Barn Aisle Chats is a new series where we’ll meet equestrians from all walks of life and disciplines. Today, we chat with Elaina Graves and I give sidesaddle a go.
Elaina began riding when she was seven, at her first summer camp. Following that came lessons and lesson horses until she finally purchased her first horse in college.
“I’ve rarely been without one since,” she says as we stand in the aisle of her family’s barn.
Now she owns four horses: a semi-retired, 18-year-old Appendix gelding, a 17-year-old homebred Holsteiner mare, a nine-year-old Palomino broodmare and her 15-month-old buckskin filly.
“My Appendix has done everything under the sun and moon,” she says. “Foxhunting, sidesaddle, polocrosse, trail obstacles and medieval nonsense like spearing rings with a lance and horseback archery. We’ve gone swimming in the ocean and even played with cows when he was a youngster.”
“My Holsteiner mare is placid enough to tolerate some of the tomfoolery, but not all. She won’t polocrosse and hates driving the cart.”
Her two newest editions are still green, but she hopes the filly will someday replace her all-around Appendix gelding.
And she definitely needs an all-around horse. When asked about what disciplines she’s trained and competed in, she just smiled and laughed.
“I consider myself a jack-of-all-trades, and the saying applies … master of none. I’m too easily distracted to do just one thing all the time, so I dabble. To date, I’ve done the typical hunter/jumper scene, dressage, foxhunting, driving, roping, barrel racing, reining, ridden a Saddlebred or two in their park saddles, and am currently working on my sidesaddle skills.
“There’s always something to learn. Just because you don’t see eye-to-eye with a sport, doesn’t mean they don’t have merit and something to teach. The more you know, the more well-rounded you are as an equestrian and that can only be a good thing.
“Don’t turn up your nose at doing something different. You never know what will spark a passion.”
Today, Elaina is showing me the ins and outs of sidesaddle and we begin on the ground with a saddle stand.
“You have to learn to ride the saddle, before you can ride the horse,” she teaches.
She shows me the basic seat positions and teaches me the theory behind a sidesaddle “posting” trot and canter, before saddling up her Holsteiner mare. We go over the differences in girthing and saddle fit and I learn that everything in sidesaddle is about fighting centrifugal forces … everything.
“Some people are naturals at sidesaddle,” she comments. “I wasn’t. I had to work really hard.”
When asked if she has a mentor, she answers, “I do, but she likes to remain a best kept secret. I met her online when I was struggling with fitting my first saddle and she offered to take me on and see what she could accomplish and has been a fabulous source of information ever since. She’s my Yoda.”
“In the beginning it was just something else new,” she says when I ask her what first drew her to sidesaddle.
“Once I started doing it, I learned how many pieces were involved and it’s been enough information to keep my distracted tendencies occupied. There’s learning a new way to ride, because having both legs on one side of the horse means throwing most of your instincts out the window. There’s saddle fit and adjustment – to the rider and to the horse. Then you get into the costumes… as someone who enjoys dressing up for fun anyway, that’s been a rabbit hole in itself.”
At this point, I’m led to a truck’s tail gate and told to hop on. In sidesaddle, the getting on process is the same, but then everything changes. The offside leg comes over the horse’s withers while your hips attempt to stay balanced and even, and here’s the big brain explosion … the outside of your offside leg locks against the horse’s shoulder and your heels stay level and … wait for it … even rise to secure you in the saddle.
Yeah, my brain couldn’t fathom “heels up” either.
So I walked. In a small circle. Slowly. With Elaina repeatedly correcting my seat and legs and heels over and over. It was probably incredibly boring for anyone watching, but I could feel my brain’s neurons firing and rewiring at lightning speed, learning a whole new way to ride a horse.
After a full hour of walking at a snail’s pace, my mount was given plenty of treats for being tolerant, unsaddled and returned to her stall.
I don’t know that sidesaddle will be my next big thing — my preexisting lower back issues weren’t in a great mood the next day — but I loved the opportunity to try something new and hang out with a barn friend.
Elaina’s “Fast Five” Questions:
Coffee, tea or soda? Tea
Sunrise or sunset? Sunset
Summer or winter? Winter
Cats or dogs? Dogs
Black Stallion or Black Beauty? Black Stallion
Amanda Uechi Ronan is an author, equestrian and wannabe race car driver. Follow her on Instagram @uechironan.