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“Riding Aside” Is On the Rise

The first of a series on the traditional but still-popular sidesaddle riding style, by a sidesaddle instructor and judge.

Jeannie Whited and Crystal Illusion
Jeannie Whited and Crystal Illusion
Courtesy Billie Whited

Elegance, versatility, history, security - only some of the many reasons riders look for sidesaddles today.

The elegance and history of riding aside cannot be denied, but security? Properly constructed and ridden, the aside seat is so secure that some therapeutic riding programs use them for disabled riders. Versatility? Many breeds and organizations offer divisions or classes for the sidesaddle rider, or allow aside riders to compete in open classes. From barrel racing and reining to hunt field and dressage to costumes and parades, the demand for sidesaddles is on the rise.

How about a suitable horse? Any equine can be ridden aside - so long as his saddle fits properly! Some older books on the topic recommend a horse with "a nice sloping shoulder," "flattering head" and other conformation traits. However, there is no "requirement" for a sidesaddle horse. One with smooth gaits will be more comfortable, but when is this not true? Ideally he should be patient and stand quietly, again "normal" good qualities in a horse. Donkeys were historically often used as mounts for children and women, and today a number of women enjoy riding their mules aside. Truly, any equine can make a suitable sidesaddle horse.,/p>

The limiting factor in riding aside may be the availability of a properly fitting sidesaddle. Many saddles made by the well-known "old names" such as Owen, Champion & Wilton, or Martin & Martin are relatively narrow, best suited for Thoroughbreds, or many gaited horses. Many of today's horses are broader than their counterparts of yesteryear, especially with the growing popularity of drafts and Warmbloods in America. However, wide older saddles are sometimes found, and saddles made today are of course intended for today's horses.

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Basics About Sidesaddle Position

Mounting might be the most daunting part of riding aside. To be technically correct, a groom gives the rider a leg up, and she reaches the saddle sitting properly. Of course, this takes much practice, both from the rider and the groom! In common practice, most aside riders use a mounting block of some sort, and straddle the saddle first. Then, without moving the seatbones, swing the right leg around the fixed head, and find their stirrup with the left foot. Using a mounting block is preferable to the stirrup, as you are likely to tip the saddle. Even a slight straightening of the saddle is difficult, as there is no offside stirrup to use to "wrench" it over. The most important thing about mounting is to keep your seat and saddle square.

Your seat, naturally, is on the broadest part of the saddle, square to the horse's back. Your right thigh lies on the saddle directly in front of you, and to right of upright pommel. If you have a pommel on either side of the seat, then your leg lies between them. Your right calf rests behind the horse's shoulder, with the knee bent 90 degrees. The left leg is in a position very similar to astride riding, falling naturally from the hip, knee on the saddle, and stirrup lightly held on the ball of the foot. The leaping head will curve over your left thigh. Adjust your stirrup so there is about a hand's thickness between your leg and the leaping head. You may find that your left foot and calf are farther away from you horse's side. This is normal. When cueing your horse, you may find it necessary to "break" at the ankle, turning the sole of your foot to the outside, allowing your lower leg to contact the horse's side. This "breaking" action allows you to keep your left knee on the saddle, and under the leaping head where you may best balance.

Center your weight through your right thigh, placing it about where your seat is astride. Your natural inclination will be to lean forward, but this actually throws you off-balance. Instead, think of opening the angle between your leg and torso, pressing the thigh straight down into the saddle. Do not force it down, as doing so stiffens your back. Instead use your body weight to stretch and settle your leg into the saddle. The position will naturally feel odd for a time - you've never done this before!

A natural tendency is to allow your right seatbone and shoulder to slide forward. After all, you're sitting sideways, right? Actually, you're not. From behind, you should look exactly any other rider, except you're missing your right leg! There are many tales of how sidesaddle riding causes bad backs in horses and people. Sitting twisted in your saddle is a sure way to become another one of those tales. While in the saddle, if you drop your right arm, it should brush your hip, and your fingers should brush the balance strap.

If you'd like an idea what it should feel like while sitting at your computer, try this: turn your chair sideways. Sit on the edge of it, with both seatbones on the chair. Allow your left foot to touch the floor, but do not put much weight in it. Your right leg extends in front of you, with your knee hooked about the corner. If you put too much weight in your seat, you'll likely feel that you are sliding off. However, balanced evenly through your right leg, your position is more balanced.

What makes the sidesaddle position more secure than sitting sideways on your chair is called your purchase. Your right calf, while resting behind the horse's shoulder, is pushing your right thigh into the fixed pommel. Greater pressure with your calf holds you in tighter, but be careful to not allow your right seatbone to creep forward. You will find with experimentation that a little purchase goes a long way, and a lot will only tire you.

In an emergency, sidesaddle riders have an advantage called the emergency grip. By pressing your right calf against the saddle, and the left thigh into the leaping head, you are locked into the saddle. Clamping down like this is uncomfortable to both your horse and you as a normal way to ride. Yet for an emergency, such as a bucking horse, or an unexpected jump across a creek, you can secure your seat.

A whip (such as a dressage whip) can be used as a substitute for your missing right leg, if required. However, beginning riders often find it just one thing too many to track as they try to adjust to their new seat. Unless you have a particularly stubborn horse, you may find it unnecessary for now. If you chose to use one, you should only tap it lightly near the girth where your leg would be. When not in use, hold it quietly against the horse's shoulder, or diagonally across the offside flap.

Dismounting is a simple task. Turn so you are sitting sideways, on the near or left side, swinging your right leg over the pommels. Then slide straight down, taking care to not catch the pommels. There is no need to push away from the horse, and he might wander off if you do. If you wish assistance, a ground person can hold your mount with the left hand, while extending you their right to aid your descent.

The Walk

As you prepare to walk on, consider how the walk feels astride. It rocks you side to side, a little forward. It will feel about the same, but remember there is much more of you on the horse's back now. Sit up tall and proud, and ask your horse to walk on by nudging him with your left leg. Keep your right leg relaxed so it can follow the motion. Balanced properly, you will feel more forward and back motion with your thigh, and a little less side to side. Relax and follow it naturally, allowing your right thigh to rock ever so gently with the movement. Breathe. Leave just enough weight in your seat to keep it there. Check your seat - if you hang your right arm down, does it brush your hip? Can your fingertips brush the balance strap? If not, readjust yourself and keep walking on. Try a few circles and turns to try your balance, and change the rein.

The Trot

Not surprisingly, many consider the trot to be the most difficult gait aside because of its bounciness. Historically, ladies took their horses to a canter directly from a walk. But don't let a little jostling bother you - with practice you'll get the hang of it quickly enough. Aside, the sitting trot is much simpler than posting. Again, consider the feeling of a sitting trot astride. There is much more forward than the walk, but still some side to side. As with the walk, follow the motion through your thigh. Your weight may want to shift farther toward your knee, especially if your horse is bouncy. Let it. You may need a little more weight in your seat to keep it still, but do not throw it there. When you are balanced and moving well with the horse, it will feel like you are using your seat and thigh to draw a very flat oval. Keep sitting tall, and your seat square. Don't be embarrassed to walk or stop and regroup yourself.

The Canter

The canter is generally considered the most elegant gait aside. Though it is one of the easiest to ride, it can be difficult to get into. Often it is simpler to pick up the right lead. Once more, consider the canter motion astride. Basically it feels like a circle, not parallel to the track but turned inside a little. Again, it is the same aside, with your thigh opening and closing the angle from your torso. Your weight may shift from as far as the front of your seat to nearly your knee. From the trot, ask your horse to canter when he beings to move his front inside foot forward. Put your left leg upon him, and push toward the inside with your seat. When balanced, you will find yourself in a very pleasant rocking motion.

The Posting Trot

Once you are comfortable at a canter, consider looking at the posting trot. Quite unlike astride, posting aside is virtually the same motion as the canter. As the horse's outside leg moves forward, allow your weight to shift virtually to the point of your knee. Think of your leg as a spring, a shock absorber for all of the trot's bounciness. Your seat will not leave the saddle, for doing so leaves you in a precarious position. And you must never, never use the stirrup to push yourself. This will twist you in the saddle, and pull it out of position on the horse. Even more so than astride, practicing posting without stirrup aside is an excellent exercise. It will also prepare your muscles for jumping!

For more information on riding aside:

World Sidesaddle Federation, Inc. www.sidesaddle.org

International Side Saddle Organization www.sidesaddle.com.

Jeannie Whited is a life member and certified judge/instructor of the World Sidesaddle Federation, Inc., and a member of the International Side-Saddle Organization (ISSO).

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