While sidesaddles have been an uncommon sight in international dressage, Grade III Para-Dressage rider Barbara Minneci stands out for exactly that reason since she launched her international career about 10 years ago. The Belgian two-time Paralympian made a virtue of necessity and says that sidesaddle riding combines sport and art because it requires a completely submissive horse.
For decades, Queen Elizabeth II appeared in the traditional military parade, Trooping the Color, in honor of her birthday, on horseback, and none would have expected it any differently than in a traditional sidesaddle. This elegant way to ride had inseparably related to the high aristocracy for a long time, even though in the 19th century some ladies began to appear in European circuses, showing movements of the haute école with both legs to the left side.
In equestrian sport, which only became significant from the beginning of the 20th Century on, competing in a sidesaddle in dressage and jumping was not an uncommon sight well into the 1930s before it disappeared completely after World War II with the social acceptance of ladies riding astride.
In this article, Minneci not only discusses her own approach to finding a way to communicate with her horses despite her handicap, but she also explains why riding sidesaddle doesn’t allow any shortcuts and leads to a refined communication with the horse.
A Virtue of Necessity
Minneci, now 49, was diagnosed with cancer and underwent treatment from 1996 through 2004. Before her diagnosis, she had ridden and competed regionally. But after receiving treatment that left her with monoplegia in her left leg and total muscle loss in her right, Minneci was unable to ride astride and the sidesaddle remained the only option to ride at all.
In 2005, she met Barilla, or “Baba,” a just saddle broke Irish Cob mare who was thought to be nothing more than her revalidation horse. But Baba was so reliable and eager to learn that Minneci discovered her old love for competing again. Together they found a common language and annually represented Belgium in international Para-Dressage championships from 2009 on, coming in sixth at the Paralympics in London in 2012 and 12th at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Having won and placed highly at international shows in 2018 with her new horse Stuart, a 9-year-old Oldenburg gelding by Sir Donnerhall/Diamond Hit, Minneci was selected for the World Equestrian Games in Tryon, North Carolina, in September. “I’m going there without specific expectations,” said Minneci prior to making her trip to the states. “I know that Stuart can show very good things if he feels relaxed on American ground, but I also know that I’m riding in a very strong class!”
While a rider riding astride can make full use of her leg aids, a sidesaddle rider, even if she is able-bodied, relies predominantly on her weight aids, the whip and her voice. So it is undoubted that sidesaddle riding is more challenging, as the leg aids have to be very subtle to achieve the horse’s straightness.
“I was very lucky that I had the opportunity to train with Portuguese dressage rider Pedro de Almeida from 2007 to 2011,” said Minneci. “Pedro always said that with correct classical training any horse can learn more demanding dressage movements. He also allowed me to ride two of his Lusitanos in the sidesaddle. They were so well trained that a subtle change of weight was often enough, and this is what sidesaddle riding is all about: School the horse to a point that the slightest shift of weight is sufficient. To get there a rider has to develop a special kind of communication, which can vary from horse to horse and which I call a ‘dictionary of aids.’”
When riding sidesaddle, the rider has to take particular care to straighten the horse in all gaits to achieve the best symmetry possible. Because the rider’s weight is always slightly more on the left when riding sidesaddle, some horses, especially the sensitive ones, tend to put their back to the right. Generally, riding in the sidesaddle with the idea of a very slight shoulder-fore on the right lead will help to take care that the horse remains straight. “Stuart, my current competition horse, is very sensitive, so I use my weight as the left leg aid and the whip in the right hand as the right leg aid. However, Baba, my Irish Cob mare, was less sensitive to the weight, so I usually had to ride her with a second whip to replace my paralyzed left leg.”
Both horses had to learn to ignore Minneci’s left leg, which due to her handicap is useless and bumps slightly into the horses’ flanks in trot. Each horse’s reaction to the whip and rider’s weight aids varies and each rider has to figure this out during the course of a horse’s training. “Where to touch a horse, and with what intensity to cause a reaction, is a bit of trial and error at the beginning,” said Minneci. “This continues until a horse and rider have found a common language and can enlarge their dictionary step by step.”
The main difference regarding the aids between riding astride and sidesaddle without the use of Minneci’s left leg is that occasionally she has to give different aids for the same exercise, depending on which direction the horse is going. “For instance, when I want to ride a leg yield to the left, beginning with one or two steps shoulder-fore, I ask for this with the whip—in my right hand—a little bit behind the position where a rider would have his right leg and with both my hands turned slightly to the left to induce this movement,” explains Minneci. “On the other hand, leg yield to the right requires me to turn my shoulders slightly to the left to confirm my weight aid and I slightly open the outside rein to start the movement.”
Another example for the different use of aids in the same movement, depending on the lead, is the walk pirouette. “When executing it to the right, it is sufficient just to ask the horse to turn both shoulders to the right with both hands because the weight aid of my body is already asking the horse to maintain the back in this direction,” says Minneci. “Whereas for the pirouette to the left I first have to bring the horse’s back to the left through the whip slightly backward and then bring the shoulders of the horse to the left through both reins. The impulsion, depending on the horse’s natural go, has to be kept by my voice, which is my third aid when riding.”
Retraining a Horse
A correctly trained horse will be able to be ridden astride as well as in the sidesaddle. However, a high degree of throughness and submission is necessary to replace the missing leg aids through those of the seat. For that reason, it was very helpful that Minneci’s horse Stuart had already received basic training from his rider in Germany when she bought him in 2017. “He was pretty straight, had a pleasant will to go forward and was very good in his head,” she says. “A well-trained horse will react very well to weight aids and, in general, horses will always learn what the rider wants them to do, even if it can occasionally take time. As Stuart is a very sensitive and clever horse, he not only adapted quickly to my wheelchair and my different handling from the ground, but also to this different kind of riding.”
Minneci’s main goal while training a horse is to ride calmly, forward and straight, which she credits to the classical training techniques of French General Alexis L’Hotte. “There are two types of training units: The first is aimed to increase the precision of my aids to make my horse more supple without him learning something new. The second is to teach the horse something new and challenge his thinking.
“At the beginning of our partnership, I only longed Stuart to acquaint him with the voice aids that I use when I ride,” explains Minneci. “At the same time Nils Debo, a young Belgian dressage rider who trains Stuart twice a week sitting astride, used the same voice aids together with his normal aids in the movements, so my horse would understand both together. I myself then began riding Staurt in simple arena figures, using the voice aids from longeing and certain whip positions to get him used to our new ‘language,’ a kind of basic understanding from which our dictionary will be enlarged with time.”
Minneci’s routine is to ride Stuart three times a week, while Debo rides him twice astride and teaches him new movements. Minneci also longes Stuart once per week in side reins to improve his stability. “I feel that these longeing sessions are also good to strengthen our relationship,” she explains.
Since Minneci cannot do posting trot, her typical training session starts with 10 minutes of longeing so Stuart’s back gets warmed up. “I longe him without any rein aids and take special care that he is attentive to my voice aids and reacts promptly. This helps later with the ridden part, as I use exactly the same voice aids then. After this warm-up, I saddle my horse and start with at least 10 minutes of walk. This phase is very important for Stuart as well as for me to relax our muscles and tune in. Furthermore, I am in my best balance in this gait and able to give the aids most precisely.
“While riding leg yield in walk, I check how Stuart reacts to my weight aids and can change them accordingly,” she continues. “After trotting forward and in a position with the horse stretching down and onto the bit, I begin the main part of the training session, which consists of riding transitions. I also ride transitions during the lateral work—from walk to trot and vice versa, but always transitions within trot. They are not only useful to collect Stuart, but to keep his attention and keep him interested so I can receive the fine reactions from him. As with any good classical training, the focus is on making the horse more supple, more submissive and to put him in a better balance so he is more comfortable to ride.”
When Sport Becomes Art
Even though riding sidesaddle wasn’t an intentional decision by Minneci, but a pure necessity to continue riding after her illness, she does not regret it in the least. In contrary, she believes that riding sidesaddle has helped her gain the submissiveness of the horse (that is, his will to react to the slightest of aids), which Minneci says is the top priority. “It is impossible to force a horse to do something because you are missing the legs and you would immediately lose your balance if you tried it in the sidesaddle,” she says. “Thus, there cannot be any shortcuts in your horse’s training and it’s going to take longer. But in the end, I will have a really well-ridden horse who allows me to make sport also an art.”
Barbara Minneci, a Belgian Para Grade III rider, was an enthusiastic rider in her teenage days. She took up riding again as a rehab measure after cancer treatment in 2005, which left her with monoplegia and muscle loss, forcing her to ride sidesaddle. With her charming Irish Cob mare, Barilla, Minneci competed twice at the Paralympics and came in fifth in the 2012 London Games. Her new ride, the Oldenburg gelding Stuart, has risen in only his second season to win and place highly at international shows in 2018 on their way to the 2018 World Equestrian Games in Tryon, North Carolina.
Find More on Dressage Today Online!
In this DTO video, former British Paralympic Dressage Coach, Michel Assouline discusses the history of the Paralympics, the differences between the different grades and what level tests competitors are riding. Today, Assouline is the head of para-equestrian coach development and high performance consultant for the USEF. Watch this video at dressagetodayonline.com/michel then try DTO free for 30 days at dressagetodayonline.com/30freedt.