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!


  1. Alex,
    Don't be too discouraged. My first sidesaddle ride was similar. First, it's just about impossible to ride correctly in a saddle that needs flocking, even for an experienced sidesaddle rider. But if you're just starting out you're stacking the deck against you. When the saddle is properly flocked you find a world of difference.
    I've had the same problems with the garage door offside flap, but you can either have the arm reshaped or removed and a standard overgirth put on. The leaping head can be reshaped, too, but it requires having the leather cover removed. My farrier did mine one day while he was shoeing my horse.
    I heartily recommend full seat breeches, along with Saddle Tite. You can also have doeskin added to the seat if you want; I did that with my first sidesaddle.
    You need to be careful with the right leg hooked around the pommel. Do not draw your leg too far back toward the left shin, and also keep your calf pressed in against Grey's shoulder. This is the "purchase" that keeps you in position.
    Keep at it! Also, consider attending Camp Leaping Horn in August. It's an all sidesaddle camp held at Gladstone, NJ and riders come from all over the east coast and Canada. It's several days of sidesaddle lessons, clinics, dismounted lectures, saddle fitting, and shopping. Plus, the riders come from a really wide background, including show hunter folk, gaited riders, western, dressage, even junior riders.

  2. Congrats on getting a saddle and trying it out! It looks like a really nice saddle.
    I definitely second Robin's comment about full seat breeches, they are the best for saddles with a slick seat. The first saddle I tried out was pigskin and sooooooo slippery! I was all over the place in regular breeches! LOL I think everyone's first time riding is a bit unnerving because it's SOOOO different and uses a lot different muscles. You'll get it! Just practice in small increments so you don't get too tired and it will come.
    As for you saddle sliding, make sure your girth is TIGHT. The lady that taught me said that you want it "torniquet" strength tight. And the balance strap should be good and snug to prevent the seat from "torquing" sideways like that.
    Another thing or two I was going to mention that might hopefully help you out. Try to think of putting your weight over your right thigh vs. sitting on your seatpockets and make sure you don't have any weight in your stirrup. It will feel like you've got a TON of weight on your right seatbone incomparison to the left, that's ok! I was told that ladies that hunted sidesaddle would often wear a smooth patch under their right seatbone from the weight being put there.

    And have fun getting to know your saddle! It will become easier with each time.

    (I agree with Robin though, if your saddle needs more flocking, it will ride better after it's been added. I'm in the same boat though, I would have to send my saddle a looooong distance away to have it reflocked, so instead I make do and try to improvise as much as possible.)

  3. Thanks for the moral support. Lillian assures me this saddle is freshly flocked with the near side raised. At this rate I will have it compacted in short order and it will need reflocking shortly. I am going to revisit my girth and balance strap tension first. I also ordered a proper pad to get that extra half inch of cantle lift, and maybe we will have to improvise a shim on the left and see how much that affects me.

    Lillian also explained about removing the leather from the leaping head, and I had thought about the farrier route right off the bat. I think tht would be a big help. Fixing the hinge issue will take a little more finesse but we'll work it out.

    I am fortunate in one regard. I already sit harder in my right seatbone!

    I am nothing if not patient and doggedly determined. I am also quite resourceful. Thank you my comrades aside! This is going to be an enjoyable education.