I pictured my handsome grandmother in a long skirt, sitting as erect as the “fine lady upon a white horse,” and wearing a little plumed hat tilted over one of her blue, blue eyes. When I was young, I could only ride astraddle on a western saddle on my pinto pony, Billy. Nobody could ever have called me “a fine horsewoman” the way they did Grandmother Nora.
During my horseback riding days I never thought of trying to ride with my leg hooked over the pommel. I was too leery of my skills and Billy’s bad temper. But I’ve always wanted to see someone ride the way my grandmother did.
At last, one evening not long ago I had the opportunity. I learned that a person I had met recently, Louise Steinfort, is “a fine horsewoman” and frequently rides side saddle. When I told her about my grandmother, Lou invited me out to the farm where she rides almost every afternoon after her work as director of middle school admissions at Sandy Spring Friends School.
A week later two friends and I followed her car from New Hampshire Avenue north of Ashton as it winds through the lush Maryland countryside, then crosses Route 97 in Brookeville. Rolling Acres Farm, owned by Sam and Janice Nicholson, is well named — the epitome of an antebellum southern horse farm — with rail fences that separate meadows and hilly pastures. Several beautiful horses were grazing in each enclosure. Rolling Acres is a top flight hunter-jumper show stable and the home for more than 75 horses. Traditional red barns and a stone main house that dates back to 1806 form a complex, dedicated to the care and training of fine horses.
Lou told us that she had to take a few minutes to saddle “Jessie,” the nickname for a lovely mare whose official name is Noble Gesture. She disappeared into the tack room of a barn near the fenced-in arena where we sat. Shortly we heard an unearthly sound — a cross between a whinny and a scream. We looked at each other. One of my friends said, “Horses can be mean. I’m terrified of them.”
But Lou came out of the barn, leading a sleek, mahogany-colored Jessie, who emitted another piercing whinny. Lou explained, “That’s a request for information. Her barn mate is out in the fields. She’s calling to him, ‘Are you out there?’” Far off there came an answering snort.
Lou led Jessie over to the fence in front of us. She said, “There used to be two grooms to help someone mount — one to hold the horse and the other to assist the rider. But I’m going to climb up the fence and get on by myself.”
She scrambled onto the saddle in a few minutes and walked Jessie over to us. Lou’s right leg was hooked around a sheepskin-covered protrusion called a “pommel,” and her other leg was secured behind a second padded hook named the ”leaping horn.” Her left foot was in the one stirrup that a modern sidesaddle has. She mentioned that in earlier times women used only the pommel of a saddle to support one leg when they rode sidesaddle.
“Then that’s what Grandmother Nora must’ve done,” I thought, and I was even more proud of her.
Lou looked as comfortable riding sidesaddle as she would have sitting in an easy chair. She circled the arena several times. As she stopped in front of us and patted Jessie, she said, “To ride sidesaddle you need a quiet horse, level and smooth.”
She told us about the dark blue or black riding habit she wears in shows. I learned that what appears to be a long skirt is actually called an “apron,” which is about half a long skirt that buttons at the waist. Underneath it she wears skin tight black riding pants and polished black boots. A fitted jacket, a white shirt with a white stock tied at the neck, gloves, and a top hat with a face veil complete the outfit. When Louise competes in a horse show, she looks like the model for a lady horseback rider in a 19th century English hunting print.
We left Rolling Acres as twilight approached. It had been a magical hour or so, watching Lou on lovely Jessie and feeling that we had somehow reached back to a time when women took riding sidesaddle for granted. It made me feel closer to a grandmother I had known only in portraits of her and the stories my mother told me about her.