similar conversations when folks come in looking for a stock with an adjustable comb or an adjustable length butt-plate so they can 'play with their fit.' At least for our folks, while some will tinker endlessly (and still miss), most really like the idea of 'having options' -- even if those options weigh more and often upset the balance of the gun.

Love the blog, by the way.


saddlefitter said...

Richard, one of the unfortunate things about some of the larger saddlery chains is that the sales staff aren't given much in the way of saddle fitting education. They're just there to facilitate sales.

Jennifer, that's a great idea - thanks so much! I'll get that in the works.

Andrew, that's an interesting parallel - takes me back to my childhood and my grandfather, who was a shotgun enthusiast. Makes perfect sense - and thanks for the kind works on the blog.

AareneX said...

Hi Kitt, new reader here. I've been reading "backwards" into your blog to pick up the older posts--great information! Thanks!

I'd like to know your opinion of the Specialized Saddle, especially for use in endurance riding.

The fit on these saddles is achieved by creating a set of neoprene shims which can be changed when the horse changes shape (like mine does in summer and again in winter) or when riding different horses (my roof-peak backed standardbred vs spouse's tabletop arab).

Info from the manufacturer is here:

Meredith said...

I wish I knew then what I know now! I bought a Wintec a few years ago to fit my what I thought was a medium-wide horse with the idea it fit all horses. Wrong! The panels are completely the wrong shape for round-ish horses. I even paid to have a fitter come out and tell me it was good. Too bad those dry spots never went away. Now I have a horse with permanent white marks. Unfortunately, my Haflinger has turned into a fitting nightmare. Thanks for the great info! I hope more can learn before they make my mistakes!

Jane said...

This is the most comprehensive article I've read on the AT/CG saddles. Thank you. Though I haven't desired one personally, I too had the misperception that it was perfectly acceptable to sit down and fiddle with the gullet every day or multiple times a day between horses.

Note to self: read read read. Especially your blog. :)

Anonymous said...

I own two Lasers - they are a high quality saddle. However, I could never resolve why the Wintec idea was so-so whereas the Laser was a good idea.
And changing the width is still a learned skill. I still manage to keep the tree too narrow.
And that resulted in fitting issues that are still not 100% percent resolved.
Based on my experience, I'm better off purchasing moderately priced, well made saddles knowing I'll be selling again, and again, rather than a high end saddle.

Val, who would like to use her dressage saddle again, but hasn't used it in over a year now.