Sidesaddle 101


The Beauty of Riding Aside


Lee McLean prefers to ride aside. She is one of a handful of women in the Alberta foothills who keep the bygone riding style alive.

“I was enrolled in sidesaddle riding lessons at the age of eight,” says Lee. “I’ve been riding aside ever since.”

For over 40 years, Lee has been sharing her know-how with inquiring minds. From her home and ranch near Longview, Alta, she routinely receives calls and emails from curious folks, eager to find out more about the riding style.

“Riding aside is obviously a very different experience that riding astride,” says Lee. “But what people don’t know is that sidesaddle riding provides the rider with a very secure seat. In fact, it’s easier to ride a stronger horse, one that tends to pull its rider forward or bucks, in a sidesaddle than it is in a standard saddle.”

As with any riding discipline, rider position is key.

The best way to understand this rider position is to experience it first hand; however for those of you reading this article from the comfort of your home or in the isles of a supermarket, the following exercise will help you gain a better understanding of what Lee and her comrades experience as they ride sidesaddle.

  1. Sit in a tall chair or bar stool (preferably one where your feet don’t touch the ground).
  2. Cross your right leg over your left leg and point your right toes down.
  3. Press your right calf into your left leg.
  4. Rotate your body about 70 degrees clockwise.

That strong grip you feel is called purchase and it’s what creates a secure seat when riding aside.

“When riding sidesaddle, the right thigh rests against the upright pommel,” says Lee, “and the right calf rests on the horse’s shoulder. As the rider pushes their calf into the horse’s shoulder, it pushes the right thigh against the upright pommel and produces that very secure riding position I mentioned.”

While riding aside, the right leg will work the hardest, while the left leg remains light in the stirrup and cues the horse to walk, trot or canter.

“The left leg should rest lightly into the left stirrup. You should be able to fit your hand between your left thigh and the leaping head,” says Lee. “If the left leg is not relaxed, it will press into the leaping head. Doing so results in a tight and locked grip that can be used in an emergency or while going over fences. But, it doesn’t allow for relaxed riding.”

Conversely, if the left leg rests too heavily in the stirrup, this can overload the left side and cause the saddle to tip to the left. Once this happens, the rider is no longer centered, which can cause your horse considerable back pain.

“It’s important to be very mindful to keep the right shoulder back and the left hip slightly more forward than the right hip when riding sidesaddle,” says Lee. “This keeps the rider’s weight centered over the horse, allows the left leg to float by the side of the horse and prevents the saddle from tipping to the left.”

Despite the secure seat that occurs while riding aside, Lee does not break horses in a sidesaddle.

“I prefer to teach sidesaddle riding to a well-trained horse who is forward and responds well to the rider’s aids.”

A horse that responds well to a rider’s aids will walk and trot quite easily with just the left leg. For other more complex maneuvers, seat cues, a whip or a romal can help.

“Because there is no right leg to counter balance the left, it’s important that a horse who is ridden sidesaddle be able to move off of the leg with ease,” explains Lee. “Without the proper training and muscle development, the horse will end up counter-bent rather than moving off of the rider’s leg.”

Like riding astride, riding sidesaddle requires strength, practice and time. But that doesn’t mean a seasoned horse and rider can’t pick it up. Take Cody, Lee’s 20-year-old Quarter Horse pictured herein:

“Cody just recently made the switch. He used to be a retired community pasture horse,” says Lee. “Anyone who has a loving and trusting relationship with their horse and wants to try something new can and should give sidesaddle riding a whirl!”

Photo by Catherine Nantel-Philibert.
Photo by Catherine Nantel-Philibert.

Sidesaddles are available in both English and Western style and can be purchased nearside (where the right leg crosses over the left leg) or offside (where the left leg crosses over the right leg). Offside saddles are very rare.

  1. Top Pommel
  2. Leaping Head
  3. Seat
  4. Cantle
  5. Panel
  6. Stirrup Leather
  7. Keeper
  8. Stirrup Iron
  9. Skirt

Photo by Catherine Nantel-Philibert.
Photo by Catherine Nantel-Philibert.

Saddle Fit

Having a difficult time finding a saddle to fit your horse? Imagine searching for a sidesaddle!

Sidesaddles are available for both the English and Western discipline but most were made many moons ago and were built for horses with much smaller frames than our equine friends of today.

Also, many of these antique saddles do not have a leaping head?—?a safety feature that became increasingly common as of the 1860s.

“One of the most difficult parts of riding sidesaddle is finding a saddle that fits,” explains Lee. “There aren’t many folks making sidesaddles these days and the sidesaddles of yesteryear don’t typically fit today’s horses. Antique saddle are usually much narrower and often don’t include a cutback for the withers.”

Frustrated with the difficulty associated with finding a proper fitting sidesaddle for her horses, Lee is now working with Rod Nikkel, a saddle tree maker based out of Valleyview, Alta. Together, they are designing a modern tree for custom sidesaddle orders.

Lee McLean is organizing the annual Sidesaddle Weekend at Bar U National Historic Ranch. The event, which takes place July 4-6, 2014, has attracted participants from all over North America.