Friday, January 28, 2011

Take me there....

After reading Robin's last post, I was most struck by her description of finally feeling as if she was in a Munning's painting come to life. I'm sure we've all done that, seen a a painting or a photo, and wanted to immerse ourselves in it. Vacations are planned that way... some destinations take longer to achieve. They require time travel, and personal skills. Whole collections and grand passions are built on such things.

Take me here...
Or here...

"Why weren't you out Yesterday?"
by Sir Alfred Munnings

by Sir Alfred Munnings

No news on the personal sidesaddle front. None of my "fixes" have arrived. I did pick up a sticky rug pad to put under my quilted pad to see if that stops some slippage. And I believe I have the leaping horn adjusted to my satisfaction. I've been riding bareback all week, and am pleased that after 4 weeks of strictly bareback, I have a much more independent seat, and my balance and confidence have improved greatly. I haven't even had to grab mane the last two times. I have gotten back to the point where if I feel I've bounced over to all my weight on one side, I just bounce it right back without my heart leaping into my throat. I feel 16 again! Only 30 pounds heavier... working on that too.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Miss Belle Beach ~ let time not forget

Riding and Driving for Women
by Belle Beach
Published 1912

"In these days of “advanced” ideas the advisability of women aping men in yet another way, by riding astride, is the subject of general discussion. Many “authorities” upon riding – “mere men”, it is needless to say – speak with enthusiasm of the day when all women will ride in this, for most of them, ungainly and unbecoming fashion, Personally, I deplore this tendency and believe that it is a mere passing fad and that, except under peculiar conditions which I will mention, most women ride best and look best in the side-saddle.

The average woman is not built for cross-saddle riding; her legs from the knee up are too short; her thighs too thick; her hips too big, and she is cushioned too high to enable her to keep close down with the required firmness on the saddle. The side-saddle certainly insures a stronger seat, especially in the cases of pitching forward, as, for instance, with a stumbling horse or a kicking one, or on landing after the jump.

In riding, women are very generally accompanied by men, and there are few occasions when a woman has it in her power to look better – or worse – than when in the saddle. It is only those women who are built like men and very young girls who look at all well astride. A woman with merely a normally developed figure looks both ridiculous and immodest in this position, and in an English saddle thoroughly ill at ease."

Little did Belle know, within a matter of decades, the world of riding would have changed so drastically from her predicitons. I can't say I even agree with her opinions. But she was certainly entitled to them.

Born in 1875, Miss Beach spent her life riding professionally and teaching the young ladies of society's elite to ride. A search of the NY Times pdf archives reveals pages and pages of articles mentioning Belle's exploits in the show ring and the details of her society life in NY and Newport. "Mrs. Beach and Miss Belle Beach closed their Newport season to-day, and went to New York for the Winter" Oct 08, 1902.... She died in 1927, destitute and suffering from cancer, rumored a suicide, having outlived the world she made her living at.

Besides her wonderful book, which can be read in it's entirety on Google Books and even downloaded in pdf form and printed, there are few materials available on this fascinating woman. There was a book in the works, mentioned here, which has not been finished. But time has not completely forgotten her. How would she have felt if she understood that nearly a 100 years later there would be a woman, sitting at an office desk, searching this modern wonder, the Internet, for clues on how to keep her thick thighs, big hips and too high cushioning on a side-saddle although she finds a cross-saddle so much more comfortable and secure? My how the world has changed.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


A few days have passed since my maiden voyage in a side saddle. I admit, I dismounted thinking something along the lines of “Wow, that really sucked.” But my enthusiasm has recovered. In fact, now it is difficult to wait for the issues to be resolved so I can take another crack at it. So each day I try to do a little something towards resolving the issues.

Let’s face it, even if the saddle had fit the horse and myself like a glove, I still would have a lot of skills to prefect and the saddle would have to be maintained over time. So no matter what I would have had a lot to learn and resources to gather. It was inevitable. My last horse was a very top quality five gaited show horse. He was not an easy horse to train and ride. I guarantee that learning the finer points of getting along with him and stay in the saddle was fraught with just as many pitfalls as learning to ride aside.

Ideally, I would live somewhere where there was an experienced side saddle person nearby to take me under her wing and show me the ropes. Ideally, life would be as it was when these lovely saddles were created, and there would be a saddler to measure and build to suit. Neither one of these things is true.

Of the resources I am aware of, the Side Saddlery in Bruceton Mills, WV is 4 hours away. Sidesaddle Heaven is over 7 hours away. Lillian Chaudray who repaired and reconditioned this saddle, is all the way across America. I’m sure there are many others within half a days drive, but those are the internet for instances that I’ve focused on. Luckily, I have a few people, the person I purchased the saddle from, and Lillian for starters, who have been very gracious in answering my questions and suggesting directions for me to go. Besides that, the internet resources and the books I have are serving fairly well.

So here is what I’ve done thus far:
Reins: I found that Googling “Extra Long Reins” gave me many shopping alternatives. They need to be at least 66” long. American Lady Aside sells long (plain) double reins which are appropriate for a Pelham or Double Bridle, and proportionately pricey. My horse is still more comfortable in a snaffle, so I ordered a set of braided reins from Dover.

Girth: I am not comfortable using the flimsy looking girth extender any more than necessary. I ordered a string girth which will serve as a practice girth. I can order a three fold girth in the future.

Cantle leveling: I ordered a closed cell pad with a cantle lift. This will give me the half inch I think I need until I decide whether or not I need the front reduced a bit. It will also give me a basis for shimming the near side additionally to see if that needs to be done as well.

And finally, the leaping head. I have found how to remove the leather cover. My farrier or another experienced metal worker will be able to heat and reshape the iron to fit my thigh. More about the adjustable leaping head in the future.

And in the mean time, the saddle sits in my living room looking ever so elegant and taunting me as all I can do is shop for her highness and rub her with conditioner. What a life!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Sidesaddle Savant~NOT

This is going to be hard. I mean, I never assumed it would be easy. But this is going to be really hard. I guess I sort of assumed I might show just a whisper of natural side saddle aptitude. I do not. Last year, after I saucily dared him, my good friend Bill borrowed a side saddle, took "one or two practice rides at the barn", and proceeded to stage this grand performance at a horse show, collecting donations, for the benefit of Saddlebred Rescue. Now I always assumed Bill to be a more talented rider than myself. But I thought the difference, perchance, rested in his hands. Not so. I am thoroughly humbled. I would not have made it through the in-gate.

Saturdays are side saddle days, so I loaded the old lady up and headed for the barn. First I wanted to get to the bottom of some fit issues. The biggest would be the leveling of the seat. I borrowed a four foot level from my husband. I saddled up the grey horse, pulled aside the safe where it covers the cut back, and placed the level down the center line like so.

Not bad actually. Less than a half a bubble off. I know there is some dip to the seat which gives an optical illusion but the cantle is almost level with the pommel. I raise the end of the level over the cantle until the bubble was centered. Mmmm... a little less than half an inch. I got a half inch gel pad and placed it under the saddle, back from the pommel so it would raise the cantle only.

WHOA! Pegged the bubble. That might be a little too much. But we assume my weight will condense the padding. I decided to leave it in there for experimental purposes.

Next I tried to get a photo of the gullet at the withers. Good luck. All I can say is that the clearance is good. Not to high. Actually we have two other fit issues that are proving more problematic. The first one is the padding of the panels at the front. If I slide my fingers under the saddle, there is a tight point right behind the end of his shoulder blade. The rest is comfortable, and the points of the tree are wide enough.

The second problem is that blasted Martin & Martin garage door hinge. It's curved to sharply and puts a pressure point on his rib cage right at the bottom of the flap.

For short rides with a pad, this probably wouldn't be too bad. But for any real riding, especially without a pad, there would be a rubbed raw spot in short order. I imagine the metal hinge could be reshaped a bit? The seller already suggested it could be removed entirely because of the tight pinch it puts on the leather when you raise the hinge is destroying the off side flap.

The hinge is very handy for raising the flap while mounted to tighten the girth, but it is posing two problems and only offering one solution. At least the snap when it closes does not startled my "unflappable" Saddlebred.

The curve of the hinge.

So I bridled Grey and put him out on the longe line. No reaction to the balance strap whatsoever today. I announced my intention to sit in my saddle to my mother, and she came in to hold the horse for me. I am very grateful that I instilled, from the very beginning, the absolute necessity that Grey stand around and wait for me to say we are ready to move off. He stood like a rock, patiently entertaining himself with his bit and trying to stuff the entire longe line in his mouth while Mom and I studied gravity and other problematic laws of physics as they pertain to the human anatomy.

First obvious thing? I'm going to need those longer reins. I also need to learn to keep my right foot out of them. My first impression of the saddle? Wow this thing is WIDE! As I sat stride it I wondered how on earth a male groom would hang one of those groom's pad things with an extra stirrup to ride milady's second horse to the hunt. But wide is good. Wide is very good. I'm wide too.

Second obvious thing. While the upright head is ample for the shape of my thigh, the leaping head is too tightly curved. Something will have to be done about that. Both my horse and I are proving to be less curvy than the saddle. Other than that I feel comfortable. I reach around and feel for the cantle. Not there. I remove my winter glove and feel for the cantle. One finger width of space. Well we know it isn't because I have extra long thighs. This is because of the second glass of wine in the evenings. And the gravy. And perhaps there is some butter and sour cream involved as well. Good incentive to work harder.

I study the mechanics of pressing my right ankle into the horse's shoulder to tighten my right thigh against the upright head. I practice pointing my toe down. I raise my stirrup one notch. OK, time to try moving. Mom steps Grey ahead. It's been 33 years since Mom led me on a horse. It was my the first day with my second pony. He spooked, did a Bambi spraddle, and dropped me. From a walk. Hopefully we will not have a repeat performance. Everything feels different. Very different. Sort of like the elephant ride at the circus. I fight with my reins and finally am able to leave them alone. I practice with my right leg again if for no other reason than to remain aware of my position.

I continually resist the urge to clamp my left leg to the leaping head, even though there really isn't much room for it there. One lap around and I begin to shift. I don't want the saddle to slip because I don't want to scare my horse, give him a bad experience and risk damaging the saddle. We stop to study the situation and tighten the girth. The saddle doesn't seem to have shifted on his withers. I throw my right leg astride and wiggle. Nope. Won't budge. Seems to be centred. Another lap around the round pen.

My ass is sliding to the left. We laugh a bit, stop again, tighten the balance strap. I still don't think it's the saddle's fault. Maybe I should have worn different breeches. Maybe forgetting the full seats was imprudent. I remember that when I awoke at 7 am, the Weather Channel declared it to be -3 outside. By the time I drove to the barn it had warmed up to a balmy +9. I think I can make a good case for the insulated, yet oddly glossy, britches being the prudent choice. Despite the bitter cold, my carefully chosen outfit is keeping all my edges rather toasty.
Yay Kerrits and Mountain Horse! We'll try the full seats next time.

Just in case my horse is caving under me, we reverse and walk the other way. Grey is enduring this with patience and aplomb as nearly 200 pounds of antique leather and clumsy rider clamber about on his back like a load of poorly secured camping gear. Nope, still sliding. I mean I'm headed down hill like a I'm on a water slide. Only this time I can feel the saddle coming with me. I tell Mom to stop because I want to hop off right here and see if the saddle is really doing what it feels like it's doing. Yes, the pommel may have shifted a bit, but as you can see from this photo, the cantle has shifted left.

Perhaps we DO need some flocking on the near side panel. And I need to learn how to properly adjust a balance strap. When I get home I check some books, and find out that I'm probably hooking my right leg against the upright pommel, providing a pivot point to slide my ass right off the horse. Yep, there's yer problem. Not only have I pinpointed two or three issues for a saddler to correct, but I've found out a big problem with my position. We'll get the saddle adjusted first, then work on me.

No, there are no photos of my riding position. Sharing the personal detail of your life on the Internet can be both fun and helpful. You can get advice you wouldn't normally get. There is, however, a limit to the level of humiliation one must stoop to. This is mine. Mom is sympathetic to this challenge. She reassures me that I don't have to learn to ride aside. I remove the puzzling contraption and swing aboard bareback for a quick canter 'round. If you told me a month ago that cantering bareback would feel like the safe and secure choice for riding I would have laughed at you. But it does prove that I can train my body, manage my balance and well....ride.

This may be a challenge, but I'm up for it. I'm going to a fox hunting weekend at Hunter's Rest in March, and Betsy tells me she has a side saddle and a suitable horse and she will give me a side saddle lesson as well. I can't wait!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Saddle Fits Horse... Hooray!

So the saddle arrived in excellent condition, and has been sitting on it's rack in the living room looking oh so inviting and sittable. I've been getting to know it and investigating things such as how much pressure it takes to raise the off side flap hinge (quite a bit), and how the stirrup release works. It came with a nice side saddle stirrup, but I put the safety stirrup I bought two years ago on it instead. Hey look! I now have side saddle "spare parts"!

It came with a balance strap, but no girth. I wanted to get it on the horse first before deciding what length girth to order. In fact, I think I will order two different lengths of string girths for everyday use and decide which length works best before investing in a three fold leather girth.

All week I have been dreaming at night that I was riding side saddle. I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking the saddle won't fit the horse and I will have to go through reflocking hassles. You see, coming from a Saddle Seat background, I am not accustomed to all the saddle fit fuss. Saddle Seat saddles come in one tree. Flat. In fact, they pretty darn near come in one size. Adult. I've never had back problems with any horse using your standard Lane Fox saddle made by a good saddle company.

So all I've heard about side saddle fit and flocking has me pretty anxious. And since there are no saddlers around here, unless you count Amish harness makers, I'll have to send it out if I want an adjustment. And if I'm going to send it out, I may as well send it to Lillian since she reconditioned and repaired it and knows it well. And I'm not too keen on the idea of sending this saddle all the way back across the country now that I finally have it.

Today is one of those bleary, damp, snowy, blowy, greasy, yucky days. I had butterflies in my stomach the whole drive to the barn. I was finally going to put MY side saddle on MY horse. Oh the agony! When I got to the barn, I found my horse soaking wet from playing in the snow. It's 25 degrees outside! What is he doing soaking wet? It makes me cold just thinking about it. So I brought him in and toweled him until he was merely damp (and stinky).

I had already sorted out a non-elastic saddle seat girth, a girth extender, and a martingale loop to keep the balance strap in place. I saddled him up and was relieved to find that the saddle fits him pretty much the same as my hunt seat saddle. To my amateur saddle fitter's eye, the gullet looks fine, the tree is a good width, and the saddle is not bridging. Lillian has done a lovely job balancing it, and it sits level left to right. If anything, it sits a bit up hill, but it could be that I have it a touch too far forward.

Mr. William Pendleton is unimpressed with this new piece of equipment. It's uniqueness is lost on him.

"Woo Hoo. A saddle."

"Just Kidding"

I removed the stirrup, and put his bridle on for longeing. I want him to get used to the balance strap (which I've left loose) and I want to watch how the saddle behaves on his back. I longe him first one way, then stop to tighten the balance strap a notch or two. It seems much looser than I intended.

I reversed him and let him trot, then asked him to canter. He offers to buck and play as usual and I tell him not too. He feels the balance strap, but doesn't seem to mind much. I stop him and take it up two more notches. It is now snug but I can easily slip my fingers under.

After about 10 minutes I brought him back in and check the saddle from every angle. It hasn't moved one bit. I had the girth tight, and tightened it twice while longing him, but I did not have it REALLY tight as I might if I were going to ride. I'll do this again next weekend, to let us both get familiar with the saddle, and then we'll try actual riding.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Preparing for the Saddle

While I wait for my saddle to cross the country by truck, I've been making preparations. January is officially "No Stirrups Month" and I have totally removed my stirrups from my saddle. Although I rode regularly up until Thanksgiving, December was so awful and blustery that I gave it up entirely. Now Grey and I are back to a 3 day a week routine albeit in the confines of our 50x50 foot indoor area. That gets pretty boring pretty fast, not to mention hard on the joints, so to make each short ride count more, I've ditched my stirrups entirely. I still start with one hand on the grab strap, mostly to stop my hands (and then shoulders) from raising but I've stopped waddling around and am back to full weights at the gym. The first episode hurt for several days. It was the middle of the third ride before my balance improved enough to let go of the grab strap. In my own defense, it is only 17 degrees in the barn and despite my insulated breeches, there is a layer of "freeze" on my legs that is not present in the summer!

This has an added benefit. Besides strengthening my legs, and improving my balance, Grey and I get to work through his urge to take advantage of a loose seat or any movements that are out of the ordinary. He has a rather evil sense of humor when he feels me loosen up, and is overall a rather silly guy. Now and then I try bareback, but it can get a little tricky.

Up until I was in my late teens, and got into Saddlebred show horses exclusively, I rode bareback a LOT. The horse is not as wide as I remember.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

On it's way

Kathie says she shipped the saddle today. And I haven't even sent her the money! It is somehow reassuring that even in this day and age, you can know someone from the internet (years though it may be) and they will take you at your word.

Because I have a little extra in my saddle fund after the purchase and shipping of the saddle, I have begun ordering some of the accouterments that I know I will need. Besides waiting to measure for the girth, and ordering long reins, I went ahead and ordered a mounting block so I can get myself topside without pulling the saddle off center. This is a bit of a problem with my regular saddle, and my horse is quite sensitive to it. With a side saddle, I will not be able to shift it back center as easily, and there is little hope of my becoming more coordinated as I age, so a three step mounting block is the remedy.

That ought to get me mounted anyway. And is only the first purchase in what I hope will be many years of collecting equipment and appointments.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Well I've done it!

I've purchased a side saddle. Kathie says it will ship tomorrow.
I will need an appropriate girth, which I believe I will order from American Ladies Aside. I want to have the saddle on the horse to measure, and I do have non-elastic girths that can be made to fit with billet extenders in the mean time.

Once I am aboard, I will determine if I need to order longer reins. The ones I have now are 57", and I can buy them as long as 66".

My trusty steed, William Pendleton will now be schooled more often in a pelham or double bridle, both of which he finds unnecessary, which would be proper tack for a lady aside.

I have also corresponded with the saddler who did the refurbishment on this saddle, Lillian Choudhary and am happily making new friends and contacts!