Wednesday, 14 August 2013

A Very Grand Old Lady

One of the first side saddles I ever saw in person, was when I was a teenager (I was 15 going on 16) when I visited a tack shop in Cape Cod, Massachusetts while on vacation with my auntie who has a house there. The tack shop had an old Victorian side saddle perched on the banister and I was intrigued by it as it had all fancy stitching on it and a slipper stirrup. I had only ever seen plain 1930's style side saddles shown in my horse books so it caught my eye and also the fact, that I loved side saddle so much but hadn't access to any side saddles or side saddle lessons. It was so TINY too, even as a teenager, I would have been too tall to ride on it.

Well, my auntie didn't buy me the tiny ornate side saddle but a pair of Cottage Craft rubber riding boots and a Breyer model horse, both of which I was VERY HAPPY to receive but that little fancy saddle always stuck in my mind.

Now as a "grown up" and a side saddle rider, that little saddle that I saw all those years ago, keeps playing on my mind and I have kind of been looking for one for dsiplay as well as wondering how those Grand Old Ladies ride. Most of them I have come across, have been VERY narrow- even narrower than the yellow narrow gullets in the Wintec and Thorowgood saddles (Hattie takes the green narrow/medium in Thorowgood saddles and a black medium in Wintecs) and MUCH too short in the seat for me to even try at my height of 5'9" so never really made an active effort to persue finding one to buy.

Sometimes it's when you make the least effort that you come across something though...

Laying in a heap, in the grass, I spied a disgusting old side saddle. It was FILTHY and covered in dirt, dust, spiders, old spider webs and goodness knows what else. The leather on the safe was all curled over on itself- it looked a right old mess.

There wasn't a price tag so asked the vendor "how much" and she said she'd accept offers on this wreck. People passing by, giggled at my as I picked up this Poor Old Lady and made my offer. Then she came home with me and turned her into this Grand Dame...

She dates to about 1860 and was made by a saddler called H. Selden who was a "Carriage & Cart Barnet(?) Maker" in Tenterden (Kent). They also made ropes, twines and cordage! The original paper labels still are present on each side of the saddle.

The saddle is REALLY well made and was crafted for a tall, well fed lady on a well fed horse, lol. I honestly did not think this saddle would fit either Hattie or me and bought it for it's display value. That is, until I put Hattie's wither tracing against it when I got home and thought, "Blimey" and then sat on it on the stand and thought "Blimey!" again!

With that, I took it for a spin on Hattie to finally see how these old Victorian saddles with their off-side crutch, lack of cutback and their dipped seats rode and I was certainly surprised.

As soon I put it on Hattie, I could see that it fit like a glove at the tree (it has a long nearside and off-side point). Even the cutback less head cleared her withers with enough space but not too high to feel like you would be riding uphill.

I don't think the saddle was ridden in much as there was a serious lack of flocking at the back but the addition of a fleece riser, solved that problem. I did not encounter any bridging with the saddle at all and actually sat quite nice and level on Hattie's back although she does not look impressed. It has a roller bar fitting so used the same leather and iron as I use on my off-side Beck.

I also used a soft leather three buckle girth from a Bit on the Side Saddle for extra security in case one of the old billets broke. Note the lack of balance girth and the long tree points on each side. This was another reason to use the three buckle girth so that the pressure was spread evenly over all the billets to help balance it better. I put a thin gel pad underneath as well for extra comfort but despite being 150 years old, the panels are in remarkably good condition. Looks like all the spiders that once inhabited this saddle, earned their keep by keeping the moths out!

Then it was time to get on and I was so excited! My butt found the sweet spot in the saddle immediately and the crutch at the front of the saddle fit my ample thigh like it was custom made for me and not some stranger 150 years ago. 

The leaping head was a perfect fit too, usually on old saddles, the curve is too tight for my leg but the lady who had this saddle was a Good Doer like me!

The original owner of this saddle was probably a tiny bit shorter than me (maybe 5'7"-ish) so there is a little bit of "butt spillage" at the back as the saddle is just shy of 21" (it's about 20 3/4", I take at least 21") but my seat bones are comfortably on the saddle which measures about 14" wide! all in all though, it's not too bad a fit for me and I've ridden in saddles which have been larger in seat size but so uncomfortable! I did not feel uphill in this saddle at all either.

On a separate, humorous observation, I think I know the reason why I prefer NON flat seated saddles and why I don't feel like I'm riding uphill on sweepy and dippy seated saddles- it's because of my AMPLE BOTTOM!!! You can see in the photo, how the "extra padding" thigh and bum "fill in the gap" of the dipped seat which then in turn, lifts up my bones inside my body to actually sit level on the saddle. Flat seats don't give my padding anywhere to go but non flat seats, give it some where to go somewhere. I'm no expert and don't have any medical degree but you can't argue with the photo below!!!! 

Now the fun part, the riding!!! We started slowly at the walk, just getting used to everything and to make sure the saddle didn't start snapping to bits (and me getting used to riding on the nearside again) but once I felt confident in the saddle, off we went at all three gaits and even did some extended canters down the long side. I even tried holding onto the off-side horn as it was often used as a hand hold but couldn't see the point really, much easier to keep your right shoulder back than to hold onto that thing and lose contact with your rein. Unfortunately, the overgirth did break as i got a bit over zealous in tightening it!

Not once did the saddle feel unstable or move due to the lack of balance girth and there is something to be said about the dual long tree points that the Victorians used to use in their saddles, they do make a side saddle more stable (although harder to fit) if the curve of them fits your horse well. 

I took the following photos while I was seated on the saddle and there was no pinching at the off-side tree point and good clearance at the withers without being too high up over them (there was 2 fingers clearance). I would probably say that the tree on the saddle is a good, sound medium width for a Thoroughbred. you can see how well the curve of the tree follows Hattie's conformation.

All in all, I was delighted with how this saddle rode and Hattie did not seem to mind it either, so we may be onto a winner here!

1 comment:

  1. Those saddles were beautifully designed. The downhill dip would not have been an issue for a 19th century rider, however slender. Think of all the skirts she would be sitting on! The costume plays its part, too. I rode this type of saddle in a competition a couple of years ago, wearing a reproduction costume made of wool with matching wool breeches. The wool of the breeches gripped into the wool of the skirt and the wool skirt gripped into the leather of the saddle. It was an amazingly secure feeling.