If you are a woman who loved the Downton Abbey series the simple elegance of that lifestyle made an impression on you. If you are also a horsewoman then the side saddle riders probably fired your imagination.
There’s no two ways about it, a woman riding side saddle just looks elegant. Riding aside is completely different from the rest of the equestrian world and it is growing in popularity. It has its own member organization founded in 1974, the International Side Saddle Organization (ISSO) accessed at www.sidesaddle.com/about.shtml , which is filled with great detail and includes a listing of available instructors by state.
When it comes to the side saddle itself there are English side saddles, western side saddles and side saddles for those who ride gaited horses. There are side saddles for those who have physical limitations and need to sit on what would normally be the “off” side of the horse. There are differences in the saddles and/or the leaping horns which enable a rider to have a more secure seat for jumping. There is a proud history of lady riders who have been famous for their daring-do over fences both in the show ring and over the most challenging hunting courses in England and Ireland while riding aside. In that tradition it should be noted that both England and Ireland currently have stables that will provide horses and side saddles for those who are capable of going out hunting riding aside.
Back home in the United States there are side saddle shows and classes being added to shows but according to the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) rule book an English side saddle is considered to be proper in any class in any USEF show with no distinction made between entrants as long as the rider is in the correct riding apparel for that type of riding. All riders now must wear the ASTM approved helmet in the show ring for safety’s sake, a fact that is saddening to those who love the old-fashioned top hat or even the bowler hat that puts the finest finish to the side saddle apparel.
Side saddle riders can be found in many of the breed shows — notably Arabian horses and the gaited breeds — and they can be found doing dressage and eventing. Requirements for dressage include jumping in the ring and over the outside course as well. They are, if not commonplace yet, a growing presence in the hunt field in many of the fox hunts. There is also a three-day camp in New Jersey each July with six different side saddle clinicians, three of whom have come over from England this year.
The correct apparel for riding aside consists of black dress hunting boots. A riding habit consisting of a coat which can be a regular showing or hunting riding coat but should be, for comfort’s sake, a sidesaddle coat that is cut away at the bottom to enable the fall of the material over the rider’s leg position. A skirt affair, known as an apron, which is worn over regular riding breeches is also mandatory. The apron looks like a skirt when the rider is unmounted but splits in the back when the rider is mounted so that the rider is seated upon their breeches seat with the apron of the skirt around and over their legs as they are seated on the horse. To be absolutely correct — in riding aside, correctness counts — the apron must always be long enough to cover the toe of the upper leg’s boot tip while the rider is mounted. Gloves are mandatory, as is a hat and there are requirements for different gloves for showing or hunting.
This is probably a wonderful place to insert the fact that for lady riders who have a form that is wider below the waist than looks sylphlike when mounted astride, the fall of the material of the apron when riding aside covers a multitude of what might be called epicurean sins. When you add a black or navy riding coat to the same colored apron and then sit in the elegant upright position needed to balance on a moving horse when mounted aside the picture only becomes better. Tweed material is also correct for a sidesaddle outfit. If you really get into the spirit of the elegance of riding aside there is another level of it called the “appointments class” which can be found in the side saddle section of the USEF rule book and requires a much more stringent attention to detail in the accoutrement of both horse and rider and a comparatively larger outlay of cash to achieve.
A side saddle can run between $1,500 to $2,000 and up and must be accompanied by the acquisition and proper use of either the full bridle or the Pelham (with both reins attached) when showing. For the less regulated appearance in the hunt field a snaffle bridle is sufficient provided that it will actually stop your horse when the need arises. Most riders use one spur and will carry a whip — often the longer dressage whip — on the off side as an aid to replace the leg that is not on that side of the horse.
The horse for use with the side saddle will be somewhat different from those with the flat topline so often seen today in many of the different divisions as it will have a more upright head carriage. Side saddles can be found to fit almost any horse from the draft cross (generally used for hunting) to the warmblood cross that is often used in the side saddle classes. The important thing for a side saddle horse is that it has a good temperament and easily ridden gaits. In the old days the side saddle horse was often trained to do a walk and a very collected canter along with a more open ground-covering canter. The purpose of the collected canter was to by-pass the more difficult-to-ride trot gait entirely.
If you find that you have become bored with your current skill set in riding and you want a change that promises a challenge and the fun of being different and yet elegant, riding aside might just be your cup of tea.