22 December 2013

My Auntie Mame Moment

The late 19th C. Sears catalog ad above shows a ladies' saddle with a "leaping horn." The old style, one-horned side saddle allowed European and American "ladies" to walk and even canter along slowly on highly trained "ladies" horses, but the Victorians revolutionized riding for "ladies" by installing a second horn beneath the standard one. Equipped with two-horned side saddle, equestriennes could now not only gallop at speed and join men in the hunt fields. They could even, if the were high arousal sorts aka adrenalin junkies, jump fences, BIG fences. How big? The 1915 photo below shows Esther Stace with a lovely light hand on the reins clearing six foot six inches. Before the mid-19th C., side saddles limited riding for women to staid, sedate gaits. Now, suddenly the sky was the limit.

 I found these new, improved side saddles fascinating, So back in the early 70s, I bought an old, single horn sidesaddle and rebuilt it. Adding the "leaping" horn proved easier than I expected. Although I needed some help from a smithy to install the hardware, I was most pleased with myself and, after finishing, I put it on my mare and rode around the big barn at Fort Leavenworth. Once.

By the time I got back to the main door, I was terrified. Nothing happened. In fact, my mare accepted the new saddle without question, walking calmly the whole time. One loop around the barn shook me because, after only a few steps, I fully realized WHY women like Esther Stace could do what they were doing. I felt STUCK on top of my horse, STUCK as in TRAPPED.

I felt like Auntie Mame in the eponymous 1958 movie.  I wonder how many people who watch this wonderful old movie understand the scene where Auntie Mame, having lied about being a crack rider, tries to get out of going fox hunting in the South by telling her hosts she only rides side saddle. The hosts obligingly haul a side saddle out of the attic and Mame takes her first ride ever on a crabby, bolting gelding in an open hunt field. Instead of being humiliated, Mame arouses awe in her hosts. Having no knowledge of the biomechanics of riding aside, they interpret her upright, rigid terror as a fine seat and her screaming as enthusiastic Rebel yells. For me, it's the funniest scene in a funny movie.  

It's hard enough to get on a modern side saddle without help from a ground crew. Dismounting alone can reach something close to Mission Impossible status, especially if the rider lacks total relaxation. Stiffen up a bit and the rider's legs clamp her onto her saddle. In other words, falling off becomes harder than staying on. It's easy to fall off the old sidesaddle that just drapes a rider's leg over the top and lets the other leg swing free, but that second horn, the Victorian improvement, lets a rider wedge a leg in place between stirrup and leaping horn.

Even without a stirrup shortened to a jumping length, I felt utterly trapped and helpless. As quickly as I could, I eased my right leg over to an astride position, freed my left leg from the leaping horn side, and slithered off with a total lack of grace. My feet hitting the ground never left better.

For the first time, I understood the criticism that met the leaping horn when it showed up in the hunt fields of England in the mid-1800s. Critics argued women whose horses fell in the hunt field would be seriously injured, even killed. I've never heard of predicted disasters happening although I'm sure many injuries occurred since "lady-like" women gained the ability to gallop and jump their horses. Of course, most side saddle enthusiasts were and are more athletic than I.

I unsaddled my mare and packed my newly rebuilt side saddle in my car. During the short drive home, I happily realized I was simply not athletic enough for "lady-like" riding. Once home, I immediately listed the saddle for sale. It sold in days.  The young woman who bought that saddle reported she found the saddle "thrilling."

Of course, she found it thrilling. She was, like many top women riders, a recognizable type-- amazonian adrenalin junkie. This fits most of the side saddle riders I've known. The first one I met was a daredevil foxhunter who'd come to find galloping across country astride a bit too sedate--"boring." Sidesaddle fox hunting put a bit of zip back into her sport.

Since then, I've crossed paths with only a couple of side saddle riders and those women rode in the show ring on the flat. I'm not sure they fall into the same class as the side saddle fox hunter "ladies." Consequently, I'm happy to know there's apparently The Side Saddle Revival.

Considering the number of adrenalin junkies in the world, I'm not surprised about the revival. I'm in total awe of those nice "lady-like" sidesaddle riders, the ones with bigger balls than most sky-divers.

I hilltopped a few times, but if anyone ever asks me to join a hunt field side saddle--or astride--I not afraid to just say no. Watching a rerun of Auntie Mame is close enough for me.

More great photos of side saddle riding here: http://sidesaddleciara.com/tag/jonah-wragg/