With the popularity of shows like “Downton Abbey” depicting glamorous and exciting hunting scenes with women riding sidesaddle, the discipline is seeing a resurgence in those looking to learn how to ride as a beginner, to those more experienced riders wanting to be able to hunt sitting aside.
Thanks to the Ontario Sidesaddle Association hosting a clinic this past weekend, I (along with many others) were able to bring our own horses and learn all about fitting and riding in sidesaddles.
The clinic was held at Hopewell Creek Stables in Breslau, just outside of Kitchener. Participants were divided into groups of 4-5 in 2 hour-long sessions, which started out with fitting the saddles.
The organizers brought a number of saddles to try on and make sure they fit both horse and rider. It’s difficult in a clinic situation to have something that perfectly fits every horse and rider but small adjustments could be made so that both horse and rider are comfortable.
Saddles were placed on a saddle stand to allow riders to get a feel for how to sit properly in the saddle, so as not to give the horse any discomfort. If you have any holes or bad habits in your riding, they will come out when you ride sidesaddle! If you lean or are a crooked rider, it is amplified in a sidesaddle.
One of the hardest things for me to get over was that while your left foot (the one in the stirrup) keeps the normal “heels down” position, your right foot is meant to be “toes down”. My muscle memory kept wanting to revert (as you can see in the picture) but the different positioning allows you to “lock” yourself into the saddle better. It was explained that if you lifted your left thigh into the block, pointed your right foot toes down and put your right shoulder back, you could ride a buck all day and be laughing (luckily we didn’t have to put that to the test!) but just trying it out while sitting there, you felt more secure in the saddle.
After finding saddles that fit the rider, saddles were fitted to the horse. While some came with a specific girth, most of them used a regular jumping saddle girth. Different from other saddles, a side saddle also includes an overgirth that holds the flaps down and a balancing strap to provide stability.
Mounting also proved to be a challenge as the sole stirrup is designed to break away from the saddle with weight. A leg up is the easiest way to get on, or a short horse and really tall mounting block!
Once mounted, we all proceeded to walk around the arena, getting used to the saddle while sitting astride (note, these saddles are not comfortable when riding normally!) Once horse and rider were ready, we swung our legs over. For those that know Splash, she can be incredibly lazy and requires a lot of leg to ride. This proved to be challenge as I lost half of my aids but using a whip as a leg when needed helped. We worked on our equitation, sitting straight and square in the saddle and keeping our legs in the proper position. When we all felt comfortable, we picked up a trot.
Luckily Splash’s trot is like sitting on a couch so we didn’t get jarred around too much. Sitting trot is much easier than the posting trot so kudos to those that ride side saddle on a springy horse!
We also got to try a bit of canter, which was really hard without that extra leg on the side, we managed to get a few strides. Funny enough, the canter was much easier to ride than the trot, I’m guessing because of the motion. It almost felt as if it was locking you into the saddle even more; making you feel more secure.
We also got to play dress up and try on a few riding aprons, just to complete the look.
If you ever get the chance to try out one of these saddles, I highly recommend it. It really gives you an appreciation for those that do it and make it look so easy (I’m talking to you fox hunters!)