Rid­ing Aside: Short­cuts For­bid­den

Bel­gian Par­a­lympian Bar­bara Min­neci dis­cusses how sidesad­dle rid­ing re­quires pre­cise aids and art­ful skill.

Dressage Today - - Content - Story and pho­tos by Silke Rot­ter­mann

Bel­gian Par­a­lympian Bar­bara Min­neci dis­cusses the nu­ances of side sad­dle rid­ing

While sidesad­dles have been an un­com­mon sight in in­ter­na­tional dres­sage, Grade III Para-Dres­sage rider Bar­bara Min­neci stands out for ex­actly that rea­son since she launched her in­ter­na­tional ca­reer about 10 years ago. The Bel­gian two-time Par­a­lympian made a virtue of ne­ces­sity and says that sidesad­dle rid­ing com­bines sport and art be­cause it re­quires a com­pletely sub­mis­sive horse.

For decades, Queen Eliz­a­beth II ap­peared in the tra­di­tional mil­i­tary pa­rade, Troop­ing the Color, in honor of her birth­day, on horse­back, and none would have ex­pected it any dif­fer­ently than in a tra­di­tional sidesad­dle. This el­e­gant way to ride had in­sep­a­ra­bly re­lated to the high aris­toc­racy for a long time, even though in the 19th cen­tury some ladies be­gan to ap­pear in Euro­pean cir­cuses, show­ing move­ments of the haute Žcole with both legs to the left side.

In eques­trian sport, which only be­came sig­nif­i­cant from the be­gin­ning of the 20th Cen­tury on, com­pet­ing in a sidesad­dle in dres­sage and jump­ing was not an un­com­mon sight well into the 1930s be­fore it dis­ap­peared com­pletely af­ter World War II with the so­cial ac­cep­tance of ladies rid­ing astride.

In this ar­ti­cle, Min­neci not only dis­cusses her own ap­proach to find­ing a way to com­mu­ni­cate with her horses de­spite her hand­i­cap, but she also ex­plains why rid­ing sidesad­dle doesn’t al­low any short­cuts and leads to a re­fined com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the horse.

A Virtue of Ne­ces­sity

Min­neci, now 49, was di­ag­nosed with can­cer and un­der­went treat­ment from 1996 through 2004. Be­fore her di­ag­no­sis, she had rid­den and com­peted re­gion­ally. But af­ter re­ceiv­ing treat­ment that left her with mono­ple­gia in her left leg and to­tal mus­cle loss in her right, Min­neci was un­able to ride astride and the sidesad­dle re­mained the only op­tion to ride at all.

In 2005, she met Bar­illa, or “Baba,” a just sad­dle broke Ir­ish Cob mare who was thought to be noth­ing more than her reval­i­da­tion horse. But Baba was so re­li­able and eager to learn that Min­neci dis­cov­ered her old love for com­pet­ing again. To­gether they found a com­mon lan­guage and an­nu­ally rep­re­sented Bel­gium in in­ter­na­tional Para-Dres­sage cham­pi­onships from 2009 on, com­ing in sixth at the Par­a­lympics in Lon­don in 2012 and 12th at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Hav­ing won and placed highly at in­ter­na­tional shows in 2018 with her new horse Stu­art, a 9-year-old Olden­burg geld­ing by Sir Don­ner­hall/Di­a­mond Hit, Min­neci was se­lected for the World Eques­trian Games in Tryon, North Carolina, in Septem­ber. “I’m go­ing there with­out spe­cific ex­pec­ta­tions,” said Min­neci prior to mak­ing her trip to the states. “I know that Stu­art can show very good things if he feels re­laxed on Amer­i­can ground, but I also know that I’m rid­ing in a very strong class!”

The Aids

While a rider rid­ing astride can make full use of her leg aids, a sidesad­dle rider, even if she is able-bod­ied, re­lies pre­dom­i­nantly on her weight aids, the whip and her voice. So it is un­doubted that sidesad­dle rid­ing is more chal­leng­ing, as the leg aids have to be very sub­tle to achieve the horse’s straight­ness.

“I was very lucky that I had the op­por­tu­nity to train with Por­tuguese dres- sage rider Pe­dro de Almeida from 2007 to 2011,” said Min­neci. “Pe­dro al­ways said that with cor­rect clas­si­cal train­ing any horse can learn more de­mand­ing dres­sage move­ments. He also al­lowed me to ride two of his Lusi­tanos in the sidesad­dle. They were so well trained that a sub­tle change of weight was of­ten enough, and this is what sidesad­dle rid­ing is all about: School the horse to a point that the slight­est shift of weight is suf­fi­cient. To get there a rider has to de­velop a spe­cial kind of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, which can vary from horse to horse and which I call a ‘dic­tio­nary of aids.’”

When rid­ing sidesad­dle, the rider has to take par­tic­u­lar care to straighten the horse in all gaits to achieve the best sym­me­try pos­si­ble. Be­cause the rider’s weight is al­ways slightly more on the left when rid­ing sidesad­dle, some horses, es­pe­cially the sen­si­tive

ones, tend to put their back to the right. Gen­er­ally, rid­ing in the sidesad­dle with the idea of a very slight shoul­der-fore on the right lead will help to take care that the horse re­mains straight. “Stu­art, my cur­rent com­pe­ti­tion horse, is very sen­si­tive, so I use my weight as the left leg aid and the whip in the right hand as the right leg aid. How­ever, Baba, my Ir­ish Cob mare, was less sen­si­tive to the weight, so I usu­ally had to ride her with a se­cond whip to re­place my par­a­lyzed left leg.”

Both horses had to learn to ig­nore Min­neci’s left leg, which due to her hand­i­cap is use­less and bumps slightly into the horses’ flanks in trot. Each horse’s re­ac­tion to the whip and rider’s weight aids varies and each rider has to fig­ure this out dur­ing the course of a horse’s train­ing. “Where to touch a horse, and with what in­ten­sity to cause a re­ac­tion, is a bit of trial and er­ror at the be­gin­ning,” said Min­neci. “This con­tin­ues un­til a horse and rider have found a com­mon lan­guage and can en­large their dic­tio­nary step by step.”

The main dif­fer­ence re­gard­ing the aids be­tween rid­ing astride and sidesad­dle with­out the use of Min­neci’s left leg is that oc­ca­sion­ally she has to give dif­fer­ent aids for the same ex­er­cise, de­pend­ing on which di­rec­tion the horse is go­ing. “For in­stance, when I want to ride a leg yield to the left, be­gin­ning with one or two steps shoul­der-fore, I ask for this with the whip—in my right hand—a lit­tle bit be­hind the po­si­tion where a rider would have his right leg and with both my hands turned slightly to the left to in­duce this move­ment,” ex­plains Min­neci. “On the other hand, leg yield to the right re­quires me to turn my shoul­ders slightly to the left to con­firm my weight aid and I slightly open the out­side rein to start the move­ment.”

An­other ex­am­ple for the dif­fer­ent use of aids in the same move­ment, de­pend­ing on the lead, is the walk pirou­ette. “When ex­e­cut­ing it to the right, it is suf­fi­cient just to ask the horse to turn both shoul­ders to the right with both hands be­cause the weight aid of my body is al­ready ask­ing the horse to main­tain the back in this di­rec­tion,” says Min­neci. “Whereas for the pirou­ette to the left I first have to bring the horse’s back to the left through the whip slightly backward and then bring the shoul­ders of the horse to the left through both reins. The im­pul­sion, de­pend­ing on the horse’s nat­u­ral go, has to be kept by my voice, which is my third aid when rid­ing.”

Re­train­ing a Horse

A cor­rectly trained horse will be able to be rid­den astride as well as in the sidesad­dle. How­ever, a high de­gree of through­ness and sub­mis­sion is neces- sary to re­place the miss­ing leg aids through those of the seat. For that rea­son, it was very help­ful that Min­neci’s horse Stu­art had al­ready re­ceived ba­sic train­ing from his rider in Ger­many when she bought him in 2017. “He was pretty straight, had a pleas­ant will to go for­ward and was very good in his head,” she says. “A well-trained horse will re­act very well to weight aids and, in gen­eral, horses will al­ways learn what the rider wants them to do, even if it can oc­ca­sion­ally take time. As Stu­art is a very sen­si­tive and clever horse, he not only adapted quickly to my wheel­chair and my dif­fer­ent han­dling from the ground, but also to this dif­fer­ent kind of rid­ing.”

Min­neci’s main goal while train­ing a horse is to ride calmly, for­ward and straight, which she cred­its to the clas­si­cal train­ing tech­niques of French Gen­eral Alexis L’Hotte. “There are two types of train­ing units: The first is aimed to in­crease the pre­ci­sion of my aids to make my horse more sup­ple with­out him learn­ing some­thing new. The se­cond is to teach the horse some­thing new and chal­lenge his think­ing.

“At the be­gin­ning of our part­ner­ship, I only longed Stu­art to ac­quaint him with the voice aids that I use when I ride,” ex­plains Min­neci. “At the same time Nils Debo, a young Bel­gian dres­sage rider who trains Stu­art twice a week sit­ting astride, used the same voice aids to­gether with his nor­mal aids in the move­ments, so my horse would un­der­stand both to­gether. I my­self then be­gan rid­ing Staurt in sim­ple arena fig­ures, us­ing the voice aids from longe­ing and cer­tain whip po­si­tions to get him used to our new ‘lan­guage,’ a kind of ba­sic un­der­stand­ing from which our dic­tio­nary will be en­larged with time.”

Min­neci’s rou­tine is to ride Stu­art three times a week, while Debo rides him twice astride and teaches him new move­ments. Min­neci also longes Stu­art once per week in side reins to im­prove his sta­bil­ity. “I feel that these longe­ing ses­sions are also good to strengthen our re­la­tion­ship,” she ex­plains.

Since Min­neci can­not do post­ing trot, her typ­i­cal train­ing ses­sion starts with 10 min­utes of longe­ing so Stu­art’s back gets warmed up. “I longe him with­out any rein aids and take spe­cial care that he is at­ten­tive to my voice aids and re­acts promptly. This helps later with the rid­den part, as I use ex­actly the same voice aids then. Af­ter this warm-up, I sad­dle my horse and start with at least 10 min­utes of walk. This phase is very im­por­tant for

Stu­art as well as for me to re­lax our mus­cles and tune in. Fur­ther­more, I am in my best bal­ance in this gait and able to give the aids most pre­cisely.

“While rid­ing leg yield in walk, I check how Stu­art re­acts to my weight aids and can change them ac­cord­ingly,” she con­tin­ues. “Af­ter trot­ting for­ward and in a po­si­tion with the horse stretch­ing down and onto the bit, I be­gin the main part of the train­ing ses­sion, which con­sists of rid­ing tran­si­tions. I also ride tran­si­tions dur­ing the lat­eral work—from walk to trot and vice versa, but al­ways tran­si­tions within trot. They are not only use­ful to col­lect Stu­art, but to keep his

at­ten­tion and keep him in­ter­ested so I can re­ceive the fine re­ac­tions from him. As with any good clas­si­cal train­ing, the fo­cus is on mak­ing the horse more sup­ple, more sub­mis­sive and to put him in a bet­ter bal­ance so he is more com­fort­able to ride.”

When Sport Be­comes Art

Even though rid­ing sidesad­dle wasn’t an in­ten­tional de­ci­sion by Min­neci, but a pure ne­ces­sity to con­tinue rid­ing af­ter her ill­ness, she does not re­gret it in the least. In con­trary, she be­lieves that rid­ing sidesad­dle has helped her gain the sub­mis­sive­ness of the horse (that is, his will to re­act to the slight­est of aids), which Min­neci says is the top pri­or­ity. “It is im­pos­si­ble to force a horse to do some­thing be­cause you are miss­ing the legs and you would im­me­di­ately lose your bal­ance if you tried it in the sidesad­dle,” she says. “Thus, there can­not be any short­cuts in your horse’s train­ing and it’s go­ing to take longer. But in the end, I will have a re­ally well-rid­den horse who al­lows me to make sport also an art.”

Rid­ing aside, Bel­gian Par­a­lympian Bar­bara Min­neci and Stu­art, a 9-year-old Olden­burg geld­ing, are a sight rarely seen to­day.

While the whip re­places Min­neci’s right leg, sub­tle SJKHěS KN JGR VGKIJě JCUG ěJG IRGCěGSě KNĝTGNEG VJGN she’s rid­ing aside.

Min­neci and Stu­art have de­vel­oped a spe­cial kind of com­mu­ni­ca­tion that Min­neci refers to as their own “dic­tio­nary of aids.”

Walk is Min­neci's gait of choice at the start of her ride. It is this gait that al­lows re­lax­ation in both her and Stu­art’s mus­cles.

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