Winner of the Dianas of the Chase sidesaddle steeplechase at Melton Mowbray: Susan Oakes, who set a new sidesaddle puissance record last year, and O’Muircheartaigh – by a length sideways AND bitless (yes, that’s a Micklem bridle). Liz Harris finished second, chasing the winner home. Sixteen started, three fell at the first but there were no injuries on the soft-to-heavy going. O’Muircheartaigh is a talented eccentric who now point-to-points after a career as a National Hunt steeplechaser – this was only his second time under a sidesaddle. Oakes wins a custom-made habit from the sponsors, Bernard Weatherill, and a big shiny trophy. She’s promised to wear the habit when she guns to break her own puissance record next July.
Get ye to Ingarsby Hall, Melton Mowbray on Saturday February 2nd to witness the Dianas of the Chase! Sidesaddle daredevils both male and female are travelling from far and wide to take part in the Bernard Weatherill Sidesaddle Steeplechase in aid of Forces in Mind, a charity which helps former servicemen and women reintegrate into civilian life. It’s the first of its kind to be held since the Second World War, and although the course has had to be shortened because of the Big Freeze, it’s still a testing mile over big hedges in classic Quorn-hunt territory. Look out for puissance-record-taker Susan Oakes, Becca Holland of the Flying Foxes sidesaddle display team and Martha Sitwell of Sitwell and Whippet.
It seems like a good time to remember the original sidesaddle steeplechaser, Irish poet and journalist Nannie Power O’Donoghue, whose books on equitation and horsecare are still treasured by fans, and a cracking read. In the nineteenth century she was the first person to ride around Ireland’s three most formidable race courses without a single refusal or fall. These quotations come courtesy of Olga E Lockley’s excellent biography of Mrs Power O’D (more here). From a contemporary sporting magazine:
“The only lady who has ever ridden over the three steeplechase courses of Punchestown, Fairyhouse and Baldoyle; and all those who know the double at Punchestown will be more than ready to admit that this is no light feat… It was sad one day that no horse had crossed these three courses without making a mistake and that probably no horse could ever do so, and seeing how many of the best animals come to grief at the great Punchestown double, failure always seems probable, though perhaps Fairyhouse is the severest of the three courses, the jumps including, to use the famous rider’s own words, ‘post and rails and horrors’. Pleader’s mistress, however, eager in defence and praise of her pet, declared that he at any rate would not fail, and accompanied by Major Stone of the 80th, the three journeys were achieved by her without a refusal or a mistake.”
A few years later the famous jockey George Fordham wrote to Nannie asking for an account of the ride and she replied via her column.
“The course (Fairyhouse) is a most trying one, and the feat was one never before attempted by a lady. I did it to show that my horse was capable of accomplishing the task, and the risk was not what you describe it, for he was too clever to put a foot astray. Major Stone of the 80th accompanied me, and gave me a good lead. The only time I passed him was when his horse refused at an ugly post and rail. It is not true that he was thrown. He rode splendidly, managing a difficult horse. There was no ‘crowd’, and in short it is evident you have received an exaggerated account of the affair.”
There now, is modesty in action. Perhaps Mr Fordham’s version had been confused with that of Regency lady jockey, Alicia Thornton. Good luck and the best of British to the Dianas who will be emulating Mrs Power O’D on Saturday 2nd February. May your mounts all be Pleaders and your leaping horns stay firm.
“The evolution of the sport of steeplechasing during the nineteenth century was from makeshift races over lines of natural country to races on well-drained, regular courses, with artificial and carefully tended, though formidable, birch fences. These courses were enclosed so that gate money could be charged in order to defray the high cost of building and maintenance and provide prize money on an ascending scale. The result of this two-fold progress towards uniform courses and generous prizes was a steady improvement in the class of animals racing over fences. Sir Claude de Crespigny remarked in his memoirs, published in 1896, that many of the principle steeplechase courses were attended to almost like tennis lawns or cricket pitches, and added that no ‘cocktail’ such as used to win a quarter of a century earlier, would have any chance in a big race over fences. A cocktail, in the phraseology of de Crespigny’s day, was a half-bred hunter resulting from a cross between a thoroughbred stallion and a mare of the light draft type used in fast coaches.
These changes were deplored by purists like Arthur Coventry, the leading amateur rider of his day, who could not be weaned from his belief that a steeplechase should be a contest over fair hunting country. He detested the increasing artificiality of steeplechase courses, for these artifical courses, in his opinion, encouraged cast-offs from the flat who would be better employed between the shafts of a cab or in hurdle races. …
Time has proved Coventry’s fears groundless, for there has been nothing like the mass take-over of steeplechasing by cast-offs from the flat. Hurdling recruits hundreds of flat racers annually and has been a doubly valued outlet since the disappearance of Arthur Coventry’s horse-drawn cabs. Many of these failed flat racers graduate afterwards to steeplechasing with a measure of success, but few win any of the important steeplechases which have been, in the last quarter of a century as much as at any time in the more distant past, the almost exclusive preserve of representatives of specialised thoroughbred jumping families and a smaller number of specialised half-bred families.”
From The Thoroughbred by Peter Willet (1970).
Is this still true, I wonder? The current leading active national hunt sire (by earnings) in the UK is Midnight Legend, who won on the flat and over hurdles, but whose pedigree is pure, flat speed. How do you distinguish between a jumping family and a flat family given these blurs? And do we need a few more cocktails to add a little bone and substance to our steeplechasers? All questions which need a lot of research, but I’d be curious to know if (big “if”) there’s a point where the number of fatal fractures and breakdowns increased and if it overlaps with a rise of what you might call flat jumping pedigrees. And are there still any “half bred” horses in UK racing?
My Christmas present this year was an hour’s sidesaddle lesson at the Pine Lodge School of Classical Education in Norfolk, with top teacher and judge Sarah Walker. Aside from actually buying me a pony, this was probably The Best Gift Ever. Not only did I get to try a style of riding I’ve been curious about for years, BUT I got to ride a classically trained Lusitano. It was like having a driving lesson in an E-type Jag.
When I was researching If Wishes Were Horses (a history of girls and horses) I ended up flipping through a large number of old sidesaddle manuals – in fact, my chapter on the nineteenth century threatened to get altogether out of hand, and I’m still swimming in a surfeit of material. Why was I so intrigued?
Sidesaddle is pure patriarchy: it was introduced to prevent women getting imagined sexual pleasure from riding astride (as if), from compromising their virginity and therefore their value, and from a belief that the female body was too weak too ride “properly” (and yet it was quite up to childbirth and working a twelve-hour day cleaning rich peoples’ houses – but I digress). What becomes abundantly clear from the literature of sidesaddle’s heyday, is that lady riders thoroughly subverted this notion of frailty.
They hunted pell-mell across the most challenging country. They leapt six-foot six-inch fences. They cleared steeplechase courses. They toured nations. They performed haute école dressage – Jenny de Rhaden would coax her horse to a full rear and lie back on his quarters with her hair trailing on the stage floor of the Moulin Rouge. It’s Fred and Ginger: everything the man does the lady does too, but backwards and on high heels.
So, without further ado, here’s my lesson. This is the lovely Xis, an eight-year-old Lusitano from Portugal (all photos in this post taken by my mum, Rosemary, who nearly took Xis home with us):
Sarah started the lesson on the ground by showing me the saddle and explaining its various parts. This is a 1930s model, and the deep notch at the withers tells you it’s post-1920s. Each sidesaddle was custom-made for both the rider and the horse, and the lady’s name, thigh-length measurement and her horse’s vital statistics were written inside the frame. I just about fit onto this one, but if I had a longer saddle, I wouldn’t have fitted onto Xis. There aren’t many downsides to being this tall, but I’m obviously going to have to have my own handmade sidesaddle and a long-backed Luso if I win the lottery.
The “leaping head” is padded out with what’s called a “queen”, in this case an old sock and some tail bandages. There was an extra pad for Xis’ shoulder wedged between the numnah and the saddle. Having read a lot of accounts of hideous sidesaddle accidents, I was pleased to see that the stirrup was attached by an open clasp and would slip out easily if I toppled off, and that the stirrup itself was nice and big. Sarah promised me she’d only fallen off twice in all the years she’d been aside. I believed her.
When you’re used to a normal cross-saddle, a sidesaddle is a strange beast indeed. Aside from the forked pommel, there’s the doeskin-covered seat which is flat as a tea tray and shaped like a pilcrow. Once I got on board the patient Xis, I had to chuck almost everything I knew about my seat straight out of the window.
You can’t “sit deep” on a tea tray. You can’t squeeze with your legs – not even the lower, left leg – without unbalancing yourself, so you have to make do with waggling your left ankle as an aid. Strictly speaking I should have been carrying a long whip on the righthand side to make up for the missing leg, but Sarah didn’t want to fry my brain and goodness knows, I had enough to think about. I look pretty grim in most of these photos, but there was actually a lot of laughter (I had a small audience including Mum and the stables’ owner, Sue Barber, who knows a thing or two). I was just trying to be in that Zen state when you’re concentrating but not thinking.
So how do you stay on? It’s all in the right leg, says Sarah. You actually have a larger “seat” than you have astride because you place much of your weight on that right thigh. It grips the top pommel of the leaping head while your right calf lies flat against the horse’s shoulder and your toe points down (didn’t quite achieve this one). The left leg, waggling aside, feels oddly passive by comparison. In faster paces, jumping or dire emergencies your left thigh grips the underside of the lower pommel. Your torso is just as it would be astride, but you sit far back and your hands are held to either side of your right knee.
Having spent years riding a pony with no mouth and a thick neck and also having a general desire to be nice to horses’ mouths, this slightly laidback style suited me just fine. I just kept minimal contact with Xis’ mouth and moved with his movement as closely as possible. The cliff face on my righthand side, uninterrupted by any pommels or stirrups, kept me focussed on using my right leg as Sarah instructed.
Sarah always keeps the actual riding in a first lesson to a minimum because there’s a lot to absorb and the skills required of both horse and rider are so different. I would walk a few circuits then turn into the centre to switch to sitting astride for a break and instruction, then swing my leg back over and start again. Once I turned Xis in a tight “U” without thinking and found myself clinging on for dear life because he was so responsive and my seat was far from secure. At another point I shifted around a lot to try to get square and he reacted instantly with a little serpentine. This is what’s known as a push-button horse!
Eventually Sarah persuaded me to try a short trot. It was like being five again. I bounced, I joggled, my right leg flapped. The seat was so flat that it didn’t help me one jot – I thought I was going to somersault backwards off Xis’ right side. The books I’d read had led me to believe that sidesaddle provided a very secure seat – there are disparaging remarks about lady riders who just lump along on their horses, safely attached by the pommel, and claims that it’s far harder to be dislodged aside than astride. I couldn’t believe this at all once we started trotting, even on a horse with gaits as smooth at Xis’. It’s not like mastering sitting trot astride – as I said earlier, you cannot sit deep in the same way, and you are unbalanced from the first.
At my fourth or fifth go, it suddenly clicked and there I was, making a creditable go of sitting neatly in the saddle rather than jouncing around like a full potato sack in the back of a flat-bed truck. Xis pricked his ears and got a well-deserved pat, and we called it a day.
The damage? Well, despite doing very little actual riding, I was a little tender in the right, er, “glute” and along the underside of my thigh a day or two later, which makes me wonder if Victorian lady riders stumped around with massively overdeveloped right legs. Mum developed sympathy pains just from watching. One thing lasted longer than the muscle soreness though, and that was the desire to get back on and try again. I hope to have another lesson when I’m back in the UK, and am saving my pennies towards that Luso and the tailored sidesaddle. Oh, and the top hat and veil.
When I was little I exasperated my parents and teachers by being able to find a horsey angle for every last thing. Eventually I (largely) outgrew that habit until I started writing the pony book (which appears to be called Horsedrawn just now), but sometimes these equi-cryptic meanings are just lying there, waiting to be seen. This weekend I got back from the UK and a holiday in the north west Highlands with Mum and Dad. I don’t think Mum could have known that the holiday cottage she chose was positively riven with horsey ley lines.
Here, give or take fifty yards and a stone wall, is the view from my bedroom window:
The cottage is part of the Duke of Westminter’s Reay Forest Estate and bang nextdoor to the gamekeeper’s house. His home paddock was occupied by one of eight Highland ponies kept to bring the bodies of hunted deer back off the mountains and moors on shoots, and this rather fine grey mare had a one-month-old dun colt at her side. He was curious, but not hugely brave. I wonder if they show them?
Opposite their field was this –
– a round barrow tomb (in foreground) which of course turned my Jinny-and-Finmory-primed brain to thoughts of the ancient Celtic Pony People who wander in and out of Patricia Leith’s books. I’m a subscriber to the archaeologist David Anthony’s theory that the cultures which first domesticated on the horse on the Eurasian steppes brought their language (proto-Indo European) and its later variations and their burial culture as far west as Scotland and Ireland. So that was good.
And THEN, when you looked in the opposite direction, you saw these hills:
Foinaven, Arkle and Ben Stack.(I couldn’t get them all into a photo but here’s a single shot which shows them more clearly. Sadly I am not yet the mistress of the slideshow function, so the other photos in the post are in there too. Ho hum.)
Yep, aren’t those names familiar? The Grand National’s cheekiest winner (Foinaven), the greatest chaser of all time (Arkle) and the Cotswold Chase and National Hunt Champion Chase winner Ben Stack were all owned by Anne, Duchess of Westminster, stepmother of the current duke. There’s a wonderful obituary of her here, at the Telegraph.
Here’s a nice patriotic Irish song about “Himself”
And a link to colour footage of Foinaven’s infamous Grand National.
Bosses of the National Hunt course at Towcester in Northamptonshire have announced they will outlaw the use of the controversial stick in all meetings from October 5.
Riders instead will race using a system known as hands and heels in which they can carry a whip but only in the back hand position and can only use it to hit the horse down the shoulder. All other use is banned.
Marcus Armytage and Martin Evans in the Daily Telegraph. I didn’t comment on this year’s Grand National or the fact that the winning jockey broke Britain’s (already restrictive*) rules for whip use; there was enough coverage elsewhere and I didn’t have the time to do the research for a blog post.
This move by Towcester comes a few months after a study published by the veterinary department at the University of Sydney and funded by the Australian RSPCA which showed that whipping made no difference to a horse’s race performance:
McGreevy and his colleague David Evans enlisted the help of experienced “stewards of racing” — officials charged with judging jockeys’ adherence to Australia’s racing rules, including those limiting the use of whips. The stewards viewed five recorded thoroughbred races and counted whip strikes on 48 animals during the last 600 meters (656 yards). Electronic sensors in the horses’ saddle blankets recorded the animals’ times and their places at the finish line.
Through a statistical analysis of the data, the researchers found, rather predictably, that jockeys began whipping their horses in the second-to-last leg of the race, between 400 and 200 meters (438 and 219 yards) from the finish line, and they whipped the animals most during the final leg, when the horses were tired and slowing down.
But by the time the whipping started, McGreevy said, whether or not the horse would finish among the first three was usually already settled.
“A horse’s performance before the final 400 meters, when it wasn’t being whipped, was the strongest predictor of its racing success,” McGreevy told LiveScience. “The highest speeds in these horses were achieved when they weren’t being whipped.”
* In addition to the rule that the whip cannot be used more than ten times, and never with “undue force and frequency”, I did not know till recently that all British racing whips are microchipped so that they cannot be tampered with and made more heavy or cutting.