Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Getting to be Habit Forming

ell, I don't know why, but I've been bitten by the "embroidery" bug. For the record, I don't embroider, sew, knit, stitch, crochet, or do anything else related to actually making clothing myself. I generally leave that to others with far more experience, time, and inclination than I. However, sometimes you have to do things yourself and head down the road less traveled.

To that end, in order to improve my horse's kit, I've decided that her saddle must have a decorative cloth of gold cover. It's no doubt going to be an ambitious project, but it must be done, much like learning to ride aside.

It is not a task that is undertaken lightly, but the reward will be the satisfaction of knowing that my horse is well dressed. So, I've purchased a small gold work kit to see what I'm getting myself into; hopefully not over my head.

Why not buy a cover? Why all the trouble?

It's all about impression and cotton damask won't cut it, not for this impression. And here's a little excerpt from the:

Wardrobe Accounts of Edward IV
Part XX For Th'office of the Stable

Delivered for the covering of a sadelle and an herneys in russet velvet cloth of gold for an hakeney, and a footeclothe maade of russet velvet lyned with blac bokeram, by vertue of a warrant under the Kinges signet and signe manuelle bering date the second day of Septembre in the xx{ti} yere of the moost noble reigne of oure said Souverain Lord the King unto the saide Piers Courteys for the deliveree of the said stuff directe,

Velvet, iij yerdes russet; velvet cloth of gold, ij yerdes di' russet; bokeram longe, v yerdes.

What's the purpose of sharing the excerpt? Well it's contemporary with my portrayal and it specifically notes "cloth of gold" being utilized in the covering of tack. No one that I know of makes authentic cloth of gold, and if they do, it is beyond my income bracket. That means in order for it to be "affordable" to me, I have to pretty much do it myself.

I will be sure to post my progress with the kit as well as the cover design for my mare's saddle.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Getting Medieval - Drill Day

oday, the group is getting together to do something a little different. Today we will be working on an mixed drill; people on foot and working with our two horses. Part of this little exercise is to get my mare used to people in armour. We'll see how this works. It's been awhile since armoured people have been around her.

Still working the side saddle issue. I'll talk more about that in a future post.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Saddle Fitting

urrent mood: disappointed

After spending roughly 3.5 hours trying to find a fit for my mare, we were 'defeated' in the end by her physique.

Lacking pronounced withers, possessing standardbred shoulders, and an incredibly deep hip tilt, the fitter could not find a saddle that would not roll even with the potential added benefit of a breast collar and crupper.

Now my husband's horse was an ideal candidate. However, having him fitted for one is somewhat pointless as our goal was to go to events together and I can't see him riding my horse all the time and me riding his.

I am so totally bummed right now. :-(

But, as they say "never give up", so I am currently doing some investigation to see if there might be something: a combo, a style, that might work on a horse with a body type like my mare. I'll keep y'all posted.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Reading for the 'Medieval' Horsewoman

his is a suggested reading list for those riders interested in historical (a.k.a.-"classical") horsemanship. Whilst several of the books pertain to the topic of 'side saddle', several others are about horsemanship in general or its equipment. There are also other books listed here regarding archaeological finds that are relevant to the rider and the accessories and textiles that might make up a medieval riding habit.

I have included two pattern books. The first, 'The Medieval Tailor's Assistant', with which I have personal experience. It is a good book and the author does a good job of providing contemporary images to back up her pattern designs. One of the caveats is that you will have to know something about sewing, and the making of muslins, and have the ability to tweak the patterns to fit your body. The other issue is that you have to be good at metric conversion or fluent in working with metrics patterns. (If not, try this conversion tool.)

The second is the 'Tudor Tailor' with which I have no practical experience. However, it seems to have very high reviews. I have provided it solely as a jump point for women seeking to ride in a Tudor Habit.

Side Saddle:
  • Side-Saddle by Doreen Archer Houblon, London, Country Life (1938)*
  • The Saddle of Queens by Lida Fleitmann Bloodgood, J.A. Allen & Company (1959)
  • The Fair Lady Aside Her Saddles and Habits by Mary L. Thomas, Private Printing (1993)
* Mrs. Houblon's book has been reprinted, but I have been told that the later editions of this book are missing some key bits of information and that if the reader can obtain a copy of the 1938 printing, that it is the book that they should acquire before later editions.

Artifacts and Archaeology:

Horses and Horsemanship:

Pattern Books for Medieval and Renaissance Clothing:

Some of these books are exceptionally hard to find and their prices reflect this fact. I suggest inter-library loan or one of the following book search engines with which I have had tremendous success.

New and Used Book Search Engines:
Bon Chance!

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Habit Forming

urrent mood, very happy. I just placed the order for my XVe century girdle (wide belt) for my habit. No, not a nun's habit, my historical riding habit. This is a typical wide belt worn by ladies over their gowns during that time period.

The design I've chosen is based on Rogier Van Der Weyden's portrait of Isabella of Portugal. It will be created by Gina B, a wonderful woman who is a member of the silk women of Soper Lane. These ladies specialise in the weaving of silk as it was done in the 15th century.

Mine will be a lovely checkerboard pattern in red silk. The color is almost like scarlet lake. A red that leans more toward the cool end of the color spectrum. I am currently sourcing the buckle and strap end for this lovely belt. It will be based on a buckle design of another Van Der Weyden painting, "Portrait of a Lady".

The finished example will look something like this example on Gina's web site, except for the color of course, and the fittings will be different.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Upcoming Side Saddle Lesson and Fitting

'm ecstatic. This upcoming weekend, June 16, will be another lesson and a side saddle fitting for my horse.

Fitting Phantom properly has never been an easy task. She has a wide barrel and a long back. Regular saddles even when fitted for her seem to pinch her withers. I suspect that she needs a different type of rigging, that the common girth placement is too close to her shoulders.

I can't wait to see if a nice Circle R side saddle (western style) is going to work for Phantom (and me).

Aborted Lesson

April 15, 2007

It was time for the third side saddle lesson, but alas, it was not meant to be. You know the old poem for the “want of a horseshoe nail the battle was lost”? Well for the want of a screw, the lesson was lost.

Ah costume...er-ah, I mean saddle malfunctions.


The lesson started off with great promise. I was actually going to ride a new horse. He was tacked up and we moved into the indoor. Gail mounted and did her regular warm-up ride and girth tightening. Then it was my turn.

When I mounted, the saddle seemed to slide toward me. We tightened the girth again and then Gail and I moved off a few steps, but already I kept moving my seat toward the off side; I halted.

“I feel like I’m sliding.”

After an examination, it was determined that the saddle we were using wasn’t a very good fit for my mount. The padding didn’t help and the saddle was low at the pommel and sinking into the horse’s withers. So wanting to make sure that his experience was as good as mine, I dismounted while Sue brought in the backup saddle.

The backup saddle was placed on the horse’s back and then it was discovered, a screw in the safety stirrup’s attachment was missing. Being that it was only my third lesson and I was on a new horse, I didn’t want to chance not having a stirrup. So, we canceled the lesson for the day.

It is reasons like this that it is very important that new riders work with experienced equestriennes when fitting saddles and for proper instruction. No one is beyond learning something new, no matter how long they’ve ridden. Besides, it’s a sad day when you don’t learn something.

My Second Side Saddle Lesson

ebruary 18, 2007

Took my second lesson this weekend. One word...OUCH.

I was riding a different side saddle that dropped my left hip making me feel like I was sliding off to the left despite the fact that the saddle remained true. So, now my left back muscles are sore and my right leg kept stressing at the hip joint and in the last trot, my right calf cramped because I was compensating for the drop. That and my right leg was working really hard to keep me forward where I needed to be.

The saddle had a longer seat than the previous one I rode on. It apparently makes "A LOT" of difference, also the amount of padding under the right leg. So the riding lesson turned into a valuable "seat" lesson; having the proper saddle for the rider. Both the fitter and the instructor switched to the new saddle thinking it would be more comfortable for me, turned out that the previous one, despite the horn over my left leg being a little tight, and having a shorter seat, was more of an ideal fit.

Despite all this, I still had a blast. I'm still getting used to the "new normal" -- not having my right leg to aid. My grumpy little QH was not as grumpy, though he was still a bit of a pill at times.

I'm hoping to get the chance to try out two Circle R custom saddles (www.circlersaddles.com) in the 1.8 - 2.6K range) at my next lesson. I'll let you all know how it goes. In June I will have my mare fitted for a custom side saddle.

My First Side Saddle Lesson

January 21, 2007

There’s an old adage, ‘You’re never too old to learn’. Dom Duarte, King of Portugal (early 15th century) had written in his treatise on horsemanship Livro da ensinança de bem cavalgar toda sela, that people could ride no matter their age or ‘infirmity’. And it’s true. Less than a week after my birthday, I’ll let y’all guess which one; my little Stratus was swiftly moving toward Holden Massachusetts, with my husband Bob riding shotgun, for my first side saddle lesson.

It was a bitterly cold day, not unusual for January in New England, but the sky was as bright as my anticipation of my first aside lesson. Nothing short of a blizzard or a nuclear event was going to keep me from my goal. This was something I had to do.

I must have bored poor Bob to death. My excited chatter made the hour long drive seem non-existent, at least for me, and soon I found my car pulling into the narrow driveway of the riding facility that hosted my instructor. We had arrived fifteen minutes early for the noon appointment; this gave me ample time to put on my black Ariat Springbucks and my half chaps. Oh, one tip, never wear thick wool socks with Ariats. I never thought I’d get the zippers up and had to press poor Bob into service to help. The goal was to keep my toes warm, it was January after all.

We sat in the car and waited for the appointed time. I anxiously and repeatedly glanced at the clock, “Come on 12!” At five minutes of, we made our way to the entrance of the facility, helmet bag in one hand, Canon-GL1 in the other, that’s a video camera by the way, if I was going to experience side saddle, vanity demanded that I see how I looked while riding aside. I have to give props to my honey for being the sport that he was and indulging me.

As we walked in, Bob and I were stunned by the narrow aisle and the small stalls, and the seemingly pony-sized horses. Now keep in mind, my mare is 16.1 hands. My husband’s gelding is a strapping young boy of 17 hands. So size is relative. And in that “narrow aisle”, we found Gail, my instructor and Sue, my co-instructor and saddle technician. They were preparing Ben, a cute, but grumpy little quarter horse that would be my lesson partner. This was the second time he had a side saddle on him, so it was going to prove interesting.

My excitement spilled over. Bob and I chatted with Gail and Sue about our horses and experiences, hobbies (living history specifically), my goals and reasons for taking up riding aside and other things. While they were fitting Ben, Sue talked about fit while keeping a weather eye on Ben, who was grumpy about his sides; occasionally threatening a kick while having the girth tightened.

Finally, Gail slipped the bridle over Ben’s muzzle and ears, unclipped him from the cross ties and walked toward the large wooden door at the end of the aisle, “Door!” She called out. “Enter” was the reply from beyond. As the door rumbled open, it revealed the indoor. It was time to ride!

Gail was first up. She wanted to make sure that Ben was warmed up for the lesson and to make sure that the saddle fit him. After all, it wouldn’t do to have me tumble off and making an impact crater in the footing. Normally I wouldn’t be concerned, but did I mention it was January? Things hurt a lot more when it’s cold.

So, I watched Gail make the circuit in both directions, effortlessly, or at least she made it seem so, tightening the girth as she rode. She rode up to the mounting block and dismounted. It was finally my turn. We were to start off at a walk and would work up to a trot. Trot? I wasn’t expecting trot. Trotting astride was one thing, trotting with both legs on the same side...hmmm... sounded risky. A mix of concern and excitement moved me to the mounting block.

Gail demonstrated the safety stirrup. She lifted up the saddle skirt and held the stirrup leather and the iron parallel to the ground, “You want to be careful, this is a safety stirrup, it’s meant to release, so if you pull it up beyond this point” she lifted it slightly above the horizontal, “it will detach.” I gave her my best Mr. Spock dubious, arched eyebrow, to which she added, “That’s a good thing, that’s what it’s supposed to do.”

Before I mounted, I was told that when placing the saddle on the horse, make sure that the saddle was slightly off center toward the off side. That way when the rider mounted, if the saddle slid, it would actually center. It worked.

So, I put my foot in the single safety stirrup, and up I went. I sat astride to properly adjust my seat. Then Gail told me to place my right hand behind me on Ben’s rump and then swing my right leg over the horn and into position. The reason for this is to keep your hips in the proper position. She then gave me some instructions on aids and how to keep my posture and the pressure that I should use with my right calf to keep my purchase on the saddle. As she walked next to me, she would occasionally adjust my left toe.

It was a lot of minor adjustments as I rode; things to remember and apply as we went. Then she asked if I was ready for a brief jog, and then we were off.

In my first post, I addressed the issue of “why” someone would choose to ride in this manner, aside from the historical precedent of long flowing dresses and propriety, the second half of the “why” question was, “isn’t it dangerous?” Well, in all honesty, the art of riding is inherently dangerous. We are not mounted on a bicycle or a motorcycle. We are atop a living creature with a mind and will of its own that does not always comply with ours. However, I do have to agree with Mrs. Houblon’s assessment of physique playing a role in riding aside.


The principles of riding and the ends at which we aim are exactly the same side-saddle as astride. This is a point that I should like to make clear from the beginning. Of course, there are certain details in execution which differ in the two modes of riding, and certain adaptations which have to be made when riding side-saddle; but the broad principles, the principles of balance, poise, suppleness, rhythm, sympathy, firmness of seat, independence of hands, and nicety in the application of the aids, remain the same, and so do the results which we strive to attain.

How, then, are we to decide whether to ride astride or side-saddle?

I think the answer is that it depends on our physique.

There are some women whose physique enables them to ride astride so beautifully that they do not feel it necessary to add riding side-saddle to their other accomplishments. These, however, are in the minority, and to most women I would say ride side-saddle, for it will give them that firmness of seat (the foundation on which rests the whole superstructure of good horsemanship) which, owing to their physique, they would never have astride. After all, the average woman has not got the same muscular strength as the average man; and where, in cases of emergency, the man has to use all his strength to retain his balance, the woman, riding astride, would probably fall off. On the other hand, if she rides side-saddle, she may even succeed in remaining on her horse on occasions when the man, riding astride, would "part company."

I do not say for a moment that it is impossible to fall out of a side-saddle. It is, at times, only too easy! Nevertheless, it is an undoubted fact that a side-saddle can give a woman a far firmer seat than she would ever have astride.

Mrs. Doreen Archer Houblon, Side-Saddle, Chapter 1, pg. 1

To lend some credence to the last statement, at one point, I was unconsciously relying on the stirrup too much and pushing against it with my left foot. This caused my left leg to move too far forward and as I rounded a corner while at a trot, I momentarily, and unwillingly shifted my balance enough to get my undivided attention; you know that feeling. When your stomach suddenly feels like it's the size of a cherry pit; and my mount fell out of the trot. At no point did I feel like I was going to ‘part company’. I have ridden astride most of my life and I have to tell you that I felt more secure on that side saddle than I did riding astride in my Australian stock saddle.

Now, a little something about my physique, I have wide hips and powerful legs. I am certain that these two physical attributes allowed me to stay firmly seated. I was able to ride longer and more comfortably that I had for a long time in an astride saddle. So in the case of my physique in relation to that of my horse, at least for me, means that a side saddle is probably the better choice for me. We will see how this idea bears out over the next few months when I actually try this on my wide barreled mare.

The remainder of my lesson went well. It was an awesome experience that I recommend anyone try at least once.

The dismount is not unlike playing “around the world” on the back of the horse. I turned my body sideways and scooched toward the cantle of the saddle. I raised my right leg over the saddle horns and removed my other foot from the stirrup. Then when I was ready, slid to the ground and the lesson was over.

I can’t wait until my next riding lesson.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Side Saddle: A Novice's Journey

had been thinking about riding aside for a few years, but various reasons, the chief amongst them being the lack of an instructor, brought the idea to an abrupt whoa. Then one day, I don't remember if it was just a moral imperative after looking at a XVe century French manuscript depicting ladies arrayed in damask finery and riding palfreys aside, or a conversation with a friend of mine in our living history crowd, that spurred me on again. Needless to say, I was bitten by the blue tail fly, but instead of being bucked and pitched, I began searching in earnest for an instructor. I had to learn this style of riding.

My introduction to this elegant art of horsemanship began in December of 2006. After various searches, I found the NEA (New England Aside) Association and sent an email to them in hopes that they would have a member who could help me achieve my goal. Within a day, I was contacted by the organization's secretary and a dialog began. The NEA was very helpful and soon, after the long and seemingly fruitless searches, I finally had the name of an accomplished horsewoman not too far from my home that taught ladies the art of riding aside and access to a side saddle technician who was well versed in the history of the saddles and would bring various types of side saddles to my first lesson to show me how to check the fit and introduce me to the parts of the saddle.

Now some of you might be thinking, 'why on earth would anyone want to ride that way, isn't it dangerous?'. Well, read on, because I found myself wondering the same thing...about the dangerous part, but now...let's take a look at the first part of the "why" question.

Why on earth would anyone want to ride that way?

Well, the simplest answer is another question...why not?

Firstly, I am a historical interpreter, when not performing my real job as a UI Designer. My area of interest is XVe century Burgundy and France, that's the 15th century (1400-1499). I normally portray three roles depending on the need of the group. The first is a mounted archer -- this is an archer much akin to how we think of mobile artillery. I ride to the battlefield, dismount and join up with other archers and armed personnel of a Burgundian Lance of the Ordinance Companies of Charles the Bold, Duke of Valois Burgundy (1467 -1477)-- I would normally ride my horse astride for this portrayal. My next role is that of a middle class Burgundian merchant. For this role, I wear a full dress and can ride my horse astride, though this is deemed to be not very ladylike, and unlike the English ladies of Richard II's reign and before, the ladies on the continent had been riding aside for a very long time, as early as 1192 if some of the extant seals of noble women are accurate. My third portrayal is that of a lady of the lower nobility, and it is for these latter two portrayals that I found it necessary to ride aside. In historical re-enactment of the Middle Ages, it is an under represented part of the woman's equestrian portrayal.

The second 'why' has to do with physical issues. I'm about 5'-4" and I ride a 16h mare, who I lovingly refer to as La Belle Dame sans Merci (The beautiful lady without mercy). She is a heavy hunter with a round, wide barrel. This tends to cause knee and back stress for me. During my first lesson (I'll get to that in a future post), one of my instructors told me that a side saddle is a good saddle for relieving some of these issues. By not having to ride with a leg on either side, I don't have to practically split myself in half to ride, thus alleviating the stress across my lower back. Also, since I don't have to wrap my legs around a wine cask (my mare's barrel), I don't cause stress on my knees. So a side saddle has made it possible for people with different levels of physical impairment to be able to pursue riding again or for the very first time. And I have to tell you, that it is a wonderful thing.

So, there you have the 'why' of riding aside and the beginning of my tale. Next, I'll tell you where not to begin.

Side Saddle: Where NOT to Begin

n my previous post, I began with how my journey started, but it brings up another issue. A friend on another side saddle list said that in keeping a journal, people may want to know what went wrong as well, not just the successes. So, I feel obligated to share that with you where not to begin your journey riding aside. It's a little site I like to call...eBay.

I like many others who want to get started in this art, begin by searching eBay for side saddles. While you might find some really interesting saddles at a really good price, I have two in my collection and neither are appropriate for my horses. The early saddles tend to be narrow through the tree and are meant to fit the horses of the time, not our more robust horses. On the reverso, I have two lovely examples of the saddler's art of the late nineteenth century: a Western style and an English style from mid-Pennsylvania that will make wonderful conversation and educational pieces.

The other reason not to just plunge head long into riding aside is that it is a different way of riding. My instructor referred to the posture of riding aside as teaching the body a new "normal". There are nuances to this style of riding that are not readily apparent, even to accomplished riders who ride astride; I whole-heartedly recommend that you find an accomplished horsewoman (or man - yes there are some that teach it) to instruct you in the art of riding aside. Mounting, getting ones seat, correct leg position and posture whilst one rides is paramount. Also, making sure that you have the correct saddle for your horse. This is another reason why I don't recommend eBay side saddle finds that goes beyond mere fit.

If you aren't familiar with this style of riding or the equipment, you can't really judge a good, safe side saddle from a poorly made, dangerous one that can have any of the following issues, cheap leather, a horn in the wrong place, poorly attached tree fittings, etc. These are all ingredients for disaster. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt, but I have to say it, there are people out there who are only interested in monetary gain, and that craftsmanship, that in the Middle Ages would get the saddler fined or expelled from their guild, and have their saddle burned for being shoddy product, doesn't matter to the less scrupulous any more than your personal safety. So go with knowledge and experience over the "too good to be true" deal. Your horse will thank you and it just might save you from taking a nasty spill or worse. Caveat emptor (Let the buyer beware).

So, with that out of the way, onto my very first side saddle lesson.