Custom saddles ride easy

Debby Schoeningh/For the Capital Press Saddle-maker Bill Huston fits a saddle around the treeless form he invented. It looks like a normal saddle, but it is much softer and gives to the motion of the horse

'Treeless' soft saddles promise to improve comfort for rider, horse


For the Capital Press

BAKER CITY, Ore. -- Saddle sores and severe back injuries are fairly easy to detect in a horse. But a slight pinch here and a little poke there might not be so obvious, at least not to the rider.

Custom saddle-maker Bill Huston has noticed that most saddles have a "common flaw." They are built for the rider's comfort and not the horse's. What feels like a Cadillac seat to the rider may feel like a backpack full of sharp-edged bricks to the horse.

"Having worked with horses most of my life, I began to notice problems with surface tissue injuries created by direct pressure from the saddle on the horse's back," Huston said. "In 1962, I took the saddle tree (the rigid base the saddle is formed around) out of a saddle and decided to try something different."

As a result, for the past 40 years, Bill has been specializing in "treeless soft saddles" with all of the features the Western horseman has become accustomed to without bolts, nails, flocking, hinges or fiberglass to cause painful pressure points.

Using the skills he learned as an artist, Bill sculpts the saddle's foundation out of foam. It looks like a normal saddle, but it is much softer and gives to the motion of the horse.

Once the metal saddle horn and other accessories are in place, the saddle weighs about 17 pounds, compared to its typical 30- to 40-pound counterpart.

Bill is also an accomplished silversmith and engraver. He transforms his saddles into functional works of art with the help of his wife, Jean.

Engineers, doctors, lawyers and Native American chiefs have purchased Bill's treeless Western saddles. However, some cowboys are still reluctant to use them.

"Cowboys feel like they have to defend a treeless saddle among their peers," Huston said. "There is a mindset in the Western riding world that treeless saddles are for sissies."

Chuck Hoover, who competes in cowboy action shooting, said he has taken a little teasing from his neighbor since buying a treeless saddle, but it has been worth it.

Hoover suffered a compression fracture in his lower back after a particularly grueling seat-to-saddle-pounding during a competition. He thought his days of competition were over until Huston made him a custom saddle.

"Bill's saddle fits me like a glove and it's easy on my back," Hoover said. "I've been able to get back to riding and competing, and my neighbor is coming around; he recently admitted that it's a pretty nice-looking saddle."

Chuck said people don't know the saddle is treeless until he tells them.

Although there are numerous companies manufacturing treeless saddles now, Huston is credited as its developer.

"I've been in the business for so darn many years, I can cover the industry from one end to the other," he said.


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