Riding dressage in a side saddle (also called “riding aside”) has a long history that can be traced back to the late 17th and early 18th centuries. In paintings of the time, splendidly attired ladies can be seen participating in the opulent and theatrical carousels so popular in the courts of Louis XIV of France. Elizabeth, Empress of Austria, was famous for her side-saddle accomplishments, performing all of the high-school movements resplendent in an exquisite habit into which she was sewn each morning. While some women did ride astride in a man’s saddle (also called a “cross saddle”), most followed the status quo into the 20th century and rode aside.
Today’s side-saddle riders need not go to such extremes to practice the art. While still a novelty in the dressage ring, an increasing number are riding successfully aside down the centerline. Maryland’s Joan Bennett pioneered competing aside in dressage and, in 1991, was the first aside rider to earn her U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF) bronze medal. Robin Brueckmann, a U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF) “S” judge, competed and wrote a book about riding side saddle in the 1980s. Anne Moss, of Pennsylvania, went further when she became the only lady to earn her USDF silver medal aside. Eloise King competed at the Grand Prix level aside on her Arabian gelding, Gindari, in California in the 1990s.
Women are still attracted to riding dressage aside. Some want to experience the elegance of the seat; others like the challenge and the history; still others need to accommodate physical limitations. Dressage master Walter Zettl rode side saddle after a hip replacement, and it was through instruction with him that I was inspired to pursue dressage aside. As
Walter said to me in one lesson, “Anything you can do astride, you can do aside—anything.” But no matter how determined or accomplished the rider, no one can ride effectively without a good saddle. Should you be interested in this challenging seat, this article will help you evaluate saddles so you can begin with confidence.
It surprises many to learn that side saddles come in as many types and styles as cross saddles. The term “side saddle” simply refers to the rider having both legs on one side of the horse. It is not a discipline. Side saddles have been specifically designed for many types of riding, such as fox hunting, Western pleasure, gaited horses, trail and even roping.
The seat. The traditional, flat-seated English side saddle is best for dressage. This “modern” saddle made its first appearance about 100 years ago, and no one has been able to improve upon it. The broad, flat seat is level (not tilted forward, back or to either side) and parallel to the ground when fitted correctly. This allows the rider to sit with her back and hips facing straight forward as they would in a cross saddle. It also allows her to keep her weight over the horse’s center of gravity as he moves.
Pommels. A side saddle is equipped with two horns, or pommels, most often on the left side of the seat although you can find some on the right. The upper horn is for the right leg and the lower horn (also called the “leaping head”) curves over the rider’s left thigh. The leaping head is an essential safety feature that enables the rider to firmly grip the saddle and remain seated while jumping or riding a shy or buck.
Flocking. When viewed from the rear, a properly stuffed side saddle will appear to tilt very slightly to the right due to a bit more flocking in the left rear panel. This is done because the rider’s weight tends toward the left even as she tries to keep it centered over the horse’s back. Then, when she is seated, the saddle looks level. Flocking and panel stuffing vary between saddles. Proper stuffing not only makes the saddle more comfortable for the horse, it adds considerably to the stability of the saddle on the horse’s back.
Girths. A three-fold leather girth has been the most successful in distributing the pressure and preventing the saddle from shifting and pinching the horse. String girths work on some horses. Elastic girths are generally unsuitable because they allow the saddle to shift, most notably to the left and rear.
In addition to the primary girth, side saddles require a balance girth or strap. The balance girth is an important safety feature that keeps the saddle in place by counteracting the extra weight on the left side and stabilizing the cantle. It is buckled near the left front of the saddle, under the rider’s legs, and runs diagonally under the horse’s barrel, through a loop sewn onto the girth and to a billet on the right rear side of the saddle. The girth loop prevents the balance girth from slipping back and pinching. It should be snug but not as tight as the girth. Some riders use a short balance girth that is sewn onto the girth. This shorter girth works well for some horses but is less stable than a full balance girth. Its adjustability is limited so it cannot be used on multiple horses.
Saddle pads. A thick pad can cause the saddle to roll and will interfere with the important use of weight as an aid. My preference is a thin quilted dressage pad that is cut away on the right side so it doesn’t interfere with the whip. Shaped side-saddle fleece or thin foam pads can be purchased from several sources: Mattes makes a high-quality fleece side-saddle pad, and Cashell makes a special side-saddle wedge pad that is cut thicker on the left side than the right. Thin rubber pads can be added to prevent slippage.
Finding a Saddle
Proper fit is crucial for both horse and rider, and while some corrective padding may be required, in general, wedges, shims and other devices should be used sparingly. Materials placed between the horse and the saddle serve to make the saddle less stable and encourage it to roll. Beware of saddles that are not built on a side saddle tree but are simply astride trees with a leaping head bolted on. Improper side saddles are difficult to ride in, uncomfortable and can be dangerous. I have seen some in which the billets were simply stapled onto the tree.
Fortunately, the Internet has made the side-saddle search much easier, and competent side-saddlers can be found throughout this country and across Europe. In addition, there are multiple side-saddle organizations that can direct the aspiring rider to appropriate saddles and they frequently host clinics and list certified instructors (see “Side saddle Resources” p. 55).
The best side saddles are those made in the 1920s through the 1940s. While these may sound ancient, they were exquisitely made with the finest leather and materials, which modern saddles have not surpassed. Usually these saddles will need some refurbishing, so have it inspected by a knowledgeable side-saddler to make sure it is safe.
Brands: The best saddles were made by a select number of English firms, including Champion and Wilton, Whippy, Owen, Mayhew, Knoud and Martin & Martin. Some of the high-end astride saddlers occasionally made side saddles, and you may find one with a Passier or Hermes nameplate. You may also find high-quality modern side saddles built on old trees or reproductions, such as those made by English saddlers Dempsy, Jenkins or Swain. The Manorgrove is a custom side saddle that is currently built in Walsall, England. Karl Neidersuss, manufacturer of popular dressage saddles, also makes a modern high-quality side saddle.
Size: In the United States, side saddles are measured from the front of the upright horn to the cantle, whereas in England they are measured from the cutback to the cantle, resulting in a difference of three to four inches. Ascertain which method is being utilized when saddle shopping. The size of saddle required corresponds to the length of the seated rider’s thigh from the back of the knee to the edge of the seat. In addition, the saddle’s seat needs to be wide enough to accommodate the rider’s hips.
Tree width across the withers is measured in the same manner as an astride saddle, but because many of the older saddles were made for Thoroughbreds and Saddlebreds, finding saddles wide enough for warmbloods and modern sport breeds can be a challenge.
Always try to ride in the side saddle before buying it.
Cost: If you’re lucky, you can find an inexpensive side saddle at an auction or estate sale. Be prepared to spend $2,000 to $4,000 for a new side saddle. A good-quality used saddle from a shop might be more or less depending on its condition.
Mounting & the Correct Position
In the old days, a lady had a gentleman handy to give her a lift into the saddle, but the modern woman uses a more utilitarian method. After checking the tightness of the girths, she uses a mounting block, which is ideal because it limits pulling the saddle to the left. But you can also mount using the stirrup as you would in a cross saddle.
Sit astride for a moment to straighten and assess your position. From the waist up, the aside rider should be indistinguishable from an astride rider, and from the rear, her spine should always align with that of the horse. Hips should be square and even with equal weight distribution. The hips are even laterally, and the rider sits squarely facing the front of the horse, not sideways.
Once this straight, even position is established, swing the right leg over the withers to rest on the upper horn without allowing the right hip to move forward. Keep the right thigh almost parallel to the horse’s spine bearing most of your weight on the right thigh and hip. Do not lean or sit to the right.
Point the right calf and toe downward and press against the shoulder of the horse, which results in the right knee pressing against the upper horn. This pressure is referred to as “purchase.” This is the grip that keeps you in the saddle.
The stirrup supports the left leg, but no downward pressure is exerted, and the heel is level or slightly down with the foot parallel to the horse’s side.
Don’t use the stirrup to push yourself up and onto the saddle. You don’t want to jam your left thigh up against the leaping head, however, there is what’s called a “reserve grip” used when jumping or during sudden movements, such as bucks or shies. The left toe presses down onto the stirrup and wedges the left thigh against the leaping head. This, combined with the purchase of the right leg, results in a scissor-like grip on the pommels—a very secure position—but you must keep your right shoulder back for it to be effective.
Riding dressage aside may seem difficult or counterproductive in that the horse must still be balanced and straight with equal contact on both reins while bearing a rider who sits asymmetrically. But a correct side-saddle rider is also balanced, and some horses perform better under the side saddle. A dressage rider aside adapts what she and her horse already know, applying the aids in similar ways. She will find her weight aids especially effective. Many riders with back and hip problems, as well as some Para-dressage riders, find that the side saddle allows them to pursue a discipline that might otherwise not be achievable. For everyone, taking the time to find the right side saddle will pay off in the long run. Riders, like myself, who have pursued this path can attest that it has been worth the effort.
Robin A. Scarborough, DVM, MFS, is a practicing veterinarian who has been riding aside for more than 20 years. An International Side Saddle Organization certified instructor, she has competed through Fourth Level dressage, riding aside on her 15-year-old Morgan gelding, Marvelous Omen. He is the third Morgan that Scarborough has shown in dressage aside. She hopes to make her side-saddle debut at Prix St. Georges this year. She has also shown aside in multiple disciplines, from working hunter to Western. Scarborough lives near Columbia, Maryland, with her husband, Bruce.