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First Posted: Dec 30, 2008
Jun 11, 2011

About Riding Side Saddle


Photo Credit: Sandra Conchar and American Idol, winners of the $10,000 Ladies Side Saddle Stake at the Washington International Horse Show. Photo © 2006 Diana DeRosa.
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Sidesaddle rider without coat or apron in warm-up ring prior to competition, showing leg position on a sidesaddle with a leaping horn. Sidesaddle Competition

Many horse shows include judged exhibitions ("classes") of sidesaddle riding. Sidesaddle classes are judged on manners and performance of the horse and rider, suitability of specific style, and appointments.

English Sidesaddle Classes

English sidesaddle classes are based on style and norms found in the hunt field from 100 years ago. Dress, appointments, riding style, and even the type of horse used are all judged against a formalized standard for an "ideal" appearance. The riding habit in such classes is the formal attire found in the hunt field, starting with a coat and apron. The apron used is based on the open-sided safety apron developed in the late 19th century. The rider wears ordinary breeches or jodhpurs, over which she will wear the apron, which can partially open in the back. The jacket is usually cut a bit longer than a standard riding jacket. A vest, shirt, choker or stock tie, gloves, boots and riding breeches are similar to those used when riding astride. For classes on the flat, a derby or top hat is traditional. When jumping, however, tradition gives way to safety and most riders use a modern equestrian helmet, which is often mandatory equipment in competition rules.

The Saddle seat variation of English sidesaddle, seen almost exclusively in the United States in certain breed shows, allows riders to emulate the "Park" riders who rode flashy, high-stepping horses on the flat, often literally in public parks. The sidesaddle is essentially the same, and the rider may wear almost the same attire as the "hunt" version, an apron with breeches underneath, but with a coat having a noticeably longer cut, sometimes in bright colors, sometimes with a contrasting lining, and either a top hat or a derby. The shirt and vest will be of the style used in astride saddle seat classes, in that the vest will match either the coat or the coat lining, the shirt will be a standard menswear dress shirt, and a "Four-in-hand" tie will be worn. When show rules permit, some saddle seat style riders adopt a period costume, often based on an antique riding habit from the Victorian era.

Western Sidesaddle Classes

The western sidesaddle class is similar to the English class but with a sidesaddle having western design features, and riders wearing western style clothing. Riders generally wear a western-styled apron with belt, worn over some type of breeches or pants, but a modified two-leg chaps design in leather or ultrasuede is sometimes seen, though not legal in some types of competition. Period costumes with a regular skirt are also seen in the western show ring. Western riders usually wear a short bolero-style jacket that matches the apron or skirt, often with elaborate decoration, gloves, cowboy boots and a cowboy hat. A variation to western-style sidesaddle riding is to wear Spanish or Mexican style regalia, often based on historic designs.

Other Equipment

A breastcollar is usually added to stabilize the saddle, and, less often, a crupper. There are no substantive differences in the bridles used for sidesaddle and astride riding. Because riders hands are a little farther from the horse's mouth as the riders are seated further back than when astride, bridles may require reins that are a longer than standard astride reins. This is most often a problem for western-style riding with romal reins, which are sized for astride riders and sometimes require extensions for use by sidesaddle riders.

Riding correctly is critical to protect the horse from injury as well as for the safety of the rider. Because both legs of the rider are on the same side of the horse, there is considerable concern that too much weight will be placed on only one side of the horse, which can cause physical harm to the animal. In addition, if a rider is not balanced, a sidesaddle may need to be cinched up far tighter than would a regular saddle, leading to discomfort in the animal and even possible breathing difficulties.

Correct posture is essential for balance and security in a sidesaddle and is specifically judged in sidesaddle classes. The rider sits squarely on the horse with the spine of the rider centered over the spine of the horse. The shoulders and hips are square to the horse, not twisted or turned off-center. The hands must be carried square to the horse, keeping both reins at the same length and tension.

Only one stirrup is used and it places the rider's heel higher on the horse's body than when riding astride. The left ankle is flexed and the heel of the left leg is kept down for proper balance, accurate contact with the horse, and correct placement in the stirrup. For modern riders, there are competing schools of thought as to the position of the right leg. Some argue that the right heel is also to be flexed down and the toe up, the same as when riding astride, while others argue that the toe of the right leg should be pointed down. Advocates for each toe position both argue that the position is required to maintain correct balance and make effective use of the leg muscles. In either case, when needed, the rider can squeeze her right (top) leg downwards and against the upper pommel, and her left (bottom) leg upwards into the leaping head to create an extremely strong grip. It is tiring for both the rider and the horse to maintain this emergency hold, however, and most riders rely upon good position, balance, and coordination to maintain their seat.

The spur and the whip are employed as supportive riding aids, in addition to weight and seat, used in a humane manner for cueing, not punishment. The English rider's whip is carried on the off (right) side, and is used in place of the rider's right leg to cue the horse on the off side. The sidesaddle whip is between two and four feet long, depending on style of equipment and competition rules, when applicable. Western riders generally use the romal (a type of long quirt attached to the end of a set of closed reins) to support cues in place of the right leg. If the rider wears a spur to assist the use of her leg, she will wear only one, on the left boot.

Riders hold the reins evenly, not allowing one rein to be longer than the other. Most sidesaddle designs also force the rider to carry her hands a bit higher and farther from the horse's mouth than in a regular saddle. Because high hands on a direct pressure bit such as the snaffle bit may encourage the horse to carry its head too high, use of bits with curb bit pressure, such as a pelham bit or a double bridle, which help the horse lower its head to a proper position, are often seen in sidesaddle competition.

The horse used in sidesaddle riding will have additional training to accustom it to the placement of the rider and the use of the whip to replace off side leg commands. The horse also may need to adapt to a different and higher hand position. However, most well-trained horses adapt to the basics fairly quickly and generally can be used for riding both sidesaddle and astride.

For More Information:

International Side Saddle Organization
Riding Side Saddle

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