Meet Heidi Graham - cattle rancher, horsemen and all around competitor. She has ridden and competed in just about every riding style possible; dressage, endurance, team roping, western pleasure, barrel racing…and now she has embraced sidesaddle. Heidi grew up on a working ranch and is a virtual walking encyclopedia when it comes to large animal husbandry and horsemanship.
When she’s not ranching, she gives riding lessons, speaks at various events on animal husbandry, starts young horses, and gives guided hunts acting as guide and packer. On a darker note, she has been known as the go-to person for ‘hard to get to’ body recovery in her rugged Northern California area because of her skill set and highly trained pack animals. Heidi’s big heart and can-do attitude make her a valuable asset to the community!
Wow Heidi, that’s quite an impressive riding background you have! With all the riding you’ve done, what attracted you to sidesaddle? And please tell us, is it comfortable?
When I was a teen saw Wendy, the wife of one of my dad's riding buddies, riding side saddle and thought it was so cool. She was riding an English side saddle at the time in full costume, and she looked so beautiful and classy. I must have asked her a thousand questions about it that day.
Besides the costumes and stuff I think the real attraction is the challenge of learning a whole new riding technique and training my horse to respond to new cues. If you think about it, when your riding 'aside' you can't use one leg to cue your horse with. That does make a big difference especially in western sidesaddle where your reins are held in one hand. So the challenge was a major factor.
Is it comfortable? Oh yes! Not only is it comfortable but it's a more natural position for the human body to be in. There is so much less pressure placed on the vertebrae's that many people who can no longer ride due to back pain find they can ride 'aside'. And a properly fitted side saddle is gentler to the horses back as well. It is also a very safe and secure way to ride as you can "lock" your self into the saddle by merely squeezing your legs together slightly.
Most of us have never seen a sidesaddle, let alone ridden in one. Immediately I noticed the huge skirt on your saddle. What’s the purpose of that?
There are multiple reasons for the larger skirt on the western side saddle. One reason is to distribute the weight through out the saddle evenly. The English saddles don't have the skirting, so some of it esthetics to make the saddle look like the traditional western saddle. And the most important reason is to keep you from rubbing your horse the wrong way with your leg.
How did your horse handle the transition from a traditional saddle to a sidesaddle? Was there any special training involved?
My horse took right to it as most horses do. Any horse can learn to be a side saddle mount, gaited or un-gaited, and most prefer it even. However there is one horse that you should not ride in side saddle and that's the Pacer. The Pace is unique in the way it moves the rider. Not only do you have the front to back motion you get from a normal horse but you get a side to side motion at the same time with a pacer.
This is caused by the way a pacer moves both legs on one side forward then moves the other side. This combination of motion could throw you from your saddle. Of coarse I can't do anything easy so I'm riding a Standard bred pacer strait off the track. For most people the only training or cross training needed, is teaching your horse to recognize the cues from a crop as the same as those from your leg. Oh and getting use to sitting cross legged while moving.
I really enjoyed watching the video of all the women practicing at a sidesaddle clinic. I had no idea there was such a following of enthusiasts! Once as lady has mastered riding sidesaddle, is there a place where she can show off her new skills?
Really there are very few instructors compared to other riding styles out there, and there are none currently in my area. So you'll likely have to travel for instruction and do a LOT of self training in between. Currently there are no rules against competing in most of the western events in side saddle. From western pleasure to roping and reining, barrels to cutting; can all be done 'aside', and in the past it was done that way in saddles that were not all they could have been.
Then there are the parades and gymkhanas that you can show off your skill in. My favorite thing to do is ride trail. It gives me all sorts of obstacles to deal with. I don't recommend anybody but an expert to attempt jumping, as in hunter, until they are an expert. That is a whole different set of skills and techniques. But they do that in side saddle as well.
Your custom sewn dress is absolutely beautiful. I have to believe that’s half the fun! But tell me, how in the world do you mount your horse in that getup?
Well it takes practice and a very tall mounting block is helpful. I don't want to give away any secrets, not to mention it's a little difficult to explain with out a demonstration. The riding 'habit' or dress is made very differently then the usual dress or skirt. It is designed with one side much longer then the other and is weighted so that when in the saddle, it drapes over the leg. The weights also help to keep the skirt from bunching under your seat. It also can have a slit in it, or it could be made with very little back to the skirt. This is called an apron and is worn over breeches.
One way is by being given a "leg up" by someone. It's pretty much the same as with mounting astride where you would throw your leg over the horse but when in a dress you would turn at the last moment so that you are sitting side ways on the saddle. Then you would adjust as needed. It's not easy to mount from the ground in full dress but it can be done. My first attempt had me standing up on the saddle and getting rather tangled up, as well as annoying my poor horse to no end. It does get easier with practice!
Thank you Heidi. It’s been fun talking with you! One more question. Where can we go to learn more about the sport?
One way is to go on line and find a group like CA_Aside or ASA (American Sidesaddle Association). They will be happy to answer any questions you may have. You can see sidesaddle teams at many parades including the Kentucky Derby.