RDS Side Saddle display August 2013, sponsored by Lindt Chocolate

Ladies Day at the Dublin Horse Show is one of the social events of the year in Ireland. It sprang from the tradition that Ladies Hunters were traditionally shown, ridden side saddle, on the Thursday of Horse Show week. To mark Ladies Day this year, the Side Saddle Association of Ireland organised a very exciting side saddle display to celebrate the best of what side saddle riding has to offer lady riders in Ireland in the present day. Five of the best adult riders in the country were hand picked to show case hunting, showing, showjumping, dressage and Concours d’Elegance. With the amount of effort and practice that had gone into fine tuning the display it promised to be an absolutely unforgettable show! The riders were : Susan Oakes (showjumping), Jonah Wragg (hunting), Hanna Bjoremark (Dressage), Amie Garrigan (Concours) and Jennifer Torrance (Showing); while I was the commentator and Lorna Keogh was my side kick (prompter and photographer).

I was very lucky on the morning of the show to be able to park at a friend’s house just around the corner from the show, and was then driven to the front gate of the show where I was met by an official and handed a week long, access all areas pass! I made my way up to the stables, all the side saddle riders were conveniently stabled together, and there was an absolute hive of activity centered around polishing hooves, plaiting, giving tack that extra wipe down, and so on.

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Below: Jennifer’s attention to detail, and Kalindi tying my stock…

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While Oberon chilled out…

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When the horses were ready, everyone changed into their finery and having checked the lipstick and so on, finally got their hats and veils in place and soon mounted up.

Luckily, two of my friends arrived to mind Charlotte for me so that I could concentrate on the display. I met again with Flor Madden who gave me another run down regarding the microphone, music and timing, while the five riders warmed up in the sand ring. Their warm up attracted lots of curious spectators who couldn’t quite believe what they were seeing, as Susan and Jonah jumped their horses over pretty big fences!

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The display kicked off at 2pm in the famous Ring 2 of the RDS (Royal Dublin Society) in Ballsbridge, Dublin 4. I was shaking with nerves as I took the microphone and welcomed the riders into the ring. Luckily, I knew the commentary off by heart as I had spent so much time working on it! Jennifer had put together a compilation CD of famous upbeat classical pieces so that the whole display was set to music.

I started by welcoming the riders into the ring and explaining a little bit about each, this is taken from my commentary:

Susan Oakes from Co. Meath riding her Holstein Stallion SIEC Atlas. Susan will be showcasing side saddle showjumping for us today. This horse will also be jumping in the Puissance here at the Dublin Horse Show. Susan has been riding side saddle from the age of four, she was the winner of the leaping lady competition in Aintree last year when she jumped 1m73cm on ‘Brandy and Red’ and set a new world record in the process. In January Susan helped to set another world record when she gathered 50 ladies to hunt with the Meath from all over Ireland, the U.K., France, Italy, Sweden and the United States. Susan is also the current ‘Diana’s of the chase’ winner having won the first side saddle steeplechase held since the 2nd world war, in the U.K. in February on her race horse O’Muirheartaigh. Susan hunts side saddle with the Meath, the Tara Harriers, the Ward Union and the Grallow Harriers. She began showjumping for the first time last year under the guidance of her trainer Padhraic Gerraghty. Side saddles can be used for any ShowJumping Ireland Competitions.

Hanna Bjoremark riding her 19 year old Swedish Warmblood gelding Fairflax, she is showcasing dressage today. Hanna is originally from Sweden but living in Co. Laois since 2008 and she is an active member in the Riding Club.  Hanna and Fairflax are an accomplished dressage partnership who compete at the highest level in the Riding Club. They also show jump in the riding club and were placed second  here at the Dublin Horse Show last summer. Fairflax was a very promising eventer in Sweden until he had a horror cross country fall, fracturing his pelvis at the age of 9. He was nursed back to health and fitness and his dressage has kept him perfectly sound and supple since, this pair have won the Riding Club All Ireland title for Advanced Open Dressage twice.  Side saddles can be used for competitions run by Dressage Ireland.

Jennifer Torrance is show casing ‘showing’ for us today and is riding her 22 year old gelding ‘Peppermint Paddy V’, who has come out of retirement specially to strut his stuff here in Dublin. Jennifer has been in the ride off for rider of the year in the U.K. She has won numerous showing and equitation classes in England. Paddy and Jennifer were the lead pair in the ‘leg over ladies’ side saddle team chase team. Jennifer began riding side saddle in 2002 and hunted side saddle from then on with the Quorn in Leicstershire. Jennifer is now living and hunting in Co. Galway where she also teaches side saddle riding lessons.

Johnnie Wragg from Co. Tipperary is showcasing hunting for us here today. Johnnie has done everything side saddle, from showing, hunter trialling, racing, team chasing to, of course,  hunting with countless packs all over England and Ireland. Officials at the point to point track in Penshurst, Kent, were flabbergasted in 1990 when Johnnie rode up side saddle on her husband’s horse ‘Bentley Continental’ but as they could not find anything in the rule book to say that she couldn’t ride they had to let her compete! She began riding side saddle on a mule belonging to her mother at a very young age on an old saddle however now she uses a beautiful saddle that had belonged to her teacher, noted rider and author Doreen Archer Houblon, who also taught the Queen to ride side saddle.

Aimee Garrigan riding Oberon is displaying Concours d’Elegance. Aimee started riding as soon as she could walk and competed mainly in show-jumping and IPS as a child. She began riding and competing side saddle at the age of 8. Aimee is concentrating mainly on eventing now but she has trained every horse she has ever had to wear the side saddle too. Oberon will also be competing in the Puissance event later on in the week.

After introducing all of the riders while they trotted around the ring, I moved on to explaining how the side saddle has developed over the centuries from the 14th century onwards as a ‘modest’ way for a lady to ride a horse whilst wearing elaborate fashions. From the earliest primitive ‘chair like’ saddles which were used merely a method of transport, the modern day saddle with a flat seat and two curved pommels developed which affords the rider a very safe and secure forward facing independent seat, centred over her horse’s spine.

Following on from the bit of history, each rider did an individual display. Jonah Wragg on Rambo drew gasps from the crowd as she sailed over the rustic fences and the banks, Rambo was feeling very feisty but Jonah was well able to manage his ‘lepping around’ and she gave him a few unscheduled gallops and jumps to “take the tickle out of his toes” as I explained to the crowd, she is one hardy lady and there was no fear of her coming to any harm! I pointed out the sandwich case hanging on to the off side of the saddle and drew a laugh from the crowd when I explained, that in side saddle classes in America, the judges will inspect your chicken or cucumber sandwiches (white bread with crusts removed) and you can even be marked on how well they are wrapped! I reassured them that for hunting, it would be more likely to have mars bars hidden away in the sandwich case. I also pointed out that Rambo is wearing his normal snaffle bridle and breastplate, in other words he is tacked up as he would be for hunting. Jonah was wearing a tweed habit with brown hat, gloves and boots, with collar and tie, which is normal attire for cub hunting.

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Hanna Bjoremark on her dressage horse drew gasps of a different nature as the pair showed off flawless advanced dressage moves. Hanna’s horse was wearing a double bridle and leg bandages which is de rigeur at the level the pair compete at:

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Susan of course made jumping 1m50cm look easy on her trusty stallion SIEC Atlas! Atlas was wearing his usual bridle and bit for showjumping, while Susan’s head gear reflected the need for safety while jumping such huge fences.This was a real crowd pleaser:

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While Amie Garrigan was the picture of elegance on Oberon (who went on to be placed 2nd in the Puissance later that week!) Amie’s costume was based on a Victorian design, when ladies rode out their horses in places such as Hyde Park in London- not only for exercise but also in the hope of finding a suitable husband! Oberon is wearing a double bridle which is historically correct with the costume that Amie is wearing.

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Jennifer Torrance gave a showing display including a flat out gallop down the long side of the arena then demonstrating how easy it was to slow up her horse. Jennifer is a showing champion and her attention to detail is immense. Paddy is wearing a double bridle exactly the same colour as his saddle and is turned out to perfection:

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Jennifer also gave a display of how to be legged up properly:

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I was absolutely in my element in my role as commentator while Lorna snapped away to her heart’s content,

I interspersed my commentary with interesting information about side saddle such as traditions and customs around attire and accessories and head gear, tack and turnout, the development of the side saddle, why we want to ride in such a fashion, and how we actually do it!

I explained all about my own outfit (habit) so that the crowd could easily see what I was talking about, and showed how to open the apron and how to close it to make a ‘skirt’  while on the ground. I also explained the cut away jacket style so that the jacket sits neatly across the thighs when mounted, the bottom waistcoat button traditionally left open, the colour of the gloves that are acceptable (brown, cream or tan but never black!), the height of the silk hat and the angle it sits at, the leather boots, one spur and the correctly tied cream silk stock around my neck with horizontal stock pin holding it in place. I also said that when dressed formally like this the horse would also be turned out formally with a double bridle and seven plaits. i explained some of the customs around different head and neck gear too as well as the different coloured habits that can be worn for less formal occasions, for cub hunting or for shows that are held before lunch.

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Another important part of my commentary was: Why and how?

The first question that ladies are usually asked about side saddle is WHY do you want to ride in this way? And HOW ON EARTH DO YOU STAY ON? Their answer would be that they are preserving and promoting an ancient tradition, that it makes them feel very elegant, that they really enjoy creating a spectacle and that it is actually very comfortable secure and safe! And sometimes, ladies just love to look like ladies.

The rider sits squarely on her horse with her spine centred over his spine, the shoulders, hands and hips are also square to the horse, certainly not twisted or turned off centre. Only one stirrup is used, for the left foot. The right leg is curved around the upper pommel with the toe facing down and the calf pressed against the saddle. This grip is called ‘the purchase’ and is what keeps the ladies in the saddle, along with their core tummy muscles- remembering to keep ‘belly button into spine!’. Our ladies imagine that they have a thumbtack under the seat of the near side of the saddle which helps them to transfer more weight to the off side. They must remember at all times to keep their right shoulder and right hip back to keep them straight, to keep their shoulders ‘dropped away from their ears’, and to imagine that they are a puppet being held upright by a string from the top of the head so that they are sitting as tall as possible at all times. If for any reason the ladies need an emergency grip (for example if their horse spooks or bucks), they immediately bring their left leg up under the leaping head, the right heel back towards the left leg, and the right shoulder back: which has the effect of wedging them into the saddle. A horse who rears should NEVER wear a side saddle, it is just about the only time that a lady can fall off and is extremely dangerous. The ladies each carry a cane which, when pressed against the horse’s right hand side substitutes as the leg aid which they horse is used to when being ridden astride. It is true that riding side saddle is more tiring than when riding astride, as instead of the work being done by equal sides of the body, it is mostly done with the seat aids and the right leg and thigh in a side saddle.

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To finish up, everyone did another lap while I spoke about the history of the side saddle association and the revival it has been enjoying :

Side saddle riding fell out of vogue after World War II when women rejected traditional restrictions. Sadly, thousands of beautiful saddles and habits were thrown out and burnt. A revival began in the U.K. in 1971 when the Side Saddle Association was set up. Ireland followed suit by setting up our own association in 1981. A second revival has begun in recent years and now we have a very active association with over one hundred members. We organise outings such as ‘have a go days’, hacks at stately houses, special side saddle hunting days, displays, pony camp style weekends and training clinics, along with affiliated competitions at shows all over the country. We have a fantastic website www.ssaireland.com along with an active Facebook page, where our members can interact, help each other with any queries and share our events & photos.

The Side Saddle Association of Ireland is delighted to have become affiliated to Horse Sport Ireland in recent months and we look forward to a long and successful relationship with them.

Finally, we all had our photo taken with our sponsors, Lindt Chocolate:

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L-R: me (Ciara O’Connell),Susan Oakes, Jennifer Torrance, model, Hanna Bjoremark, choclatier, Amie Garrigan, Lorna Keogh, Jonah Wragg

Photos by Kalindi Lawrence and Lorna Keogh (Lorna’s blog is equestrianreality.WordPress.com)

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