Monday, November 16, 2009

Have A Little Fun - Sidesaddle & Driving Horses

Ever consider doing something a little different with your horse? A little out of the ordinary? Tired of the same old-same old hefting that great big Western saddle up there and tromping around on the same trails? Bored with throwing that all purpose saddle on your trusty steed for another yawn-inducing round of cavalettis? Have you considered learning to ride aside (as opposed to astride) or teaching your horse to drive?

Let’s start out with Sidesaddle. Something most folks don’t realize is, you really are whole lot safer overall in a sidesaddle than you are in a standard saddle where both legs are on a different side of the horse. How can that be, you ask? Quite simply put, the sidesaddle, by it’s very design, is intended to keep the rider from falling off. I didn't believe it myself when that thought was first presented to me, until I found myself mounted on a snorting, rearing, spooking flat saddle horse in a sidesaddle. I became a believer. ;)

Riding Sidesaddle was a must for women years ago, because popular opinion was that women should always wear dresses or skirts and not be seen in long pants. Nevermind that your dress would really get in the way of riding a horse! Thus, the sidesaddle was created.

In recent years, the sport of riding Sidesaddle has gained new-found popularity among a wide variety of riders. There are clubs and societies dedicated solely to Sidesaddle, with a multitude of events the ladies riding aside can compete in. Also, at some breed shows (like the Arabian and Half-Arabian, for instance) there are ‘Ladies Sidesaddle’ classes in both English and Western versions. For those who wish to ride English, a variety of apparel options await. Generally today, a Hunter-type Sidesaddle horse is ridden with more formal Show Hack attire and a plain wrap skirt. Under Saddleseat appointments, most riders opt for a traditional period costume, which is my first love for the class. Western riders ordinarily just wear their normal garb with a heavier weight flowing skirt that matches, in lieu of their chaps.

Training the Sidesaddle mount isn’t difficult, but requires more balance on the rider’s part than riding astride the horse. Since both legs will fall on the horse’s left side, he must be trained to respond almost entirely to weight shifting cues and a crop carried on his right. My method includes, in the early stages, riding with both my legs on the correct (left) side in just a standard Western saddle, so if I need to reinforce a cue early on with both legs, I can quickly move the right leg over and do so. Usually, since I train all my horses to respond to weight and hip shifts anyhow, it’s no big stretch to teach them how to deal with the differences of Sidesaddle.

I’ll usually find, as expected, the biggest challenge is getting a nice, smooth canter or lope transition, but if I begin to teach the horse how to depart into that canter or lope by shifting over my right hip and laying the crop against his right side, leaving my right leg entirely OFF his side even while riding in a ‘normal’ position, it’s so much easier when I switch to the sidesaddle.

In all, the process need not be a lengthy one. But imagine the years of fun you can have showing all your friends, with their boring old routines, this slick new trick!

On the other hand, my second topic for this installment of Laying The Foundation, driving, can be a little more involved (not to mention expensive, although sidesaddles of any discipline as well as the fancy hats and dresses associated with period costumes are by no means cheap)!

Previously, I’ve covered the process of bitting and ground driving, so I’ll fast forward to preparing the horse and actually getting him hitched. As always, remember your first consideration has to be safety, both yours and your horse’s. On that note, one thing you really need to take into consideration before making a decision to drive him: Is your horse a suitable driving candidate? Spooky, nervous horses and those with a propensity to bolt off or run away are not considered good prospects because frankly, they’re not safe. I know, that should be a no brainer, but in the interest of pacifying those who worry about "giving beginners advice", I've gotta say it.

When tacking the horse to begin his driving training, if you’ve done your homework with ground driving and the bitting rig, he will have no problem with most of the harness itself, since he’s already worn most of what’s involved. He must wear the surcingle with pad, the crupper, a breastplate and the martingale. These he knows and accepts already if he’s got that good foundation I talk about all the time. For my driving horses, I mostly use an overcheck bridle as opposed to the sidecheck, but either is fine for most applications and show ring legal if that’s your ultimate destination. Since the driving bridle also has blinkers, I’m going to want to accustom the horse to a blinker hood with half cups while longeing then longlining him (these are available at many retailers, and both online and through tack catalogs) before I think about hitching him. Last, I add the rear breeching, which horses can react to in much the same way as a crupper, so he needs time to become comfortable with it as well.

After I’ve made sure the horse is used to the entire wardrobe that goes on him, it’s time to get him used to actually pulling something behind him. I like to use small diameter PVC pipe sections about ten feet long and adapt them to simulate the cart’s shafts so I can attach the traces and breeching ends to them. Then I’ll allow them to drag the ground behind the horse so he gets used to that new feeling of pulling something solid. Gradually you can add weight to them so he gets used to pulling a heavy vehicle and driver -- a good way to do this (and allow him to contemplate something on wheels behind him) is to hook a singletree (the crossbar you see behind the horse usually in a Draft hitch) to a pair of wheels and teach him to pull it.

Once he’s fine with every new addition, You can show him the cart. An aside -- Choose a cart with several factors in mind: Safety, size of the horse and fit to the rider. Now, he needs to realize that cart isn’t some monster that’s out to get him. Remember, he won’t be able to see it, but he can hear it and feel it’s weight. My preference is to start by longlining the horse while a helper pulls the cart along behind the horse, so he gets used to the noise it makes. After he accepts it, I’ll have that helper hold the horse’s head while I hitch him to the cart itself.

Now he’s got to learn how to turn when pulling the vehicle, which is to say he must keep his body straight rather than arcing toward a curve like he’s been taught in the lines and/or under saddle. Most horses catch on pretty quickly from the lessons with those PVC poles. But it should become clear that the shafts won’t allow him to bend around like a noodle. For the first few sessions with him actually hooked, I won’t be in that cart, but walking beside it. Once there’s no question he’s calm and has no fear of the cart following him, I’ll step on in.

Understand that it’s a vastly different world for a horse who’s been saddle trained, or the one that’s had nothing beyond basic ground work because the rules are different, though not all of the cues are. For one thing, we don’t let driving horses canter. Not unless we’re training them for a Wells Fargo™ commercial! (yes, that was a joke, folks) ;)

If you’re interested in pursuing a new and different career for your horse, or you just want him to have a more varied education, I strongly urge you to seek out professional assistance before embarking on such an endeavor. It will be well worth the money you spend (provided you deal with a skilled and reputable trainer) and go further to ensure you have a terrific partner in your horse.



  1. An acquaintance is learning to drive because she has severe rheumatoid arthritis and riding has become more and more challenging. She had her first clinic--no driving, just theory, I guess--yesterday. She's not sure driving will be her "thing," but at least it's an option.

    Heaven knows we all need those ;o)

  2. Glad your friend is giving it a shot!! Driving can be fun and less physically stressful than riding, it's a great option. :)

    I received an email last week about a driving clinic to be held in the Antelope Valley area last Monday, but was unable to make it. I'm thinking about asking one of the local driving trainers to help me put together a comprehensive training clinic next Spring.


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