Flying Sidesaddle

In my post on my first sidesaddle lesson I mentioned that, in the nineteenth century, women might have been confined to sitting aside (apart from a few eccentrics who rode cross-saddle) but it didn’t stop them from matching male riders on the Fred and Ginger principle. Everything you do but backwards and on high heels, or, in the case of sidesaddle, with a leaping head and a corset. I found a little feminine oneupwomanship: the circus haute école rider or écuyère Blanche Allarty-Molier performing a capriole and a cabrade on her horse d’Artagnan.

I originally included photos scanned from Hilda Nelson’s The Ecuyère of the Nineteenth Century Circus, published by Xenophon Press. I couldn’t find any further photo credits or original sources for the pictures in the book, and have since been asked to remove them by the publisher, who owns copyright in their own scans of these old images. If you want to see the photos you’ll have to buy the book (well worth the price), or alternatively look at the V&A’s image library, which owns an image of the photo of Blanche performing a capriole. You can view it here. You could also look out for a copy of Baron de Vaux’s 1893 book, Ecuyers et Ecuyères: Histoire des Cirques d’Europe (1680–1891) on which Nelson draws, as I have a feeling that that’s where the photos were first printed.

Blanche began her training as an écuyère at the age of 13, and was famous for pulling off the “Voltige à la Richard,” in which she stood on the back of an unsaddled, unbridled horse as it leapt over hurdles. The horse in both these photos is d’Artagnan, whom she trained herself.

If you’re curious about some of the other great écuyères of the nineteenth century, there’s a post on Emilie Loisset here, and Jenny de Rhaden here.

First Sidesaddle Lesson: Not Quite “Posed Audaciously Like a Wing”

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.

Whole Heap of Little Horse Links

Thank you to Susan for sending me a link to this piece on horse prints in fashion at Style Bubble.

Roo shared this, er, fascinating set of what you might call outsider art portraits of horses smoking cigarettes, for sale now on Craigslist New Orleans. Click now before they’re sold.

Ed Ward let me know that Marianne Faithfull’s new album is called ‘Horses and High Heels’, and also directed my attention to this New York Times travel feature on horses and music in Louisiana:

I HAD never noticed how closely the syncopated rhythm of zydeco music echoes the rollicking stumble of horses on rough terrain. But on a September afternoon in the piney woods of Evangeline Parish, in Louisiana’s Cajun country, with hundreds of dusty horseback riders moving down a narrow trail, the kinship was impossible to miss. As the horses followed a tractor towing a D.J. and a zydeco-blaring sound system, they bucked and swayed in a cadence fit for the barroom floors of Lafayette, 70 miles away.

HBO’s new blockbuster/DVD box set of the future is Luck, about hosses and gamblers. There’s a trailer here at Television Blend. Directed by Michael Mann, starring Nick Nolte and Dustin Hoffman. Looks fantastic.

Teenage hearthrob Robert Pattinson shoots a horse in his new film, Water for Elephants, in which he plays a ‘circus veterinarian’ opposite Reese Witherspoon. Reese’s character performs with horses in the circus as a liberty trainer, and a big part of me is fondly hoping that she was inspired by Jenny de Rhaden or Emilie Loisset, though I doubt it. The trailer looks like a big, cheesy waste of Christopher Waltz. Thank you to Patrick (who is always fascinated by horse disposal) for this one.

April brings out equine finery. The president of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov, showcased the Akhal Teke horse, complete with traditional dress and jewellery (fancy), while in the town of St Augustine in Florida, the 53rd annual Parada de los Caballos y Coches took place. Carriage horses parade through the streets in Easter bonnets contributed by worthy American ladies. Past bonnet-donations came from Mary Pickford, Nancy Reagan, Mrs Billy Graham and Mrs Jimmy Carter. No word on whether Michelle Obama has been asked to help out.

Mark Todd won Badminton, and there’s a fantastic slide show of the cross country day here (see if you can spot the little girl in the crowd who’s brought along her hobbyhorse).

Jenny: NOT the Prix St Georges

Just to give you an idea of the level of skill involved in being a circus “écuyère” or haute école rider in the nineteenth century, here’s a routine of the great Baroness Jenny de Rhaden, taken from Hilda Nelson’s book.  Every écuyère had a team of three horses, two for haute école and one “jumper” who could also perform haute école movements. The horses were usually stallions.

First Horse:

Enter ring with a lançade followed by a courbette taking Jenny and mount right up to the edge of the orchestra pit.

Side steps to right and left, then walk transitioning into a rapid canter, at which pace they turn several “volte” or six-pace circles in each direction, before switching to flying changes at three, two and one tempi.

Horse and rider pirouette and then perform the high-stepping Spanish walk, followed by what was referred to as a passage at the time, and, if I read Nelson correctly, was a half-pass.

Second Horse:

Enter at gallop and pirouette centre stage. The horse rears to its full height and walks on its hindlegs before making the révérence (a bow) to each of the four corners of the stage.

Four fences are placed in a square in the centre of the ring. They leap each of the jumps, which are then cleared and replaced by parallel bars which edge the ring. Jenny and the horse leap these in succession.

The horse rears upright once more and Jenny lies back on his quarters, her hair almost trailing the floor, as he takes a few steps. Once at this venue the horse, Da Capo, overbalanced and fell on Jenny, who was lucky to survive with a mere lump on her head. She only had a top hat for protection.

Third Horse:

Jenny enters the ring on foot to receive her applause. Czardas (a “tiger” spotted stallion) gallops in and kneels before her, then lies down. She perches on his rib cage and goes on saluting the audience. The curtain falls.

This routine was performed at the Folies Bergère on a sloping stage eight metres square, covered with coconut matting. Nelson says Jenny was painted by Toulouse-Lautrec, and a quick search of his écuyère paintings throws up this (a révérence), this , and (the écuyère curtseys), and this (an écuyère rides one horse while long-reining a second).

German-born Jenny wrote her own autobiography, Le Roman de l’Ecuyère which appears to have been turned into a film in 1910. Her life (according to Jenny) was a rollercoaster of melodrama, thanks, in part, to her widowed father losing all the family’s money when she was seventeen, and her subsequent marriage to a passionate, duel-happy Baron who seems to have challenged Jenny’s admirers to fight in every city they visited. In Copenhagen, he killed a young lieutenant.

She made her last performance when both she and Czardas were blind – the horse had lost his sight to the bright lighting used in the circuses, and Jenny spontaneously lost her vision, perhaps as a result of that earlier catastrophic fall. The result was as disastrous as you would expect: they fought one another, the audience reacted in horror, Jenny was thrown and  fell against a column and remained in a coma for a week. Czardas was later shot. Jenny went on to a grim retirement, struggling to adapt to blindness, and penning her memoirs to try to make sense of all that had happened.