By Marti Friddle
Director at Large, ASA
I think it’s impossible for the years to pass without having some regrets. One of my regrets has always been my decision to sell my Bach sidesaddle, which the experts assured me was too long for me. If you ever run across my old article in Western Horseman Magazine, Dec. 1977, that’s the Bach I’m riding. At the time it was the only saddle that fit my good mare Heather.
The Bach found a new home with a lady in Texas about 1985, when Hundred Oaks was just getting under way. Wayne Steele was experimenting and working up new tree sizes all the time, and we were all working to refine the Steele into a saddle that would be popular with show riders. My focus was on the Steele.
When I owned the Bach I really didn’t know what I had. According to popular knowledge in the 80s, all English sidesaddles were created equal. Boy, was I in for a lesson. There are only a few photos of it from that time, and have over the years gone back to those photos again and again, writing about the English Park sidesaddle vs. the Hunt sidesaddle. As I learned more I realized I’d had my hands on a classic park saddle without knowing it! I also own a Martin & Martin Park saddle, but it has some characteristics that make it much less comfortable than the Bach.
The Bach about 1979
So let’s take a minute and talk about what makes a Park sidesaddle different from a Hunt sidesaddle:
Characteristics of the Park Sidesaddle:
- Leather Panels. While I’ve been told that hunt sidesaddles were occasionally made with a leather underside, I’ve yet to see one. Conversely, nearly ALL the Park Sidesaddles I’ve seen had leather on the underside. Leather is in arguably more durable than linen. However, some hunt riders have postulated that linen gives more and is easier on a horse’s back when jumping. Also, it dries faster and better than leather.
- Sweepy seat. While less pronounced on the Bach than some other Park sidesaddles I’ve owned, this one has a sweepy seat which aids the rider in posting
- Small offside flap – shows off the horse better ( see Bach ad) Mine has an ordinary flap offside
- Smooth leather seat was considered more formal than suede or doeskin
- Park sidesaddles also sometimes had a detachable balance strap – again to show off the horse to advantage See the close up photos of the balance attachment on the off side
- Plain wood tree, not reinforced for jumping. You won’t be able to see from the outside, but an x-ray will show the iron, or your saddler can check then it’s in for repairs.
- Handkerchief pocket. Another “formal” feature that was lost as saddle-making focused more on hunting than hacking
– It should be noted that our imported Elan sidesaddles, which were reinforced for light jumping, had leather undersides. And some of them had handkerchief pockets as well, because our customers requested them. It was the Bach that taught me how much more durable a leather underside was than linen over time.
When it was time to do a second edition of “The Sidesaddle Legacy”, Linda Bowlby and I included a new chapter devoted to the park sidesaddle, which is properly more like an astride saddleseat saddle, than a forward seat saddle. Park sidesaddles are ideal for dressage riders because of the close contact. They’re beloved by riders everywhere and can do anything a hunt saddle can, except go over jumps. Jumping will break the non-reinforced wooden tree of the park saddle over time. They also tend to have trees that are broader over the withers and shoulders than hunt saddles.
Years ago Lillian Chaudhary had a saddle in for repair that had been used extensively for jumping. Upon opening it up, she discovered that the tree had been broken in several places, and the saddle was almost irreparable. A good Park saddle had been put to a use it was never intended for, and ruined as a result. I also had an un-reinforced Martin & Martin with the aluminum channel under the seat with a fastening on the off side for the stirrup leather. It too had been used for jumping and had been used so roughly that not only was the wood tree broken, but the aluminum channel was crushed as well.
The Park sidesaddle was intended for hacking on the flat, used often in places like Central Park in New York for Sunday rides. It was used for socializing, and while made of durable pigskin like a hunt saddle, it lacked some of the features of a jumping sidesaddle. This was a saddle built for elegance, style and well turned out, affluent riders. The rider sat closer to the horse, which was more apt to be a high stepping gaited horse like a Morgan or Saddlebred than a Thoroughbred.
One Bach ad I came across stated that the Bach was the most expensive sidesaddle on the market – yet the cheapest to own because it didn’t need costly repairs as often as other side saddles. I can’t speak to that, but for a saddle that’s well over 100 years old, mine is in darned good shape.
Note in the above ad that Bach is apparently using either the Martin & Martin patented spring flap, or has come up with a similar design. Another Bach ad states that it’s the most expensive sidesaddle in the world, but the cheapest because it lasts the longest. I can vouch for that. Mine is over 100 years old and still useable.
Many Park sidesaddles were made in the US by companies that imported English labor and materials. My Bach was made in New York, probably around 1913. Many have few identifying marks or none, because they were made to be sold by the larger mercantile houses and independent tack suppliers. The leather is pigskin, the pommels are the triangular shape that was introduced by Mayhew about that time, and the leaping head has 2 positions. The original Cope Safety stirrup that came with the saddle has a rotating tread that falls away when the upper bar is tipped out of the vertical position by the foot during a fall. The stirrup leather is on a roller bar much like that seen on most Martin & Martin saddles, unlike the many safety mechanisms that actually detach the stirrup leather from the saddle in a fall. The balance strap is attached to a dee ring on the off side, and was made for the balance strap to detach.
It’s important to note that the conformation of the breeds it was used on vary greatly from that of the Thoroughbred, which most hunt sidesaddles are designed for. Morgans, Saddlebreds and Arabians have a low withers structure. Thus the saddles have to be shaped differently. But I digress, “ Legacy” mentions all this and goes into detail. Just be aware that Park saddles and Hunt saddles are meant for different breeds of nearly opposite withers conformation which in turn affects the stability and ride of the saddle.
Hundred Oaks grew over the years to become the largest supplier of sidesaddles in the country. We moved, built a shop for the saddles, outgrew it, expanded and outgrew that. At one point there were 60 sidesaddles here and we could fit everything from a pony to a draft. Both our Elans and Steeles sold well, and we had something for nearly every budget.
However, the constant lifting, stacking, hauling/shipping of saddles was beginning to wear on both of us by 2010, and as retirement age approached we knew changes were coming. The death of Linda Bowlby who’d been the driving force behind ASA and it’s predecessor groups for decades was a wake- up call, followed by the death of Lillian Chaudhary, a well loved California sidesaddle maker, and then Wayne Steele in 2014, indicated the writing was on the wall. Our aging saddle builder was hospitalized in early 2015, and it was becoming difficult to get the Steele trees from Wayne’s protégé’s who had formed their own company, but the trees lacked the quality of Wayne’s trees. Orders were delayed, and I was extremely uncomfortable with the situation. It was still something of a shock when one of my customers called and wailed “DON’T DIE, You’re the Last One Left” !!! I assured her I planned to be around for awhile, but retirement was drawing nearer. We shut down Hundred Oaks in 2015, after 38 years of selling side saddles.
I kept my Museum Collection, which I wrote about in an article for The Phoenix several years ago. I’ve dusted it off, oiled the saddles, and occasionally thrown a sidesaddle on my horse. Various family members and friends have learned to ride aside since 2015, but overall it’s been pretty quiet. Real estate caught fire in NC, and that job consumed a lot of my time as well. I’ve taken up playing the Mountain Dulcimer, which in its way has as much history as the sidesaddle.
I’ve watched ASA grow, watched the creation of the Crestridge, watched new members become fascinated with our sport. It’s nice to know that the years we spent trying to educate judges, breeds and the public are not going to waste. There were times it was exhausting, heartbreaking, aggravating, costly, an adventure, exhilarating, and joyful. We needed younger, more active leadership, and I made the decision to step back and let them do their thing. Just remember, I’m still available as a resource, and you can find me on Face Book.
As you can imagine, it came as a complete surprise when the lady who’d bought the Bach 40 years ago, tracked me down on Face Book and messaged me! We’d lost touch with each other decades ago, and I really thought I’d never see my Bach again. She told me she no longer rides due to health issues, and her animals are gone. She had sidesaddles in storage she wanted to sell. Yes, she still had the Bach. Did I know anybody? Wow. Did I know somebody!
So it’s back to stay. It will go into my Museum Collection, but not until after I’ve put it on a horse at least a few more times. We both have some age on us, but to paraphrase Monty Python, we “ ain’t dead yet”.
It was in storage for many years and it suffered from lack of oil, but it’s still going strong after cleaning, oiling and some minor repair to the balance girth. I’d held onto the original stirrup, which had a nasty habit of rotating open at the wrong time, but I put it on for these photos. This saddle also has triangular pommels which came in vogue early in the 20th century. The off flap is a bit larger than some Park saddles, but I see that as an indication that it’s a somewhat older style saddle.
Unfortunately the Bach is too narrow for my broad withered TWH, who takes a draft Elan. That’s ok. This beloved saddle will live in a humidity and climate controlled tack room, and will become part of my sidesaddle museum for future generations to study.