Saturday, 3 June 2017

A bit on the side

Back in March, I had my first try at riding side saddle and I absolutely loved it! I was expecting to feel really precarious, but actually it was surprisingly comfortable. I rode Rolo, and for the first time I felt that I was actually in pretty good control of when and where we stopped.
My first time!
Having watched the person before me doing some trotting and cantering, I thought these both looked horrificbut Rolo's trot was much smaller than normal (just as well, because you sit to it without rising) and although the canter felt peculiar it didn't feel horrid!
It probably helps that I've become vaguely accustomed to sitting sideways in canter through vaulting.
Earlier this week I went back and had my second lesson. This time we didn't do any cantering but we did film a dressage test for Dressage Anywhere. Philippa, who is the instructor, gave me loads of really useful advice and I'm really excited about what we can achieve in the future. The test has been marked and I achieved 72.19% - I don't know for sure how this will compare against everyone else (will confirm in a few days!) but it's higher than the score I got the first time, which is pretty gratifying after less than an hour of instruction.
So, what advice would I have for someone thinking of trying it for the first time, and what are the main things that struck me as unexpected, difficult or interesting?

The first thing to say is that if you want to give it a go then find an instructor and go for it! I'm very lucky that I had the opportunity to ride a familiar horse but there are quite a lot of instructors around who can help you out. I certainly wouldn't want to try a side saddle on a horse who was new to it without professional help: even just tacking up with a side saddle is a bit different, and obviously the riding technique is different. An additional problem for starting out entirely on your own is that the saddles are expensive and must fit the horse comfortably. The Side Saddle Association has a good website which should help you to find someone to teach you with their own equipment.
Being poked by Philippa!
What to wear: for the two lessons I've had I've just worn normal riding kit, but I now know that a lady's side saddle outfit is called a habit. It comprises a jacket and a matching skirt (called an apron) which isn't a real skirt but wraps around the rider when they're on the horse to look like one. Underneath, the lady's modesty is preserved by means of breeches in the same colour as the habit! For top level shows riders would wear a bowler or top hat with a veil covering the head. I'm quite glad I'm not at that level yet...
The apron!
The only difference in clothing for training compared to riding astride is that you shouldn't wear a half chap on your right leg, because the zip can rub the horse. I only found this out after I hopped off for the second time, though, which is why I'm flouting this rule in the photos!
At least the zip is quite soft and flat.
How to get going: your left foot is really clamped into the horse's side, so it's hard to give any change in pressure to give him a nudge. At the moment I'm riding without a crop in either hand so it's currently a situation of using my seat and voice to get an upward transition, along with whatever my left foot can manage!
My left foot probably isn't in quite the right position but you get the idea!
Steering: obviously my steering situation isn't the same as people who ride with two hands. When I ride astride, I use my seat (in particular my hips) and torso a lot for steering, and do what I can with my legs. Sitting in a side saddle makes it more difficult to open the hips one way or another, but I can still use my upper body and my seat bones to influence the horse. One of the things I find quite strange is that I have to hold my hand quite high so that my reins don't get caught on my left leg. Philippa has said that the reins should be held slightly to the right in a side saddle, which suits me because that's one of my bad habits when seated astride!
Or you can just carry your hand quite high, like this - not so comfy though.
Stopping: stopping is so much easier in a side saddle it's almost unreal. That being said, the only horse I've ridden side saddle is Rolo and I'm used to him being a bit of a nightmare to stop when riding astride. I don't know if every horse is suddenly more receptive to the bit and seat aids in a side saddle but I'm very glad that Rolo is! Apart from the normal means of stopping a horse, in side saddle you also squeeze your legs together - so you push your left leg up against the leaping head and your right head down against the fixed head. This slows or stops the horse and also has the pleasing effect of encouraging the horse to halt square.
Sitting: this is still something I have to work on, certainly. The idea is that you sit as if you were riding astride, except you've just plopped your right leg over the top a bit. In other words, your bum should still be in the same place - weight evenly balanced over both seat bones, and sitting square to the horse's spine. You shouldn't be twisted or sitting sideways, or allowing your right seat bone to edge forwards. This is quite tricky to maintain, especially if you're doing some trotting where you might get jumbled around a bit more. Definitely work in progress for me!
Apparently this really was straight and in the middle. Rolo just has a big bum and was standing wonky...
Getting on and off: the way I've been taught to mount is generally seen to be the best way to ensure that the horse is safe and comfortable and that the rider isn't going to end up in a messy heap on the floor. The horse should walk to a high mounting block and the rider should first sit astride, without placing the left foot in the stirrup until sitting on the horse. This means that the saddle won't slide or hurt the horse (unlike regular saddles, there's no stirrup on the right hand side for someone on the ground to hang onto to even up the pressure). Putting the left foot in the stirrup is actually quite tricky - it's shorter than on a regular saddle, and you have to start with your left thigh under the leaping head, which means forcing the left ankle into a pretty uncomfortable angle. Once the left foot is in and secure, you can plop the right leg over. To dismount, you take your left foot from the stirrup, shuffle back a bit, bring your right leg over the two pommels (heads) and then just slide off forwards.
You could also just train your servants to throw you on board, of course.
RDA tack with a side saddle: I don't need my special stirrups to ride side saddle. Partly this is because the side saddle uses a completely different style of stirrup leather (which can release quickly if necessary in an emergency). It's also because I don't need the toe cap - once my leg is in place my foot is solidly jammed in position so there's no chance of it sliding through. As mentioned above, my reins are fine with the saddle but they do have to be held higher than normal reins would be. It's also harder to lean forwards and give a long rein because my leg is in the way - not a problem unless I just drop the reins!
Jumping: I haven't tried this yet.
I'll update with results for the Dressage Anywhere test once they're available. In the meantime, you can see my entry below or by clicking here to go to YouTube.

EDIT - We won!

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