by Hope Holland
On a cold and very windy Sunday in March the Goshen Hunt set out for a day of riding to hounds. It was a day much like many others that the Hunt has enjoyed and only different in one particular. There were 15 side saddle riders with it. Yes, 15 ladies in full habits riding aside on a rather spectacular selection of horses, from the identifiably Thoroughbred type through the large warmblood sort and on into the, ‘I know there’s draft horse in that horse somewhere!’ type, including a bright and clever large pony with an elegantly clad little girl on it who was sporting her own much smaller but still absolutely correct side saddle habit.
This was a meeting of not only the Goshen Hunt itself but also of the members of the ISSO, International Side Saddle Organization, and the newer Side Saddle Chase Foundation which espouses not only the fox chasing set but also those daredevil ladies who, riding aside, enter and compete in the cross country racing both on the flat and over fences that the meets hold after the formal hunting season is over.
The day started barely over freezing and wound up in the lower 40 degree zone with a brisk wind that kept the riders chilly and wanting to be active and the horses brisk and eager to gallop, perfect hunting weather, if you will. The normal weekend day for going out with hounds is Saturday instead of Sunday but the two days before had seen Maryland with winds in the 70 mph range and there were large trees down. This hunt was going that day because there had been a couple of previous postponements from weather conditions and hunting season was fast drawing to a close. The winds had at least dried the footing a bit from two days of rain. That was important because riding a galloping horse on slippery footing across the hills is never a good thing.
Side saddle riding is enjoying a relatively new renaissance and hunting side saddle has normally not been seen for the last 50 plus years until quite lately so having this many riders out at once was a sight to see. Most of the riders are quite self-sufficient in tacking up by themselves, considering that the side saddle has more accoutrements than other types of saddles and that the approved bridles have a Pelham bit with four reins, but a few had a some help. Getting on their rather large mounts used to be done with the aid of a groom who allowed the lady to step her dainty foot into his hand as he gave her a bit of a push upwards—today that is accomplished with the aid of a small folding ladder, or in some cases, by having horses that the ladies have trained to stand quietly beside their trailers while they climb onto the hood over the wheels and step up into the single stirrup. Maybe not as elegant as in days of yore but still, once mounted, every bit the elegant presentation.
One rider in particular, Jill Caple, was on only her second hunt mounted aside and admits that her level of nervous anticipation, “Was about at an 8 out of a possible 10.” After riding for 38 years of her life, since she was a child, she had decided two years ago to take the top off her bucket list and ride aside.
According to Ms. Caple, “I fell in love with the idea of riding aside when I read the book ‘Can I Get There by Candlelight’ when I was a child and I had always dreamed of doing this. Then, when I tried it, I found that I enjoyed the new challenge of riding this way. And, of course, I do love the elegance and tradition of riding aside.” According to Ms. Caple there are some female riders who frown on what they consider the step backward into a more straight-laced time in the history of women riding but it is possible they haven’t tried this themselves.
Ms. Caple certainly had the right horse for the job already. She had bought Sweet Pea, her now 17 year old Belgian/TB cross, a few years previously for his ability to take her safely on cross country courses. He transitioned perfectly—well almost perfectly—“sometimes he has moments when his Thoroughbred side takes over his mind but it never lasts long,” to a side saddle mount. Of course there is that one little drawback: Sweet Pea is large, very large “about 17:3” she says, so Caple spent quite a bit of time teaching him to stand quietly for mounting near the side of her trailer.
After only a bit of fuss with replacing her girth and the business of climbing onto the side of the trailer with her habit on she was up and on and out hunting with the 14 other ladies who made a brave showing. It certainly left the onlooker with a new appreciation of just what women can do, particularly when they were at one time encumbered with what was then a man’s idea of what is correct for others to do while he is happily ensconced on his own horse with a leg comfortably on each side of his mount.