Side saddle riding - Downton Abbey style

Sarah Parry at Longsight Stables with Carina Marie

Sarah Parry at Longsight Stables with Carina Marie - Credit: Archant

It was suddenly in vogue when Lady Mary was filmed riding side saddle and now it has helped Clitheroe’s Sarah Parry develop a business. Joyce Bishop reports

Lady Mary side saddle riding in Downton Abbey

Lady Mary side saddle riding in Downton Abbey - Credit: not Archant

Sarah Parry does not fit the stereotype of a side saddle rider. Even if she failed to acknowledge that fact herself, there are always plenty of people happy to point it out.

‘I was once told I was an unlikely candidate for it,’ says Sarah. ‘People think that if a woman is a size 18 and sitting on a cob she can’t do side saddle. The traditional ideal combination is big bay, petite rider, old name saddle.’

By her own admission she is not petite, nor does she ride a big bay; in fact her last horse, Molly, was a Clydesdale cob. As for the saddle, well, Sarah, 38, from Barrow, near Clitheroe, does not have pockets deep enough to fund one of those old names, many of which date from what she describes as the golden age of side saddle riding a century or more ago.

With so many factors apparently going against her, Sarah does seem an ‘unlikely’ candidate until she explains that the decision to convert to riding side saddle was taken out of her hands following an incident on a train 18 years ago.

Sarah Parry at Longsight Stables with Carina Marie

Sarah Parry at Longsight Stables with Carina Marie - Credit: Archant

Sarah broke her back when she was thrown to the floor during an attack by a male passenger. It took her four months to recover and, although grateful to get back on a horse, she found that riding astride was, at best, uncomfortable. A side saddle provided a great alternative, allowing her to return to a hobby she took up at the age of nine.

All went well until she bought Molly in 2000. ‘She was so big that I had to design all her tack, including a side saddle,’ says Sarah, who trained in fashion design at the University of Central Lancashire.

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From that small beginning, mum-of-two Sarah created her business, Bit on the Side Saddle, designing bespoke, affordable side saddles and accessories such as boots, whips and canes. Having worked for well-known equestrian names such as Mark Todd and the Whitaker family, she had the perfect background for her new venture.

Now, her aim is to entice more women to try riding ‘aside’, which is the correct way to describe this style. With renewed interest thanks to the ‘Lady Mary’ effect in Downton Abbey, there is no shortage of enquiries and Sarah is keen to make this type of riding accessible to all. In an effort to do this she keeps costs down by having her saddles made in Europe, something that provokes an elitist response from the traditionalists who want English-made kit. ‘That attitude will have to change because there just aren’t enough side saddles around and not everyone can afford the old names,’ she says.

‘I’d love to take the courses to become a master saddler but I have a family and a mortgage so I’ve had to come at the business from a different angle. I look at the way the saddle performs, I know how much pressure it’s under during a jump, I know the recipe for the stainless steel and the fibreglass in the tree, and I hand-make the Wykeham pads and panels myself.

‘Side saddles are so specialised and they need to be balanced and fitted to the horse, so I provide a very personal service. I’d discourage people from buying old side saddles on-line; they might be cheaper, but if you’re not careful you can do a lot of damage to your horse.’

Sarah already has some enthusiastic customers, including a paralympic rider and a French lady who took third place in this year’s Dianas of the Chase, the only side saddle steeplechase staged since the Second World War. ‘I have one customer who has arthritis in her hip and she uses one of my saddles for jumping and showing,’ says Sarah, who also works with Riding for the Disabled.

She is clearly delighted to be helping make side saddle more accessible, but she is determined to widen her customer base and perhaps persuade some of the doubting traditionalists to try her saddles too.

‘It’s a different way to ride but it shouldn’t be elitist,’ she says. ‘You don’t use your legs as much because the right leg just hooks on, and you have to develop upper body strength and use your core muscles. When you first try it, you really feel it the next day. I’d recommend taking lessons to learn properly.’

As for the horse, converting it to a side saddle is generally straightforward and can normally be achieved in a matter of hours. ‘You should be kind and respectful and introduce the saddle slowly – ten minutes here and there,’ says Sarah. ‘And make sure the saddle is properly fitted.’

For Sarah, the good news is that there seems to be both a growing awareness of riding aside and, even more important, an increasing acceptance of modern-build side saddles that are made abroad as well as in the UK.

‘I’ve been to major shows with my saddles and had a fantastic response,’ she says. ‘Slowly I think that traditional view of the side saddle rider will disappear.’

In the meantime, following the death of Molly, Sarah rides a friend’s horse, Carina. She is, ironically, a large bay.

One side of the story

Women have ridden aside for centuries as it was viewed as a way of protecting their modesty. Side saddle as we know it today dates back to the Victorian era with the right leg on the front of the saddle, with the left leg bent and resting on the saddle and the foot in the slipper stirrup.

The 1870s saw the introduction of the first ‘safety skirt’ to help prevent women being caught by their skirts and dragged by their horses if they fell.

The Suffragettes saw side saddle as a symbol of male domination and by the early 20th century it became socially acceptable for women to ride astride while wearing split skirts or breeches, and the side-saddle began to fall out of fashion.

However, there has been a revival caused by the ‘Lady Mary’ effect. The character from of Downton Abbey hunts aside, and this seems to have sparked a new interest to such an extent that a new British side-saddle high jump record was recently set by a woman rider at 6ft 3in.