A Day with Side Saddle Expert Rhonda Watts-Hettinger
Considering the diversity of disciplines available for the modern rider, side saddle may seem like it would have become relegated to the annals of history, an antique style without merit to a contemporary equestrienne. But a devoted community of side saddle riders keeps the technique alive, regularly competing aside in nearly every discipline, from eventing and fox hunting to dressage and even western.
Sure, Boyd Martin does it once, a photo gets posted and now all the groupies are fawning over how cool he is for trying it out. But all of us normal folks also had a chance to get to know more about riding side saddle, thanks to a wonderful clinic with Rhonda Watts Hettinger at Fox Brook Farm in Berlin, MA, in early April. The clinic was organized by volunteer extraordinaire Susan Goldfischer to benefit the Old North Bridge Hunt, of which both women are members.
Rhonda gave us an over view of “side saddle 101” and then many in attendance gave riding aside a try, either on their own horse or one generously provided by facility owner and host, Ginny Zukatynski.
I remembered seeing Rhonda riding side saddle while competing her horse at the UNH horse trials back when I was an undergrad. I thought eventing was hard enough without sitting side ways but she sure made it look easy, and with her formal attire she and her horse cut a sharp image. So it was kind of cool to see her again so many years later and share her extreme passion and commitment to this traditional, feminine style of riding.
Rhonda started her presentation by informing the audience that most anything we already knew about riding astride applies to side saddle as well, and this theme certainly recurred throughout the day.
Side saddles are clearly unique from other English style saddles, with a broad, flat seat and just one stirrup, traditionally on the left, or “near” side. The horns are also on the left; the top horn is called the ‘top pommel’ while the lower one enjoys the more colorful title of ‘leaping horn’. Most saddles seem to fasten with whatever your chosen style is of traditional English girth, though Rhonda mentioned that the old fashioned three fold leather girths are still considered a standard appointment and are coveted by modern side saddle riders. Unique to a side saddle is the ‘balance strap’, an additional thin strip of leather which increases the security and stability of the saddle on the right, or “off”, side. The balance strap prevents the saddle from lifting up or pitching back and forth.
Rhonda commented that the unfastened side saddle is particularly precarious and can easily slip due to the weight of the horns, which can be damaged should the saddle fall. Otherwise, though, fitting a side saddle is much like fitting any other saddle. The saddle should fit well over the withers and have clearance through the gullet; the seat should be level and bridging should be avoided. To help support the horns on the left, side saddles usually have a longer tree point on the left side, so this area must be carefully checked to ensure it isn’t digging into the horse’s shoulder. When padding is added to improve the fit of a side saddle, it is usually done so on the right side in order to keep the saddle centered.
The stirrup of a side saddle is considered part of the rider, not a part of the saddle, and the rider should detach it when she dismounts. The stirrups do not run up and feature a quick release mechanism, allowing them to snap free if caught.
Rhonda commented that many of the best side saddles still available are older antique models; however, many of these were made to fit Thoroughbred types and so have narrower trees. This can provide a fit challenge when working with a modern horse, which also is typically better fed than its more historic counterpart.
Rider Attire and Styling
Most everyone that I know who has gotten into side saddle has done so because they thought that the formal habits just looked smashing, and therefore needed an excuse to wear one. At our clinic, Rhonda was dressed in ratcatcher style, also known as informal attire to foxhunters. However, several versions of habit were on display and ranged from historical recreations to fancy ladies’ dress.
Rhonda offered some practical tips on attire for the aspiring side saddle rider. Side saddle boots are cut short, especially for the right leg, so that the rider isn’t nipped behind the knee by their boot. Riders can get away with wearing paddock boots while they are getting started. Rhonda suggests wearing britches that match the color of your habit; apparently wearing light pants with a dark habit can be quite suggestive!
Side saddle riders have used a safety skirt or safety apron since the early 1900’s; this skirt is specially cut so that the rider’s outer legs are covered, but the seat of the rider and off side have only a minimal amount of fabric hanging down. This makes it easier for the rider to come free should she start to fall, without risking getting tangled in her skirts. Riding trousers were introduced in the 1800’s to be used underneath the skirt, and today are replaced for most women with regular riding breeches.
For a rider interested in showing side saddle, the various appointments are important and could take up a whole article in and of themselves. It would be important to consult with the rules regarding your specific discipline to be sure that you are not in violation. For example, carrying a cane on the off side is permitted in some sports but not others.
Tips and Technique
Unlike most English disciplines, side saddle riders spend most of their time sitting. But just like when a rider sits astride, it is important to ensure correct alignment and posture, and equal balance on both seat bones. If anything, the evenness of the rider’s seat becomes even more critical because the weight of the rider becomes an essential component of communication with the horse. Because of the amount of sitting work, horse should not be started in side saddles until they are four to six years old and already have a base of fitness on them.
When riders first mount, they do so in the traditional manner—on the left side, by stepping the left foot into the stirrup, swinging the right leg over, and settling onto both sit bones astride. The rider should settle here until she has her weight centered. From there, the rider will lift her hands on the reins and bring the right leg up and in front of her, settling it on the top horn. It is important to not shift the seat bones when the rider makes this transition; at first, most riders will find that they have to slide back.
The rider uses the right leg to support themselves, pulling the heel towards the shin of the left leg while simultaneously pointing the toe down. There should only be a small gap behind the rider’s right knee. The position of the saddle causes the rider to sit a little higher and further back than in a regular saddle; the reins will also need to be kept a little longer.
Clearly, the rider’s weight will have a tendency to shift to the left, since this is where her legs are positioned. In fact, back in the day when ladies rode because it was fashionable to do so, rather than because they really wanted to, many were only taught how to walk and canter on the right lead, because turning right helped to keep the rider more centered and balanced.
Because it is easier to turn right, Rhonda started each of the clinic participants out in this direction. Most riders have been trained to look where they want to go, and so tracking right causes the rider to shift her eye—and therefore her weight—to the right. This also allows for a secure contact of the leg on the horns. The rider should try to keep an equal distance from her last rib to the top of the hips on both sides of their body.
Rhonda told us that anytime you get into trouble in a side saddle, the best thing to do is to pull the right shoulder back, which will automatically snug the rider into the horn.
The First Person Experience
For my first side saddle experience, I had the pleasure of riding Betty Boop, an OTTB owned by Ginny’s daughter. Boop’s first side saddle ride had been with Rhonda in preparation for the clinic, and her second ride was with yours truly. A seasoned hunt horse, Boop was rather unconcerned with the whole affair.
As with the other riders, we started tracking right, and by keeping my eyes to the right and pulling back the right shoulder, my alignment fell into place. I quickly determined that to be a dedicated side saddle rider, one would develop a fairly good degree of body awareness. I tried to emulate my best yoga posture, but at first this translated into a bit of rigidity. Rhonda reminded me to relax my shoulders and arms enough to follow the horse, which seemed quite obvious— once she pointed it out.
We soon progressed to a little trot. We started in the sitting trot, which feels pretty easy and natural in this saddle. The ‘post’ of a side saddle rider is much less distinct that when riding astride. We practiced this too—a sort of shifting of the rider’s weight from the seat bones onto the thigh. The rider never really comes out of the saddle, but the process does give horse and rider some of the benefits of posting.
Since things seemed to be going well, Rhonda let us try a bit of canter. Here I felt the least secure but I tried to remember what Rhonda had said about keeping the eyes and shoulder to the right. As it turns out, after thirty plus years of riding, my body seems to know what to do on a cantering horse—even if one of my legs is hooked over funny!
Rhonda let us try a little bit of walk, trot and canter to the left as well. She instructed me to keep focusing the eyes to the right, even though we were tracking left, in order to keep the legs secure. Going to the left while focusing to the right may seem counterintuitive, but isn’t super different than other “counter” dressage movements, so it didn’t feel as awkward as one might imagine. The canter to the left definitely was the most difficult of the phases, and it was here that I felt the least balanced.
Having one’s right leg hooked over the front of the saddle does mean that the rider really has to be intuitive about how they are using their seat bones. Rhonda said that the flying change, for example, can be achieved just by a shift in the weight and swing of the seat. This should be true in any well trained horse, but for a side saddle horse, there is no hiding behind a leg aid. Riders can carry a cane on the off side, and Rhonda let me carry one with Boop. But to cue the canter, I thought more about using the inside seat bone and a little kiss sound.
Going into the day with limited knowledge of side saddle riding, I found that I have come away with quite a newfound appreciation for this unfamiliar discipline and its supporters. Like Rhonda said, most everything you know about riding astride is also true aside, but I further feel that trying side saddle can only improve a rider’s sense of balance, feel for alignment and coordination while riding astride.
Many thanks to Rhonda, Susan, Ginny and the rest of the crew who helped put this clinic on!