Tex goes to Hollywood (15th July 2013)

Back in May, I got through to a show on RTE Radio to take part in a quiz. When they asked me what I had gotten up to for the weekend I explained that I had been at a side saddle weekend in Kilkenny. Intrigued, the presenter asked me to explain more about side saddle, so of course off I took off chatting all about it. Listening in that day in RTE was a lady named Martina McGlynn who was in the middle of making a low budget movie in Offaly, set in 1920s Ireland (during the War of Independence).  It was called ‘A Nightingale Falling’. She got my contact details and rang me to tell me about the film and to ask whether I would be interested in advising them on a possible side saddle scene in the film! Immediately I offered to bring my own horse Tex (Texas Diamond) and all of my vintage gear. Initially she asked the director to just film a short sequence of one of the actresses riding down the avenue of the house but when the second lead actress in the film heard about it she begged to be allowed to ride side saddle too and the scriptwriter ended up writing a whole scene around it. I asked my friend Hanna in Laois whether she would be interested in supplying her horse Filip (show name Fairflax) and she readily agreed. Another friend of mine, Emily, kindly lent her saddle and habit to be used as well.

On the 15th of July we loaded up the two horses and gear into Hanna’s jeep and set off for Daingean. At this stage Charlotte was just six weeks old so Rachel came along to babysit 🙂  We met Tara and Muireann (the actresses) and introduced them to the horses. They were so excited getting dressed in all the gear and bowler hats! They looked absolutely STUNNING.



They had to ride up and down the avenue a couple of times to be filmed from different angles. Filip got a bit bored and started pawing the ground and nipping Tex, he is such a show off 🙂  Tara and Muireann were ad libbing all the way through but it turned out absolutely great. Martina is hoping that the film will do the rounds of the film festivals and be shown in Irish cinemas too. Here’s hoping!

I had almost forgotten about it until the film trailer clip came up on You Tube, you can see it here:



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.


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



While Oberon chilled out…


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!



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.


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:


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:


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.


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:


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


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.


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.


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:


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)

Preparing for the RDS Side Saddle display 2013

This year, there were no side saddle classes held at the RDS Dublin Horse Show. Instead, the organisers asked the one and only Miss Susan Oakes to put on some sort of a display. Susan put her thinking cap on and came up with the idea of an exciting display that would show case side saddle riding though five different disciplines, with some of the best riders in the country taking part. The display would showcase Susan Oakes for show jumping, Jennifer Torrance for showing, Jonah Wragg for hunting, Amie Garrigan for Concours d’Elegance and Hanna Bjoremark for dressage. I offered to write the commentary and in a bid to advertise the display I also set up a facebook event page on the SSA Ireland facebook page with some ‘taster’ photographs of what the display would entail.

The following entries are from the event page:

Jennifer Torrance will give a display based on ‘Showing’. Jennifer will be riding her own gelding ‘Peppermint Paddy V’ and will show us how to show off your horse to the best advantage at a competition, for a judge. She will also demonstrate how to mount and dismount correctly as well as trotting her horse up in hand to show the crowd what the saddle looks like. Jennifer is a side saddle instructor based in Co. Roscommon. She has been riding side saddle since 2003 and was a member of the Legover Ladies team chase team as well as the ‘Bit on the Side’ side saddle display team in England. Photo copyright Sinead Ni Riain.


Amie Garrigan has been riding side saddle since the age of 8, coming up through the IPS ranks. She has trained every horse she has ever had to carry a side saddle. Amie has been concentrating on eventing for the last number of years. She will be displaying Concours d’Elegance at the horse show. She will be wearing a beautiful historical costume. Concours is judged on the overall elegance and picture as well as the way of going of the horse.


Jonah (Jonnie) Wragg will be promoting the art of hunting whilst riding side saddle. Jonnie has hunted side saddle her whole life with packs all over Ireland and the United Kingdom. She has also evented, hunter trialled and point to pointed ‘sideways’. She will be jumping the banks in ring two as part of her display and will be dressed in a beautiful tweed habit.


Susan Oakes from Navan, Co Meath will be showcasing showjumping on the day. She will be jumping her stallion SIEC Atlas. The pair jumped 1m85cm in England recently in their bid to set a new world record. Susan has also ridden side saddle her whole life. She recently won a side saddle point to point in England and also set a world record by organising 50 ladies from all over Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, America, Sweden, Italy, France and the Czech Republic to come hunting ‘side ways’ in Co. Meath


Hanna Bjoremark Deegan will be promoting the art of dressage whilst riding side saddle. Hanna is originally from Sweden and will be riding her home bred swedish warmblood gelding ‘Fairflax’. This dressage partnership has previously won the advanced open riding club championship. Side saddles can be used for any competitions run under Dressage Ireland rules. On the day, Hanna will display some advanced moves such as piaffe, passage, half pass, shoulder in, counter canter, pirouhettes, etc.


We had a practice at our secretary’s house, and I had to come dressed in my habit so that the ladies in charge could check that I was presentable.

My job on the day of the show would be to be dressed in all the gear and available to answer questions from the public. However I was very pleased and surprised to be asked to read out my commentary on the day at the horse show! My friend Lorna was also going to be on hand to help answer questions and to hand out leaflets about our next Have a Go Day. So I added these photos to the event page too:


Budget side saddle :-(

Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a budget side saddle. All too often, I hear of people who are desperate to get started and the first thing they do is buy a newly made saddle on ebay for 200 or 300 pounds. PLEASE DO NOT DO THIS!!! AS YOU WILL END UP WITH A TOTALLY UNRIDEABLE SADDLE THAT WILL NOT ONLY HURT YOUR BACK BUT COULD SERIOUSLY HARM YOUR HORSE TOO. Let the buyer beware…

These are what craptastic side saddles look like, please compare it to a fully rebuilt old name saddle:

crap saddle




It’s the very mistake that I made way back when I decided to start riding side saddle. I bought a saddle similar to the black one above years ago before I knew what to look for. Unfortunately, the person who made it has obviously never been anywhere near a horse, I doubt it would even fit a hippo. The biggest giveaway about these saddles is that they are made from black leather, are new, cheap, usually advertised with only one photo, sold with the tag line “perfect for beginners”, “only used twice” etc etc, in other words, will completely hoodwink a person who is so desperate to get started that all they see is the low start price and they don’t think to look too closely at the saddle itself.

If you study the top picture carefully you will notice that not only is the leaping head upside down, there is a balance strap on the nearside for some very strange reason!

Having bought one of these saddles and realising that it would never fit my horse, let alone any other horse, I tried to get my money back. I rang the company I had bought it off and explained that the billets (girth straps) were too far back, the fixed head was set at an acute angle therefore impossible to get my right thigh under it, and that there was a balance strap on each side. Their reply was that this saddle had been developed with the help of the Spanish side saddle association and how dare I question it or look for my money back ! They also told me to bring it to a GARAGE to get the fixed head (upper pommel) wenched out to a more agreeable angle. Needless to say, I dumped this “saddle” in a shed where birds and mice had a great time playing with it for the last 6 or 7 years.

When I was lamenting to a friend about the craptastic cheap side saddles that keep popping up on ebay, I suddenly remembered that I had one and I offered it to her, so that she could dissect it and photograph the insides to warn potential customers away from these dreadful pieces of tat. It gives me great pleasure to present her report!!!



note how far back the billets are placed :


whopping width!


Then it was time for a model to have a sit on it (on a saddle stand as it would not fit any horse on this planet)


I doubt any human leg would fit under this “pommel” with the angle that it’s set at… looks as painful for the rider as it would be for the horse


It is impossible to sit with square hips and shoulders, notice how the saddle is tilting the rider out to the left and how crooked it makes her. This saddle is sitting securely centered on a stand!



Again tipping the rider far over to the left!!!


the girth straps vaguely stitched on… completely dangerous!


panels not even remotely symmetrical!


extra extra extra extra extra wide, a whopping 24 inches between the points! (my good saddle is 17 inches between the points)


The girth strap webbing came away with a gentle tug…. all nails throughout were rusty




How the fixed head is attatched to the tree… it’s basically plastic and polysterene wrapped in cheap leather and GLUED to the tree!!!


Side Saddle hack at Borris House, 20th July

Having racked my brains to see where us side saddle riders could ‘invade’ next, I suddenly realised the answer lay very close, less than two miles away from my parents house- Borris House in Co. Carlow.

It’s nice to go to stately homes as I feel that the setting really lends itself to the whole side saddle experience. Borris House is the ancestral home to the MacMurrough Kavanagh family, and I knew one of the family members from our time in the pony club as children. Mr Morgan Kavanagh readily gave his permission so with the baby on my hip, off I went and started organising again. Borris House was different to Mount Juliet in that there is no equestrian centre on site so there was no possibility of hire horses, everyone had to have their own gear, habits, saddles and horses this time around! We had the run of a square mile of land with hundreds of acres of forestry to explore so I drove my dad’s jeep around the trails first so that we wouldn’t get lost on the day. The intact walled estate has been the ancestral home of the Mac Murrough Kavanagh family, the high kings of Leinster, for the past  five hundred years. I knew it would be the perfect backdrop for our next hack.


Tex and I led out another eight ladies in full side saddle attire across the estate riding on cross country tracks through the woods and fields. The sun was beaming down and I thought I was going to melt in my habit, which felt absolutely sewn on to me! Hubby in the meantime was minding baby Charlotte 🙂  The wooded areas provided welcome shade from the sun and a splash through the river was glorious too. Tex splashed so much that everyone else had to dive for cover.

We enjoyed the company of a member of the Spanish Side Saddle Association on the day.  Andrea Muro Nebreda who was over in Ireland working for Susan Oakes, joined us on Susan’s Connemara stallion Coral Misty’s Comic,


while Susan rode on her impressive grey stallion SIEC Atlas with whom she is in training to break the side saddle high jump world record.


The other riders were Sarah Conway (who is HOYS bound after winning the Ladies Hunter Class at Tattersalls), Niamh Drea, Aine Dagg, Sarah Moran, Lorna Keogh and Jennifer Maher Mulcahy.



My pretty little Victorian park saddle

When I saw this saddle advertised at a very cheap price, I knew that I should snap it up, as side saddles in Ireland are few and far between! It is a victorian park saddle (not reinforced for jumping, literally just for riding around the park looking elegant!), it was narrow fitting, without a cutback head, and with a roller bar fitting for a stirrup leather.

I arranged to meet the seller at point to point races outside of Dublin, luckily my friend Susan was racing at the same venue so I got to ‘kill two birds with one stone’

The saddle had been sitting in a tack room for the best part of 30 years without being used so you can only imagine what 30 years of accumulated dirt and dust had done to it. I like cleaning tack so as soon as I got home I took out a new sponge and set to with hot water.


I spent over an hour wiping, wiping and wiping some more with the sponge before I ever took out the saddle soap! The leather was absolutely filthy and quite dry, so I had a real job on my hands. My arm got so tired that I eventually called it a day and decided to soap it the following day.

What a difference the saddle soap made! I spent another hour soaping it over and over again. The leather drank in all of the treatment and came up buttery soft and looking gorgeous:


I know this saddle is very old fashioned as it was originally built without a balance strap and you can see where the balance strap was added on at a later date: Image

It also has only two girth straps:


so it needs a special side saddle girth with attached short balance strap like this one :


Due to the fact that the stirrup fitting is a ‘roller bar’ , the saddle needs a special safety stirrup like this which will break apart if the rider is unfortunate enough to fall off.

safety stirrup

safety stirrup2

If a normal stirrup is used with this type of fitting then the rider’s foot would be liable to get caught and she could be dragged.  More modern saddles have a safety fitting which means that the whole stirrup leather will fall out if enough pressure is put on it.

The saddler told me that it’s a beautiful little saddle with exquisite hand stitching and made all of pig skin which is now a very expensive leather to work with. As well as tidying it up a bit and making sure that the girth straps were renewed and safe he said that it should only be used for very light riding as it is very very old (approx 130 years old!)  and the panels will need replacing at some point, but that I should hold on to it as the craftsmanship is fabulous! it should be at least kept as an ornament if I decide not to use it  🙂

My new Owen saddle

I blame Verity. She sent me an eBay link on Facebook of the most beautiful side saddle I had ever seen with the quote “Ciara, this has your name on it”. Verity is my ‘enabler’ (every side saddle rider has an enabler). The second I saw it, I knew it was perfect! Hubby was sick and tired of hearing me go on and on about getting a new saddle so when I told him, he said ” go get it, and I never want to hear about you getting another one ever again”. 🙂

I deleted the link immediately in case someone else saw it and clicked on ‘buy it now’ before I had a chance to! I was really worried that it was a scam as there was no option to pay via PayPal, so to minimise the risk I agreed the sale, I wired the money to money over to my friend Charlie in Yorkshire and she went to collect it in person for me. I then had an anxious wait as she had to wrap it up in her mum’s blankets and post it over to me in a big box. It is a thing of great beauty indeed but I was nearly full term pregnant so had to make do with having a sit on it on the arm of the couch! Much to my mother’s disgust 🙂

To my huge delight it is a fully rebuilt Owen saddle ( known as the Rolls Royce of side saddles), it is practically brand new and strong enough to last another hundred years!