Last week I received one of those wonderful and unexpected texts that invites you to come on an adventure.
The adventure in this case was a side saddle hack at Mount Juliet. Having only sat on a horse side saddle twice before, once at a ‘give it a go’ day and once on my horse in a borrowed saddle I am definitely a novice but my answer was definitely yes.
Last week, thanks to the Facebook page belonging to the Irish Side Saddle Association, I was able to take a crash course in side saddle etiquette. Gloves should not be black (as this means you are in mourning), there should seven or nine plaits in the horse’s mane, hairnets are essential, comfortable underwear is advised and your hat should match the colour of your boots.
I think in part it is this, the tradition and the elegance that has attracted me to side saddle. I have learned to ride all my life from Mary Kane a lady who believes in the old school importance and etiquette of turnout and while I am not adverse to a bling brow band or a splash of colour there is something very beautiful about seeing centuries old traditions honoured and brought to life.
On the day of the hack two friends and I enjoyed a road trip to the stunning Mount Juliet estate. We arrived at the stables and were introduced to our mounts, in my case a grey Connemara pony called Harry. Our horses were beautifully turned out in spotless tack thanks to the staff and helpers from the equestrian centre and the association members.
Habit fitting and the art of getting dressed came next where I was dressed expertly by Verity O’Mahony and Ciara O’Connell in Ciara’s tweed habit. Given the biting wind I was pleasantly surprised by how warm a habit is.
Once mounted, I received some advice from Ciara. My regular flatwork position of hands close and in front of the saddle was altered to bring my hands apart and back to allow one hand either side of my knee with a bend in my elbows. As we walked around I attempted to rearrange my confused body into the correct position – right toe down, right shoulder back, right hip down. This was my mantra for the day.
We were joined on the hack by Susan Oakes who rode racehorse Parsons Pistol. This horse has already won seven races and will be going for the champion hunters chase with Susan in Punchestown. Led by our guides Tara Monaghan and Elaine Roche from Mount Juliet Equestrian who rode astride we set off across the land, a group of ladies and horses with saddles and accessories from a bygone era steeped in tradition. We set off across the bridge and trotted along the river. At first I was unbalanced in trot but upon reminding myself of the purpose of my right leg (I,.e. to hold me on!) it all clicked and Harry and I strutted along comfortably with me feeling like a lady of the manor.
At this point the group split in two with the more experienced riders heading on the fast route and the more novice riders taking the steadier route. I decided not to get ahead of myself and headed on the quieter route where our guide took us walking and trotting through the woods until we rejoined with the rest at the cross country field.
Buoyed on by Tara as my guide I headed off for a canter around the field. That was it, I knew in that moment, cantering along relaxed and happy, I was hooked. I do often ask myself why I am incapable of becoming hooked on an indoor hobby that requires little time or money but it appears the universe has decided that it is not for me.
On we went and I attempted my first cross country fences, first a small step out of the water and then as the adrenaline kicked in up and down off a small step. The advice I was given was to keep my left shoulder towards the horses right ear and my hips even coming down off the step to ensure I did not tip left while allowing the horse to jump. Harry knew his job and carried me happily over whatever was asked of him. After watching some of the more experienced riders clearing the fences we headed back through the estate to the stables.
As we hacked back I was filled with that ‘if only it could last longer’ feeling, a universal sign of a great time. I suspect I may have used muscles that I have not used since the ‘give it a go’ day. No doubt I will find out soon.
The second hack group mounted up and gave me as a spectator an education in side saddle. Katie Wrest and Hanna Bjoremark warmed up in the sand arena effortlessly demonstrating dressage. From flying changes to collections and extensions this was spectacular to watch.
The group were joined by Susan Oakes on O’Muirheartaigh. O’Muirheartaiugh, ridden bitless and sidesaddle, expertly took on the course even giving a lead to fellow horse and riders. O’Muirheartaigh will compete, ridden by Susan, in the La Touche race at the Punchestown festival at the end of the month. This will be the first time a horse competes on the track in a bitless bridle. The pair are currently the reigning champions of the Dianas of the Chase side saddle steeplechase which was the first race of its kind since 1927. Camera in hand we followed the group across the estate back to the cross country field where the ladies really took on the fences. From banks to tyres to coffin fences they sailed over in style. Young Zara Nelson flew around the course on her grey pony Fred making it all look a lot easier than it is. Susan Oakes showed us all how it is done sailing over the open bank with ease.
It is only when I watched this did I realise how important the seat and position are and how much balance you need. It is safe to say I have a long way to go. What has struck me most about this hack is the dedication and selflessness of the organisers and volunteers. From dressing riders to lending habits and waistcoats to giving encouragement and advice Ciara O’Connell, Kalindi Lawrence, Verity O’Mahony, Jennifer Torrance, Dermot Hanniffy and their crew went out of their way to ensure everyone enjoyed the day and to give everyone the opportunity to learn more.
Every time I tell anyone about side saddle I hear ‘oh I wish I could do that’. I know, I felt that way last year and I have been amazed at how accessible it all is and how many people will help you. The next ‘give it a go days’ will be held on April 20th and the 11th of May at Ardmulcan in Co. Meath.
If you are reading this thinking that like me you have always wanted to try side saddle you would be mad not to contact the Irish Side Saddle Association and sign up to try it.