Sidesaddle Association adds Stylish Stride to Remembrance Day Parade

Gettysburg — Robin Shields is no stranger to the significance of Remembrance Day. As an heir of a Union soldier, avid equestrienne, cavalry reenactor and a poet, Robin has pondered the Civil War’s tragic toll for nearly two decades – often from the vantage point of the back of a horse. What made her most recent visit to Gettysburg different (and dare we say, a bit brighter) was the manner of her ride, and the apparel she wore. After all – why hide one’s femininity behind cavalry boots and a bushy mustache – when a girl can don a flowing ensemble and glide gracefully whilst seated atop a vintage sidesaddle?

Sidesaddle riding may not be the first thing which comes to mind when one considers civilian life in 1863. But Robin wasn’t the only one perched so elegantly at the recent Remembrance Day parade. In fact, there were 16 such riders paying tribute to the fallen in period fashion – all members of the American Sidesaddle Association.

Maggie McAllister – president of the American Sidesaddle Association (ASA) – was another such rider.

“I’ve been riding sidesaddle since I was 16 – so over 40 years now,” Maggie explained. “I had juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, and it was more comfortable for me to ride sidesaddle. This is the only way I ride.”

How many members are in the association?

“Well, we were founded in 2008, and have about 350 members. We have chapters all over the country. At least nine chapters are represented here today from as far away as Tennessee, Kentucky, western Pennsylvania, Ohio, western New York, New Jersey and Maine.”

Does Gettysburg hold any particular attraction for Maggie?

“I had ancestors in the Civil War. None here – mine were in Sherman’s march to the sea. But Gettysburg is such a spiritual place, and it’s great to be here with my best buddies and riding sidesaddle.”

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Sidesaddle riding may pre-date the American Civil War by as much as 2,000 years. But the apparatus as we know it today – with its off-set pommels and single foot stirrup – stems from a 16th century design attributed to Catherine de’ Medici. While considered better suited for a steady walk than a brisk canter or an all-out gallop, the sidesaddle was nonetheless employed by at least two hurried patriots (Sybil Ludington and Emily Geiger) during the American Revolution.

Kristen Wade, from Youngstown, Ohio, may or may not enjoy spirited rides. But Kristen told us she started riding horses at nineteen – a hobby which she admits has “… gotten her into more trouble!” Kristen said she wanted to try everything, and since sidesaddle was on her list, she fell right in with her friends from the ASA group. To date, Kristen has traveled as far as the Dakotas for a sidesaddle demonstration. Not surprisingly, she paired that demonstration trip with a history-centered visit to the Custer Battlefield.

Sidesaddle story: Kristen Wade and Maggie McAllister (credit Anthony C. Hayes)
Kristen Wade and Maggie McAllister (credit Anthony C. Hayes)

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Gael Orr – who spoke with us from the small double-seat of a two-wheeled horse drawn “gig” – is the president of Western New York’s ASA division. She and her husband / co-driver Michael live near Rochester.

“I’ve been a member of the association for three years. About half of the folks here today are from Western New York. I was supposed to take (my equine friend) Frederick Douglass to the parade today, but he had a little bit of an accident, so he couldn’t go. That’s why my husband and I used the gig for the parade.”

Gael noted that the association had 35 people in Gettysburg for the Remembrance Day event. “There were 17 horses with 16 riders, and obviously me in the gig driving. Then we had 12 people that were side walking; helping as handlers and that sort of thing.”

Is this the biggest historical gathering Gael has done as an ASA member?

“Yeah, I would say so. It’s definitely the most significant for me, and for other members as well.

“Most of the dresses that you see were all handmade by the ladies that were riding. So they are new, but made from old patterns and photographs. As for the saddles, many you’ll see here are vintage. They have stood the test of time. Unlike a lot of imports, the trees are often made out of steel, so they’ve really held up.”

We asked Gael if a rider can still purchase a quality sidesaddle from an American saddle maker?

“Yes, an Amish company in Missouri called Crest Ridge still makes sidesaddles. Actually, that’s the best saddle you can get in my opinion. Those Crest Ridge saddles will probably last over a hundred years.”

Riders new to the hobby should also know that ASA president Maggie McAllister and her husband maintain a small tack room where they rebuild and refurnish vintage sidesaddles.

Sidesaddle story: ASA members Gael and Michael Orr (credit Anthony C. Hayes)
Gael and Michael Orr (credit Anthony C. Hayes)

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While sidesaddle riding might appear to be a singular hobby, Bath, New York residents Amy and Shawn Murat have made ASA membership a family affair. And by family, they include their frolicsome miniature horse named “Gussy”.

“We joined this club last fall, once our youngest daughter aged out of 4-H,” explained Amy. “We do a lot of things together with our horses, so we were looking for something everyone could enjoy.

“I got involved with the western New York sidesaddle club, and then the whole group came with us. It has been great! We’ve done, I think, eight parades this year. We do sewing of our outfits; we do reenactments, so it’s kind of a whole household effort.”

The costume sewing, Amy told us, included making an entire outfit for her granddaughter from a WWI surplus army blanket. “When I told the seller what I wanted to do with the blanket, he said, ‘Just go ahead and take it.’”

As Amy turned around to get the crew together for a photo, Shawn briefly chimed in. Shawn told us he took some friendly ribbing – punctuated with scattered applause – as he followed the horses along the parade route with an antique coal shovel in hand.

“This was our first time down here, and it was awesome. I’m totally looking forward to coming back again next year.”

Sidesaddle story: Miniature horse "Gussy" equipped with a sidesaddle. (credit Anthony C. Hayes)
Miniature horse “Gussy” equipped with a sidesaddle. (credit Anthony C. Hayes)

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Like Shawn Murat, New Jersey’s Erica Parriott walked the entire course of this year’s Remembrance Day parade. Not that riding sidesaddle would have been a problem for the enthusiastic young reenactor.

“I grew up riding horses in northern Passaic County. I always enjoyed it, but kind of stopped in college as a way to save money. At this point, I do not own my own horse. I used to own one, but he passed a couple years ago, and I don’t really have the time or the money to be an owner right now. It’s a very expensive hobby – especially in New Jersey.

“I became interested in the ASA when I met Maggie at a horse event. She’s an awesome person. I joined the group a couple of years ago to meet up with them and ride ponies.”

So the group has a horse that Erica can borrow?

“Yeah, the little black one named “Lucky”. One of the other girls (Kristen) was riding him today, but I’ve ridden him a couple years in this parade.”

Erica said that joining the ASA not only afforded her a unique riding opportunity, but it has also opened the doors to the greater Civil War reenactor community.

“I love this so much. For me, it’s doing the parade, and then all the balls and the dancing and everything. My clothes are homemade. I’ve got a gown that I made specifically for the balls this year. While I don’t have it with me now, I also have a riding outfit that I wear for riding on the horses. That’s something I didn’t think about when I joined the group, but I learned how to sew because of needing all the new period-correct dresses for these events.”

Sidesaddle story: ASA member Erica Parriott models her homemade day dress. (credit Anthony C. Hayes)
ASA member Erica Parriott models her homemade day dress. (credit Anthony C. Hayes)

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Pittsburgh area resident Robin Shields has only been a member of the association for the last few months. But as her retired cavalry boots and bushy theatrical mustache can attest – she is definitely no stranger to riding.

“My grandparents led me on my first pony at 2 years old, but my parents never allowed me to have a horse. I rebelled the day after graduating nursing school and spent all my car savings on a horse. Had to ride the Greyhound home from Pittsburgh to see him.”

Posing for photos on her newest steed, Brocc – an 18 hand Warmblood from England – Robin told us how the handsome horse came into her life.

“Brocc was purchased for me to pursue a jumping career, but he suffered a broken leg which thankfully healed. We now do dressage and trail riding, but I still ride hunt seat as my favorite every day ride.

“I showed most of my adult life, but started riding in 2005 with the Black Horse Cavalry in Virginia. Joined as a member of the 6th Ohio Cavalry in 2007, and I also served as their adjutant. We participated in major events, as well as a lot of small town skirmishes on their actual historical dates. We also did school programs, teaching living history to students. I spent 13 years with them, but stopped after my son was killed in an auto accident.”

How did Robin segue into sidesaddle riding?

“I met Maggie at a horse event and, out of curiosity, asked her all about her group. I enjoyed what I had done to that point, but we just decided we’d conquered everything else in the Civil War arena. Did the trooper thing for 15 years – fighting, shooting off my horse, wearing a mustache. I especially miss that when I see days like this, but I’ve fallen in with a great bunch of ladies. All those years cross-dressing as a cavalryman, I guess I wondered how the other half lived!”

All of the ASA members we spoke with expressed an earnest affection for Gettysburg. Those with family connections to the long-settled conflict seemed especially touched to be riding in the shadows of the men who “…gave the last full measure of devotion.”

“Gettysburg is a magical place, especially for someone with roots in the battle, and to the soldiers who fought here,” said Robin. “My great-great-grandfather, Pvt. John Hissong, fought with the 54th Pa. Infantry. His likeness was used for their memorial statue in Johnstown, Pa., so my roots run deep.

“You see respect here in Gettysburg, that goes beyond tourism. The parade was a wonderful experience. I really hope to do this ride again.”

Sidesaddle story: ASA members Robin Shields and
ASA members Robin Shields and “Brocc” (credit Anthony C. Hayes)

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