A bit on the side – an article about the history of the association

A bit on the side                                By Catriona Murphy             Tuesday October 28 2008

Jump aboard the latest horsey trend — riding side saddle
Jonah Wragg takes the wall in her stride in the All-Ireland Hunting Horse Championship

Traditional and lady-like, riding side saddle is the epitome of elegance and is enjoying a major revival in Ireland and around the world.

The Side Saddle Association of Ireland has more than 100 members and growing, while there are 1,200 members in the British association and thousands around the globe.

The Irish association was first founded by Patricia Hanson and the annual championship show is still run in her memory. Ms Hanson was a regular winner in the show ring and won the Ladies Hunter Champion at the RDS on her horse Millmount.

Greek vases and Celtic stones show the earliest pictures of women riding sideways on their horses and medieval drawings show lady riders seated aside on horses being led by a man or sat sideways on a small padded seat behind a male rider.

However, it was apparent that the lady was little more than a passenger on the horse and had little control over the animal.

The earliest functional side-saddle is credited to Anne of Bohemia in the 1300s. It resembled a chair on which the woman sat sideways on the horse with her feet on a small footrest.

In the upper classes, society dictated that it was unbecoming and immodest for a lady to straddle a horse and the fashionable long skirts of the time were both impractical and awkward for riding.

However, women of status did ride horses and needed to be able to keep up with their men, so a saddle was needed which allowed both control of the horse and modesty for the rider.

Catherine de Medici is credited with a more practical design, developed in the 16th century. In this, the rider sat facing forward, hooking her right leg around the pommel of the saddle with a horn added to the near side of the saddle to secure the rider’s right knee.

The footrest was replaced with a slipper stirrup, a leather-covered stirrup iron into which the rider’s left foot was placed. This saddle allowed the rider both to stay on and to control her own horse, at least at slower speeds.

In the 1830s, Jules Pellier designed a side saddle with a second, lower pommel, which is still in use today. One pommel is nearly vertical, mounted approximately 10 degrees left of top dead centre and curved gently to the right and up. The rider’s right leg goes around the top, or fixed pommel, which supports the right thigh of the rider when it is lying across the top centre of the saddle.

The lower right leg rests along the horse’s near side shoulder and up against the second pommel, the leaping head or horn, located below the first pommel.

This pommel is curved gently downward in order to curve over the top of the rider’s left thigh, and is attached in a manner so that it could pivot slightly, to adjust to the individual rider. The rider places her left leg beneath this pommel, with the top of the thigh close or lightly touching it, and places her left foot in a single stirrup on that side.

The design was revolutionary in that the leaping head gave women enough security and freedom of movement to stay on at a gallop and even jump fences or ‘leap’ as it was known then.

With this design, women could compete in nearly all equestrian pursuits including showjumping and foxhunting, while still conforming to society’s demand for modesty.

In fact, Sydney Royal Show in 1915 saw Mrs. Esther Stace clear 6ft 6in thanks to the leaping horn.

Julie Brindley O’Brien of the Side Saddle Association of Ireland explains why riding side saddle is making a comeback.

“Many riders choose to ride side saddle for its elegance and beauty or simply to retain the tradition,” she says.

“And sometimes, ladies just like to look like ladies.”

Julie says that although many things have changed since side saddle riding was invented, the basic principles of balance, poise and suppleness have never changed.

“There are no real advantages to riding side saddle, although some riders feel more secure with both legs on one side,” she explains.

“You also have the option of applying the emergency grip around the two pommels if something unexpected happens, as so often does when you work with horses.”

However, she insists there is no reason why anything that can be done astride cannot be achieved side saddle.

“If you’ve ridden astride before learning to ride side saddle, the first thing you do is wonder why you haven’t tried it before.

“However, you do use different muscles, especially in the legs. As long as you ease your muscles into this new use, you should not experience any difficulties,” she assures me.

“Once you are taught the correct position and postures, balance should and will come naturally.”

Disabled riders and older riders sometimes find riding side saddle much easier than riding astride, she adds.

So how difficult is it to jump side saddle?

“The most important thing is to be in harmony with your horse, especially in flight,” says Julie.

“The only real difference is the rider’s jumping position to ensure the balance of the partnership and avoid an unplanned meeting with the pommels.”

Riders should tilt forward at one o’clock when riding side saddle rather than the modern 12 o’clock position used when jumping astride.

Julie’s daughter, Amy, has been riding side saddle since she was given a side saddle lesson as a gift for her seventh birthday.

The UCD student has competed side saddle ever since, notching up success after success in the show ring both here in Ireland and in Britain.

She says the same basic aids apply whether you are riding astride or side saddle.

“You use the same seat bone and weight aids but because you don’t have a leg on the off-side, you use a cane instead,” she explains.

The most responsive horses can be trained to strike off in canter by the rider simply lifting her inside hand.

“With some horses you only have to think ‘walk’ ‘trot’ and ‘canter’ and they’ll do it. They’re known as armchair rides. Real lady’s hunters look after you,” she adds.

Show competitions are generally divided into junior, intermediate and senior classes according to the rider’s age and the horse’s height.

Amy competes in working hunter and show hunter classes but has also ridden cross-country side saddle.

“I used to terrorise everyone by going side saddle at hunter trials,” she laughs.

For the past few years she has also travelled to the French town of Carcassonne to take part in the Concours International Amazone.

Riders dressed in medieval costume parade through the town in the annual historical re-enactment.

However, side-saddle riding is definitely not restricted to the show ring, as Tipperary woman Jonah Wragg has been proving for several years.

The Fethard lady has the distinction of being the last lady to ride side saddle in a point-to-point.

Officials at the track in Penshurst, Kent, were flabbergasted in 1990 when Jonah rode up on her husband’s horse Bentley Continental using a side saddle.

“But they couldn’t find anything in the rule book to say she couldn’t ride.” laughs Gavin. “I think they changed the rules after that.”

Jonah has done everything side saddle, from showing, racing and team chasing to hunting side saddle.

She always hunts side saddle and last year won the lightweight category of the All-Ireland Hunting Horse championship on Gavin’s horse Basil. However, her introduction to side saddle was a bit more humble, as she explains.

“I taught myself to ride side saddle on a mule that I trained to buck under it. Mummy used to breed mules and I used her old side saddle.”

The plucky rider now uses a lightweight competition saddle that once belonged to noted rider Doreen Archer-Hublan.

“I always hunt side saddle and have done everything I can that way to challenge myself,” she says.

She has no qualms about saddling up an unfamiliar horse with a side saddle.

“I’ve ridden hirelings here and in England under side saddle and it’s been fine, although the first time I rode with the Mennel I didn’t realise just how those hedges were,” she says.

– Catriona Murphy