Downton Abbey returned to our screens last night (I’ve just finished watching it on ITV Player, I was far too hungover and tired to stay up for it yesterday). On it Lady Mary portrayed a changing world by stepping out astride to the hunt meet at the Abbey (and she fell off, something I can sympathise with). Here in 2015 I’ve been teaching myself and my horse to ride side- saddle, and so here’s a post about learning to get my leg over (there are so many witticisms to use when writing about aside riding).
I grew up with two side- saddles in the house. At one point they sat on the stair bannisters, but my father then told Mumma that as a child he used to sit on one of them… With a lethal drop one one side it was decided that the saddles should move to a beam in the kitchen, before either my brother or I thought that it would be a good idea to have a ride too.
I noticed early on that our saddles didn’t look like the ones depicted in my Pony Club Handbook. One had three heads, and the other two- but no leaping head. At one point my mother had put the one from her family on her ponies and ridden around, but by now it had a broken over girth, and the saddle from my father’s family had a clearly broken tree. It didn’t look like either would be ridden in.
We always assumed that my mother’s saddle, being in better condition, was newer, while the three- headed side saddle from the Bowens must have been the elder with its intricate leatherwork and tiny leather slipper for a stirrup. I never did any research on the number of heads, but (and this is a bit embarrassing to admit) it was generally assumed within the family that my mother’s saddle lacked a leaping head and was plain simply because it came from a less grand family. The three headed saddle could only be imagined in the context of grooms, chaperoned rides and a maid to undress you prior to a bath.
These assumptions were all challenged earlier this year.
I imagine that most riders have at some point wanted to try riding side- saddle. I certainly did. It was not something I really thought I’d do, the saddles after all were beyond use and I never had a horse that was both small enough and well- behaved enough to stick under a side- saddle.
Then along came Bluey. At 15.2hh and a little thoroughbred, Bluey has always looked like a ladies’ hack. When I first bought him my mother commented that he would look ridiculous with a man on his back, and I quite agree. With his Araby looks B is a real ladies’ horse, but until a year or two ago his temperament didn’t really stand up to his appearance. He’s always had a thing for biting and kicking me, and his behaviour can sometimes encompass jogging, the odd buck and dramatic spooking. Not really Rotten Row standards. However he’s now a lot calmer and quieter, and at twelve years old I think he’s finally grown up. Therefore I felt it was time to try him aside.
At home saddler Helen Reader has received a grant to gain extra qualifications in side- saddle making. With an existing interest she was happy to have a look at the saddle and see if it was suitable for Bluey. The fit was good- generally thoroughbreds work well with side- saddles because the majority of the saddles were made in an era were horses carried far less condition than they do today. The real surprise for me was finding out quite how old the saddle is. The leaping head was introduced in the 1820s, meaning that this saddle pre-dated that time. It was designed to be used with a crupper rather than a balance strap, so the strap had to be made and attached for me to use it.
I’ve never been one for holding back, so after the initial trial and a short hack I decided to take Bluey hunting aside. With an apron made on a rush order I at least was dressed correctly, and my brilliant horse didn’t seem to think that anything was different. I stayed out for around an hour and came back smiling, albeit with massive bruises on either side of my right thigh.
Uploading some photos to Instagram later, I noticed an interesting comment from someone who congratulated me on being able to sit straight in such a saddle, and suggesting that it would be dangerous to gallop or jump without a leaping head. Further research taught me that women didn’t join hunting fields until the leaping head was introduced, and most manuals class side- saddles like mine as unfit for modern usage. I had noticed that after hearing so many people talk of the secure feeling of a side- saddle, I didn’t feel that secure; and I could never get the stirrup as short as I wanted. Now I realise that what I needed was another head to squeeze against my left leg in trot and canter… Like the ladies of the early nineteenth century I knew that an adjustment was needed to my saddle if I were to hunt and move at speed.
Enter my friend Anna. Anna has two ponies that she rides, hunts and shows aside. Named Spud and Norman, they are little far from your traditional ladies’ hunter. As such one of her side- saddles was a little narrow and a little long for 14.2hh Norman, and she thought it might fit Bluey.
It did. And riding in it was amazing. Without having done it yourself its hard to describe, but cantering in a modern (1920s) side saddle is like flying. Bluey has a lovely canter, and a side- saddle just emphasis how beautiful it is. With a leaping head I can sit to the trot, and the flat seat stops me adopting the leaning back posture common to eighteenth century riders.
I’ve gone from Jane Austen to Evelyn Waugh and boy is it a transformation.
A few weeks ago I took Bluey cubbing in the new saddle and had the most splendid time. I haven’t jumped yet but I have sat some tantrums and spooks, and managed to open a bridleway gate, a task that I find difficult enough in a normal saddle.
So side saddle… Give it a try. At the very least you’ll look elegant.