Meath Hunt to take sideways look at historic equestrian skill
More than 50 ladies are to brave a day's side-saddle hunting with the Meath Hunt this weekend.
The event, hosted by the masters of the Meath, is to take place at Navan, Co Meath, and will include riders from all over the world. So far, more than 20 riders from Britain and six from the United States have confirmed they will travel to the event, where they will be joined by riders from Belgium, Denmark, Sweden and France. The Irish contingent, which is expected to number more than 20 ladies, will be led by side-saddle guru Susan Oakes.
The Navan woman has been the driving force behind a renewed interest in side-saddle riding in Ireland, having organised several events to showcase the ancient art in the past few years.
Among the highlights of her endeavours were a side-saddle hack at the Mount Juliet estate in Co Kilkenny, and a 'Have a Go' day at Ardmulcan Castle in Navan.
Susan hit the headlines in July last year when she set the world record for a side-saddle high jump. Riding grand prix showjumper Brandy and Red, Susan cleared an impressive 5ft 8in at Aintree racecourse, even though the horse had only been ridden side-saddle three times.
A previous unofficial side-saddle jumping record dates back to 1915, when Ester Stace cleared 6ft 6in, although it is believed that her horse cleared the fence by jumping off a ramp or springboard.
In August last year, Oakes also attempted to break her own record by jumping the puissance wall at the RDS Dublin Horseshow but was bested on the day.
Undeterred, the Navan woman is aiming for new record attempts in both Aintree and Dublin again in 2013. This time around she will ride her own stallion, SIEC Atlas, who has previously jumped 7ft 4in in normal astride puissance competition.
"Atlas was lame for both attempts last year so hopefully we will have a go at it this year," said Susan.
The Meath woman grew up riding side-saddle and is determined to introduce the sport to as many people as possible through her involvement with the Side Saddle Association of Ireland (SSAI).
"We want to make it as accessible as possible to people who want to have a go," she said.
"I've been riding side saddle since the age of five but it is possible for anyone to try side saddle at any age."
For the Mount Juliet and Ardmulcan Castle events, side saddles and habits were loaned by current side-saddle riders to those who wanted to try it for the first time.
For this weekend's side-saddle hunt event, Dubarry's of Ireland and www.equipetstores.com have come on board as sponsors, helping with the cost of providing hirelings to riders from overseas.
Side-saddle riding is enjoying a major revival in popularity here in Ireland but also in Britain and further afield.
As Ciara Ryan of the SSAI explained: "Side-saddle riding used to be the only acceptable way for a lady to ride a horse but it almost died out between the first and second world wars as more and more women took to riding astride.
"Fortunately, a number of ladies continued on the tradition and began a revival of sorts in the 1970s. It has retained a niche in the equestrian world, especially in the show ring. The Dublin Horse Show 'Ladies Day' began from the tradition of ladies showing their hunters in a side-saddle competition on one day of the show," she said.
Today, there are a growing number of support groups centred on side-saddle riding, including the SSAI.
For more information, go to www.ssaireland.com, check out the Side Saddle Association of Ireland on Facebook or take a trip to Navan, Co Meath, this Saturday to experience side-saddle hunting in person.
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