Whether you want to rack up rosettes in the show ring, ride hard behind hounds, or simply add some variety to your hacking, learning to ride side saddle is an exciting experience.
For those with injuries and disabilities riding aside can sometimes be easier and more comfortable than riding astride.
If you aren’t already involved in riding side saddle, getting started can seem daunting. Here we cover some of the basics of finding the correct equipment and learning how to use it.
Interested in the history? We have covered the passionate history of riding side saddle in a previous blog.
How do I know if riding side saddle is for me?
Before committing to a saddle and habit, it is important to find out whether you (and your horse) enjoy riding aside. Aficionados will evangelise about the comfort and ease of sitting aside, and tell you that their horse moves better and jumps happier. However, there are people out there who’ve got off after their first attempt saying “never again”- so dipping a toe in first is a good policy.
The Side Saddle Association is the UK’s official body for riding aside, offering clinics, exams, and advice as well as showing classes and a championship show. For the new rider their website should be the first port of call for a wealth of information.
A riding lesson with an approved instructor is an excellent way to check that riding aside is for you. The British Horse Society has a directory of instructors, which can be filtered for those specialising in side saddle instruction. This is also a great way to meet people in the side saddle world who can help with sourcing equipment and making a start on competitions and other activities.
While individual lessons will give you undivided attention and an intense experience, some instructors will also put on day-long clinics where you can share a lesson. These are often advertised on social media as “have a go” sessions.
The majority of horses take well to being ridden aside, and many don’t even seem to notice the difference. It can sometimes be difficult to find a saddle for a horse that is very wide or low-withered, but horses of every type and size take part in the sport. If your horse has a tendency to rear then you should take care; it is far more difficult to fall out of a side saddle than a cross saddle if a horse goes up and over.
There are lots of very helpful groups on Facebook dedicated to riding side saddle. These groups are a good place to make local contacts, ask questions, and source equipment. Always check someone’s credentials before implementing advice, and take the usual precautions if you buy online.
Where can I find a side saddle?
There’s no getting away from the fact that you will need some new equipment to ride side saddle, the most important of which is the saddle itself. The increasing popularity of riding side saddle, plus the increasing age of old saddles, does mean that it can be difficult to find a saddle that fits you and your horse.
The Side Saddle Association is a good resource, as they have both advertisements for saddles to hire and buy, and a list of accredited saddlers. It is really important that your saddle fits both you and your horse, and that the saddle is in good condition and safe to use. Saddles are also offered for sale online, but take advice from your saddler before buying or hiring one- some sellers will let you take your horse to them to try the saddle first.
Buying a saddle is not a cheap endeavour, with old saddles usually in the range of £1000-2500 depending on condition, and a new made to measure saddle likely to set you back over £3000. The price can sometimes be offset by the option to hire it out should you end up between horses or taking a break from riding aside (e.g. owning a young horse).
There are saddlers who can make a new saddle, and this might be a faster option if you or your horse are difficult to fit to an existing saddle, or you need something more specialist such as an off-side saddle.
What can I do side saddle?
Showing and hunting are the two disciplines most commonly associated with riding aside, but side saddles are used across equestrianism. One of the things that you can’t do is joust, but side saddle riders can and do compete in all sorts of affiliated and unaffiliated competitions.
Of the Olympic disciplines, only British Dressage allows riders to compete side saddle, although they ask that the organisers are informed ahead of time. At an unaffiliated level rules will vary, so it is worth asking if you are keen to compete aside.
Team chasing attracts aside riders, and whole teams have competed side saddle- such as the wonderfully named Legover Ladies. If hunt rides weren’t already frightening enough, riders have ridden around them aside. The exceptionally brave Georgina Preston rode side saddle in the Golden Button at the age of 18, a feat made even more impressive because her ex-racehorse Nil de Mee had to carry a stone of lead (and the added weight of a side saddle) for her to meet the minimum requirements.
Side saddle races – from Flat “dashes” on racecourses to the famous Dianas of the Chase cross country race – attract global entries, and high jump competitions take place at show and hunt events. The world record for side saddle puissance is held by Irish rider Susan Oakes, who cleared a whopping 6’ 8” in 2013.
You can compete in most normal showing classes aside, although you should notify the show secretary, and supply a cross saddle for the judge. Specialist side saddle classes are run by different organisations, with the British Show Horse Association holding an annual championship as well as riders chasing qualifying tickets at county shows for the Horse of the Year Show competition.
In side saddle classes riders can opt for breed classes where the horse is judged on conformation and movement, concours d’elegance which is a celebration of the overall picture of horse and rider, equitation classes, and costume classes. The latter can involve painstakingly replicating historic costumes, and is one of the few opportunities to pull down from the attic very old side saddles that have old style pommels or lack a leaping head.
What should I wear?
When you start riding side saddle, there is no need to buy any new rider equipment apart from a longer stick (to replace your right leg) if yours is not already long enough. You may want to wear low boots and chaps if your long riding boots are very tall – some boots can catch the skin behind your right knee when riding aside.
Traditional astride riding wear is generally allowed for lower level classes run by side saddle organisations, and local shows and competitions might do so too (check when entering). The majority of people who choose to team chase or compete in hunter trials aside do so without an apron.
Side saddle habits come up for sale on social media and second hand/vintage equestrian sites, or you can choose to have one made by a specialist tailor. While this may seem decadent, a good habit will last a lifetime and end up as a precious family heirloom.
If your ambition is to hunt side saddle, then you can start with an apron that matches your hunt coat. This is easier if you ride in navy or black than a unique tweed! Aprons aren’t usually sold on their own, but having one made up first can be a way of staggering the costs.
Most hunts will allow you to wear a navy or black apron with your ratcatcher for autumn hunting- just check with your secretary. Whatever you wear, always make sure that your breeches match your apron, and that it is long enough for you- there is nothing uglier than a flash of cream bottom and a right toe sticking out below a too-short apron.
In the hunting field silk hats are traditionally only worn by married women, and some people claim the same for black habits. Wearing a safety hat is very normal- as is swapping from a bowler or silk hat before moving off from the meet – and children should always wear an approved hard hat.
For showing the rules will vary according to the type of horse and competition, so it is worth checking members’ handbooks and asking your new side saddle friends before splashing out on a beautiful new habit.
Riding side saddle is an enjoyable experience for women (and men) across disciplines and horses. Newcomers can ease their way in through lessons, hiring saddles, and building up their wardrobe, and the aside community is very welcoming and prepared to help novices.