Myself and Henry - Sidesaddles away!!!
As with everything on Ebay it's buyer beware but I'm worried about the amount of cheap "continental leather" side saddles appearing on ebay. As someone who rides and competes sidesaddle I've helped numerous people get started riding aside and am very aware of the pitfalls of starting out in sidesaddle when you're not really sure what you're looking at. I'd hate for someone who was desperate to have a go at sidesaddle to end up laying out £200-300 on a saddle which will be completely useless and get put off for life! Most good sidesaddles used today will be approx 100 years old. The best known makers are Whippy, Owen, Mayhew & Champion & Wilton. Don't be put off by an old saddle. These saddles were very well made and generally well looked after and will stand you many more years of good service with a bit of TLC. A lot of the new side saddles for sale on ebay are very cheaply made Indian or Mexican saddles that generally are made of inferior materials, are not made on the correctly shaped tree, are not flocked in the right shape so they won't sit properly on the horses back and quite frankly are pretty dangerous! I've seen several of these saddles now, when people come to me saying they've bought a sidesaddle but are struggling to ride on it. It always turns out to be one of these "new" saddles that has cost around £2-300.
I don't know who's more insane, me or the chaps!
The first thing to look out for is a roller bar fitting for the stirrup. There is an extreme risk of being dragged from a sidesaddle so most old sidesaddles have a safety stirrup fitting. These are generally fairly complicated affairs that have specialist metal fittings that attatch the stirrup leather to the saddle. These immediatley open in the event of a fall realeasing the whole stirrup leather and stirrup. Some older saddles do have a roller bar fitting and this is fine but you must use a safety stirrup with these. If you have a sidesaddle that has a modern roller bar fitting (this is similar to the stirrup bar on a normal GP astride saddle but completely enclosed so, unlike a normal stirrup bar the leather cannot slide free) you must must must use a safety stirrup. Some brave souls have been quite happy with a peacock stirrup (the one with the giant elastic band) but I have found these to be unreliable, these type of stirrups also depend on you having the elastic side to the outside for them to work. If you loose your stirrup on a sidesaddle it's not easy to check which way round it is when you get it back if you've got a big skirt on!. The best sidesaddle safety stirrups have what looks like a second smaller stirrup inside them. This extra bar has two functions, it stops your foot sliding too far through the stirrup and, if you should fall, your foot will hit the extra bar and the foot plate of the stirrup will pivot and allow your foot to drop out of the stirrup stopping you from being dragged. Below is an excellent safety stirrup, and also a Mayhew safety stirrup fitting.
The second thing to look out for is the colour. As a rule of thumb a good side saddle is NEVER black. I have found one exception on Ebay which is made by Zaldi. These however cost over £1000 and can be made in any colour and to your horses wither/back template (ie made to measure) which means they are hand made by a master saddler and likely to be of very high quality. However most black sidesaddles are the new "cheap" ones and should be avoided in my opinion. Black dye covers up a multitude of sins in leather! Every good, well made, safe sidesaddle I have ridden on has been brown. Black is never a good colour for sidesaddle. A black habit is fine, but you should never wear black gloves when you ride sidesaddle. It's a Victorian hangover - a lady wearing black gloves is in mourning and therefore should not be riding!
17th C (in the actual Duke of Newcastle's indoor riding school at Bolsover Castle)
The third thing is the fit. A lot of the cheap saddles are a wide/extra wide fitting. This is because they are badly made in a very similar way that cheap imported portugese saddles are made. These things basically arrive practically flat. The idea seems to be that if they leave the flocking and panels fairly loosely packed and flexible you just girth the thing up so damn tight it will wrap around your horse and mould itself to the horses back. A good sidesaddle has very specialist flocking and panels that mean it is nearly always built up on the left side so the saddle will sit correcly. These new cheap saddles don't have this specially shaped flocking which means they will look fine when you put them on but when you get on and try and ride in them they will slide to the left. Really quite quickly in my experience. Enough to tip you off. And hurt your horses back. Every single time. Forget thinking "I'll put a folded blanket/cushion/bit of old foam/sheepskin etc under the left hand side". Believe me I spend enough time faffing about with padding under expensive very well made sidesaddles. They are hard enough to fit properly. These new saddles just won't work. Theyr'e not made right!!!!
Waiting to go in the ring with my lovely (if horribly naughty) Shire x TB
Fourth - the panels (ie the uderside, the bit that actually sits on the horse). Most sidesaddle panels are white linen or white/cream wool serge. This is because most sidesaddles, certainly in the show ring are used without saddlecloths or numnahs. The linen lets the horses back breathe and gives a bit more grip. The linen also allows the flocking to move around a little more than in a traditional GP astride english saddle to help the saddle sit properly and distribute the riders weight evenly. This is not an absouloute and some good sidesaddles have had the linen replaced with leather or even been made with leather panels but this is the exception rather than the rule. If what you are looking at at has gleaming black leather panels I can only offer the advice it's likely to be an expensive mistake. If you're not sure look at a pic of the saddle taken from behind. The left panel should be a different shape to the right on a good sidesaddle. In the pic below you can see the left panel is more pronounced than the right which is correct.
Last but not least - the price. I'm afraid your'e looking at AT LEAST £500-£1000 for a good sidesaddle. They are very complicated bits of kit, fragile, generally old and take a lot of looking after and expensive repairs. Any sidesaddle described as "new" or "only used a few times" and the old favourite "only tried on" (not forgetting "doesn't fit new horse" - for this you can generally substitute "won't fit any horse"!!!) that is being offered for less than £4-500 will generally be a cheap foreign made saddle that at best won't fit and at worse will be very dangerous and may injure your horse and yourself. A well made saddle will have a saddlers or makers mark. Ask the buyer who made the saddle? What's the makers mark? If they can't tell you don't buy it! A good genuine saddle will have been well looked after. If it has leather panels ask them if they had them fitted or did they buy it like that? If they had them modified who did the work? Ask them for pictures of them riding and even jumping in the saddle. And I mean riding, as in cantering not just the saddle plonked on a horse tied to a gate or them sat on it at a standstill (looking a bit pale and clenching their derriere!)
Above is a beautiful sidesaddle - brown leather, doeskin seat, a moveable leaping head (not essential but nice to have!), large stirrup flap to cover the workings of the safety stirrup attatchment and linen panels.
I'm not being snobby! I've desperatley wanted to do sidesaddle my whole life but am one of those perenially poor people. I bought one of these cheap saddles myself after much saving and was convinced it was the fulfillment of a lifetime dream. It was a bitter and expensive mistake. Yes you can always put it back on Ebay, but you know it's rubbish and not safe. If you can live with that on your conscience that's up to you. I burnt my cheap sidesaddle as it was worth nothing. If you want to get into sidesaddle but can't afford £1000, RENT ONE!!!!!!!!!!! Contact the Sidesaddle Association. They can give you details for people who will hire you a good, well made safe sidesaddle. You will need to got to the person's house and probably try several saddles to find one that fits you correctly and that will be suitable for your horse. The most valuable thing you will also get with this service is very good advice which will be free but priceless!!!! Last time I enquired it cost £150 to rent a saddle for 1 year. MUCH SAFER OPTION!!!!! If you change your horse 6 mobnths down the line, you take it back and swap it for a different one. You really are better off buying a tattered old sidesaddle by a good maker and saving up to have it restored than buying one of these cheap new sidesaddles. I speak from experience as that's what I did and I now have a mayhew saddle that I have jumped 3'3" on quite safely, ridden in historical performances and trick shows including rearing (see pic - but don't try this at home!) and that saddle will definitley outlast me even though it was made in 1910! It cost me £400 because it was tatty and I spent a further £500 on restoring it gradually over the course of 2-3 years and it's all the more percious because of it.
Myself & my partner - mounted Tudor Falconry sidesaddle (me not him!!!)
I would love to see more ladies have a go at sidesaddle but it pains me to think of people being put off for life because they bought a rubbish saddle. A good saddle is well made by an expert, comfortable for you and your horse but most of all safe and I know, from bitter experience a black "continental leather" sidesaddle that costs £200 new will be none of the above!
Waiting for a run at the archery target. You really can do just about anything on a side saddle!!!
If you are really not sure... hope this has helped!