Unfortunately, you probably won’t find a sidesaddle at the local tack store or in a mail order catalog. Did you inherit your great grandmother’s? You say you found one in someone’s attic or barn? Be careful! It may have dry, cracked leather, little or no stuffing, and billets in need of repair and/or problems with the tree. It may not have a leaping head, (Photo on the History page.) or a balance strap or the strap the balance strap attaches to. In addition, the tree may be too narrow for your horse and the seat too short for you. Many horses today are much wider than they were in years past.
An example of an old, unsafe sidesaddle.
That is not to say that an older saddle cannot be a good one. In fact, most sidesaddles in use today are antiques between 50 and 150 years old. It is strongly suggested that a competent saddler with experience in sidesaddles check out and repair the saddle before you attempt to ride it. They can also help make sure it fits and adjust the fit to a degree by changing the stuffing in the panels.
Older, English made sidesaddles such as Owen, Champion & Wilton, Whippy and Mayhew are very desirable saddles if they have been kept in good working condition. Sadly, none of these wonderful old saddles are still being made. The last Champion & Wilton sidesaddle was made in 1957. Older American made sidesaddles of comparable quality are the Martin & Martin, Knoud, and Bach. Although like the English made they are no longer made.
One feature on an English sidesaddle is a leaping head. It is the lower pommel that curves around the lady’s left thigh. It is a safety device which allows the rider to stay on a horse if the horse was to buck or spin and a must when jumping aside. Pommels will be either narrow or wide and seats will be made of either leather or suede. Panels are usually made of linen, but occasionally one will find leather panels that were probably not original to the saddle. Many saddles have breakaway attachments that release the stirrup leather in an emergency. (Photo on the History page.) Older sidesaddles without breakaway attachments should be ridden with a safety stirrup. (Photo on the History page.) Some saddles are reinforced for jumping. However, not all of them are and jumping in one that is not will break the tree. Saddles should have a balance strap or a place where it attaches. If a balance strap is missing it is easily replaced.
A Champion and Wilton sidesaddle with a leather seat and narrow pommels.
A completely restored Mayhew sidesaddle.
There are some new English and Western sidesaddles being made. They vary from very high quality to very low. High quality saddles include the Niedersuss, Swain and the Steele. The Steele sidesaddle comes in three different types. There is a Western Steele, a Steele English pleasure and a Steele equitation. The Elan is a good quality saddle that is more moderately priced. The Elan is no longer being manufactured but can be found used. Some newer sidesaddles are now being made in England.
Steele English Pleasure sidesaddle.
Western Steele sidesaddle
Photo credit Hundred Oaks.
However, just because a saddle is new doesn’t mean it is a good saddle. Many new sidesaddles are being made incorrectly. Beware of new sidesaddles selling cheaply on eBay. Some of the flaws these saddles have include:
–Being made on astride trees and not aside ones—
Saddles made on astride trees will not sit on the horse correctly once the rider is mounted and will roll to the left.
–Design flaws with one or both of the pommels–
The fixed head (or upright pommel) can be twisted and also lean to far to the right or be set to far back from the leaping head. It can also be too short or too tall. These flaws cause the rider to have balance and centering problems in the saddle. They make it not only uncomfortable, but potentially unrideable or dangerous. The leaping horn should be reverse threaded so that it does not loosen as you ride. If you see a saddle with the leaping head turned up instead of down it could be that the mounting threads are stripped or it may just mean that the seller doesn’t know anything about sidesaddles. In either case, one should be wary. In addition, many times the leaping head is not made to curve around the lady’s thigh. A straight leaping head will not work properly as a safety feature.
–The stirrup attachment/leather is not in the correct position–
It should be right under the leaping horn, not behind or out in front of it as this will cause balance and centering problems for the rider.
–The balance strap is on the wrong side–
This strap should be attached to the right rear of the saddle. Some saddles have too many straps with no purpose!
–Improperly stuffed panels will cause the saddle to ride incorrectly. Panels must be stuffed correctly. Sidesaddles are stuffed more in the left rear panel than the right and stuffed more in the right front than the left.
As with any saddle the saddle must fit the horse. It is crucial that the sidesaddle fits the horse. Trees that are too narrow or too wide will not only affect the horse but your riding position as well.
The next important thing to look at is fitting the rider to the sidesaddle.
Measuring a Sidesaddle, Measuring You
Sidesaddles are measured differently than astride saddles. If you normally ride in a 17″ hunt or dressage saddle, that measurement will not be the same for you in a sidesaddle.
The American way to measure a sidesaddle is from the front edge of the upright pommel to the cantle. The British way is to measure from the cutback of the saddle to the cantle, giving a smaller measurement than the American way. Either of these measurements gives you the length. But is very important to know which way the seller is measuring the saddle. You also have to measure the width of the saddle across the widest portion of the seat.
You will now need to measure the length of your thigh. Sit on the floor with your back against the wall and measure from the bend of your knee to the base of your spine, then add one inch. This will give you the length of saddle you need. A saddle that is too short will put all of your weight on the very back of the saddle and be uncomfortable for both you and your horse. If the saddle is too long you will find yourself “reaching” for the pommels.
Next you want to measure the widest part of your hips. This measurement corresponds with the width of the saddle. If the seat is not wide enough you will overlap the saddle, which is not only uncomfortable but an unattractive look.
If you find a sidesaddle you are interested in locally see if the seller will let you try it on a trial basis to make sure it fits both you and your horse. At this time you can also have it checked by a competent saddler with experience in sidesaddles. If the seller will not allow the saddle to go on a trial basis, you will have to send the seller a wither tracing to see if the saddle will come close to fitting your horse. This will save on unnecessary and expensive shipping of the saddle. See the Favorites
Riding aside is fun!