Here I am again, waiting for another flight, going through my newly made memories and organizing pictures, videos and notes.
It’s time for new story called “A-la Lara Croft or Fluent Neigh is Spoken Here”.
Why Lara Croft you may ask? When I was telling my friends that I was going to learn how to ride side-saddle, every second person asked me if I wanted to be like Lara Croft in Tomb Raider? While I would love to resemble Lara Croft at least a tiny bit (in any way), my obsession with the idea of riding side-saddle started long before Angelina Jolie rode that beautiful Frisian horse in the movie.
In fact it started when I was 6 and my parents took me to Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. I don’t remember the other paintings I saw that day, because “Rider” by Karl Bruilov completely absorbed my attention. I was standing there spellbound and the only thought that occupied my mind was “when I grew up I want to be like her.” But at the time I couldn’t have been further away from that dream – I was a dark-haired 6-year-old, wearing ordinary clothes, with no horse, let alone a side saddle…
But all our dreams come true sooner or later, one way or another. Many years, a few beautiful dresses and more than enough hairstyles later (blonde included), I’m ready for my first side saddle lessons in Dancing Horse Farm, Lebanon, Ohio.
My coach, the absolutely amazing Helen Trimeloni, learned how to ride side-saddle because her horse Willy didn’t want to do flying changes and they couldn’t progress with higher level dressage. So she decided to change discipline. (Btw, later Willy learned to do flying changes and even compete up to Prix St. George).
While we were brushing a 9-year-old bay, Grand, Helen told me his story. He was imported from Canada a few years ago to be a police horse in Cincinnati. But the plan got changed and the city decided against having mounted police, so Grand was sold to the school – an absolutely priceless purchase as I learned later. According to his passport, Grand is a Canadian warmblood, but he looks more like a draft horse.
After Grand became a bit cleaner, and we – a bit dustier, Helen brought the saddle. “It was made in the 1920s,” she told me. “It would be great to know its whole history, but I don’t think it’s possible now.” Wow! An almost 100-year-old saddle!!! It’s rare to have such a chance to touch, or rather to sit on, a piece of history.
Talking about history, women have been riding with two legs on the same side since ancient Greece, but only as passengers, as they didn’t have any control of the horse, which had to be led by another rider sitting astride. A more practical design resembling the modern style of side saddles was created in the 16th century by Catherine de’Medici, which from my point of view makes her the first feminist.
So back to our vintage saddle, unlike the straight one it’s flat on top and has 4 girths – I know, we women like to overcomplicate things.
Some rules to remember when riding side-saddle :
– left heel down,
– right toe down (You may think this would be easy for a person who always loses dressage test marks for keeping her heels up. Think again! In side saddle I had a tendency to keep my right heel down :-))
– upper pommel should be right under your right knee, which makes you sit as far in the saddle as possible,
– as the reins are much longer, they have to be kept on both sides of your right knee,
– hips should be as parallel to the horse’s shoulders as possible, so the weight is distributed evenly.
My first 45-minute lesson went really fast, and trying to recall it I’m getting nothing but a series of flashbacks:
– First question: “Mounting… How?”
– Answer: “Sit astride first and only then put the left leg under the lower pommel and right on top of the upper one.”
– When Grand started to walk: “No way can anyone enjoy this way of riding!”
– The second thought a couple of minutes later: “It’s actually fun and I look quite elegant in the mirror.”
– “Hey, Helen! Do you remember the song ‘Walk like an Egyptian?’ I sit like an Egyptian.”
– After a circle of trot: “I never felt these muscles when riding straight saddle.”
– The sensation after a circle of canter: “Wow! He actually listens to the whip on the right side the same way he listens to my leg on the left side.”
– Lesson is over: “Already?”
– “How on Earth do you dismount?”
When I brought Grand back to the barn, I noticed that he, not unlike the other horses in the stables, has a file with an A4 piece of paper attached to the wall next to the door of his stall. This piece of paper had all his details on it: name, year of the birth, name of the owner, emergency contact phone, type of food he prefers and even some behavior characteristics. This is where I learned that he cannot stand Friesians. Why? Nobody knows, but it’s not about the color, as he has a perfectly friendly relationship with two jet black Canadian horses: Mye and Jubilee.
By the way, Dancing Horse Farm is kind of United Nations of the Equine world. They have over 20 different breeds of horses here, some common to the US like Appaloosas, Mustangs, Painted horses, Morgans, along with more rare examples, like Half-Andalusian, Haflinger, Hanoverian, etc.
Second day. They tell if you see a person wearing only one chap and one spur, you can bet that his side-saddled horse is not far away. My to-be-side-saddled horse was away in the paddock enjoying his breakfast. Remember the movie ‘Catch me if you can’? Well, on that day I kind of took part in the sequel. First, Grand was running away on his own. Then he asked his fellows for help. I swear these horses have some kind of special friendship. While I was trying to catch Grand, who was always 5 meters in front of me, 4 other horses, as by an inaudible and invisible sign from him, cantered in our direction and surrounded him in such a way that no matter how much I tried to get to his face, I kept seeing 3 tails in front of me. Eventually, an old trick worked – I started scratching Grand’s croup then his right side, then his neck, then his ears, and before he understood what had happened – the halter was on him and he obediently walked with me to the gate.
Riding side-saddle was already a dream come true, but jumping in side saddle was completely beyond my expectations, yet we did it in the second lesson. Helen told me that Grand likes to jump, but he never really had a talent for it. He normally canters quite nicely but then doesn’t know what to do right before the jump. Well, that’s a lot of horse to take off :-)
On my last, fourth day on Dancing Horse Farm, Helen lent me her side saddle apron, a weird-shaped piece of material which looks like skirt from the front and a wide belt from the back, and it bends over your right leg as one half of a pair of trousers (Yeah, try to imagine it :-)).
We trotted a bit, cantered a bit and then jumped 2 jumps in a row. I thought one jump was difficult, but two…! Actually, when you are concentrating on readjusting your position between jumps, it seems easier. I finally found the rhythm and understood that the simplest way to get over the jump is to do almost the same as in a normal saddle – fold forward when you feel the horse taking off and unfold when you feel all 4 legs on the ground. When I had got this, life became way easier. In the end we even jumped the course of 7 jumps (up to 45 cm), a feat which I would never have expected in just 4 lessons, and all credit goes to my great teachers Helen and Grand.
In between my side saddle lessons I had a few more dressage and show jumping lessons with Helen. Here in Dancing Horse Farm they teach the RWYM (Ride With Your Mind) approach, which I first heard of at the Karen Winston clinic, but this is a completely different story which is yet to be told. So if you happen to be in Kentucky or Ohio, go visit Dancing Horse Farm, enjoy their display of horses from all over the world, take a few lessons and pass on my regards to Helen.