By Nancy Jaffer, originally posted on

There are summer camps for nearly every pursuit these days, whether it’s surfing, movie-making, weight loss or archeology. But one of the most unusual is Camp Leaping Horn, the annual side-saddle gathering that wrapped up today at the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation headquarters in Gladstone.

Everyone at the camp came to side-saddle in a different way. Jen Stevenson, the camp organizer, passed a sign for a clinic being posted at her barn seven years ago by Shelley Liggett, who was president of the International Side-Saddle Organization (ISO). When Shelley asked if she would attend, Jen said no–then walked 10 steps before remembering that she was getting married in a few months and wanted to go down the aisle on horseback.

“I had seen all these horrifying videos of brides being run off with,” said Jen, who quickly decided the clinic was a good idea, even though she only wanted to learn how to “get on, get off and survive my wedding day. But by the end of it, we were trotting and cantering and having a blast.”

Jen, who owns Paws and Rewind Photography, “got swept into the ISO,” so much so that after running the camp with Shelley in 2018, she took it on by herself this year.

Virginia Hankins came from California to ride side-saddle at the USET Foundation.

The leaping horn, in case you’re wondering, is the second pommel on a side-saddle, curved to enclose the left leg, while the right leg goes over the horn, or top pommel. The leaping horn provides a greater measure of security for the rider.

A closeup of a side-saddle and the leaping horn.

“The ladies of camp are the most welcoming, inclusive, unique group of women I’ve ever met,” said Jen, who wasn’t exaggerating, considering those in attendance include a professional mermaid and a female jouster. The camp drew 18 riders and nine auditors from as far away as California, Wisconsin and North Carolina.

A few years ago, Shelley told me why she started the camp.

“I thought side-saddle riders needed to get together more often in a casual environment, as opposed to a show, which is more stressful,” she explained.

“There also was a definite need for education and information.”

Not only were campers learning about riding side-saddle this week, they enjoyed speakers—including a judge talking about side-saddle from her perspective–and got lessons in make-up and costuming (many side-saddle riders are re-enactors, take their horses in parades or participate in festivals). They also got schooled in the dress appropriate for fox hunting or showing and enjoyed many other components that make up this unique experience.

Stunt actress Virginia Hankins came all the way from California for her side-saddle fix after learning how to ride side-saddle at last year’s camp.

“Where I am in Los Angeles, there aren’t any good trainers for sidesaddle,” said Virginia, who said someone might put a western saddle on a horse and just tell the rider to throw her leg over the horn if she wanted to try side-saddle. Coming to the camp enables her to get tips from instructors and work alongside like-minded riders, although no one else is teaching their horse to handle a side-saddle rider in a mermaid’s tail. That took training, Virginia noted, since the tail would slap along as her horse, Milo, walked out in his role as a unicorn.

She didn’t bring horse or saddle to camp, but it was arranged for her to borrow a saddle and lease Macaroni, the very patient Wonder Pony, as she called him. Virginia, who has been riding since she was five, founded a company called Sheroes that provides mermaids and pirates for entertainment and private parties. She was in the movie “Star Trek into Darkness,” and served as the mermaid trainer for the 30th anniversary of “The Little Mermaid.”

The support of the other campers, who keep in touch during the year, is very important to her.

“Their philosophy is, `Why shouldn’t you? If you have an interest in it, if you have a passion for it, just do it.’ They’re right behind you.”

Virginia was taking a lesson from Angela Alutin, a former master of the Windy Hollow Hunt. Angela was inspired by tales of her great-grandmother riding side-saddle up a mountain to a fancy hotel in her Tennessee town. Her husband, Ken, whom she married last month at the Essex Horse Trials, told her of a side-saddle clinic at Red Tail Farm in Bedminster six years ago that introduced her to a new world. She got a side-saddle on permanent loan from a friend, Anne Van den Berg, and her involvement really took off.

“Side-saddle has allowed me to go foxhunting all over the East Coast,” said Angela. “There’s a sisterhood, we’re all good friends and help each other, which is so unusual in the horse world.”

Angela Alutin out with the Essex Foxhounds riding sidesaddle.

Asked about the appeal of side-saddle, she responded with, “the elegance, the tradition. It’s like getting a Barbie doll and all the outfits for it.”

But despite that, riding side-saddle isn’t frivolous.

“It’s hard, it’s a challenge and it’s something else you can do with your horse. This is not the type of discipline you do with a green horse,” noted Angela, saying it’s something to try on an animal with which you have a seasoned partnership.

And what makes it hard?

“The way you hold on is by bringing your right leg to your left knee, this is the grip. You don’t do this in anything else, riding.”

Kate Hopkins, who studied fashion design in college, was the costume queen of the camp. She started riding one of the horses used by her father for his logging business in Maine, then stopped riding in the sixth grade. She always wanted to go back to it, though.

After she and her husband, Robert, visited a Renaissance fair, they talked about getting involved with horses but knew the equines had to earn their keep. So they came up with the idea of a jousting company. (I’ll bet you never thought of doing that to make your horses pay their way…)

Side-saddle plays a big role in the life of Kate Hopkins, one of the participants in Camp Leaping Horn.

Round Table Productions uses rescue horses and serviceably sound horses who can’t compete in shows anymore. Kate, who has trained lions and other large cats, trains the horses with patience and respect.

“I had always wanted to ride side-saddle,” Kate said, recounting her reason for getting involved with it 15 years ago at one of Shelley’s clinics.

“I am the proverbial child who wanted to be a princess when I grew up. Princesses ride side-saddle all the time, preferably on unicorns. I get to do all these super-cool things, and it’s even better when it’s done in a side-saddle.”

She’s made movie appearances, including one in “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” with Nicholas Cage.

Jeannie Whited, a museum specialist at the Smithsonian, was among those giving lessons at the camp. She remembered her inspiration for getting involved in side-saddle came when she was eight at a dressage show, where she spotted a woman in a black habit on a gray horse.

“That was all I could see,” she recalled, repeating exactly what she thought at the time: “I want to be her.”

You don’t need a fancy horse to ride side-saddle. North Carolina veterinarian Laureen Bartfield goes side-saddle on her very versatile mustang, Diesel. She rides the former reining horse aside for a variety of pursuits, including hunter paces and working cows (for which she has a western side-saddle.)

Laureen Bartfield and Diesel in the USET Foundation stable.

Explaining why she has trailered 12 hours from her home to get to camp every year since it began, she said, “I love it because of the friendships I form when I come here, and let’s face it, you get to play dress-up,” said Laureen, who has a 110-year-old vintage habit to wear in shows.

“It’s so elegant and lady-like and there’s not much else in my life that’s ladylike,” added the vet, who is involved with a mobile spay-neuter operation that addresses pet overpopulation, serving the low-income pet owner.

She enjoys housing Diesel in the elegant USET Foundation stables. “Just to be able to stay here, he’s a mustang, in this hall of fame. I camp out in the north field. It’s a whole vacation for me. My email says I am not texting, phoning, goodbye.”

Amy Magee was sitting on the floor of the rotunda, near where vendors displayed their wares, repairing a side-saddle. Amy, who works as a nurse, has been riding side-saddle for 30 years but couldn’t find anyone to repair her saddle. So she learned how to do it herself after learning leather working from a saddler. Most saddlers don’t want to repair side-saddles, because of the time involved; there are no quick fixes as there would be with a modern astride saddle.

Amy Magee works on a side-saddle during camp. (Photo©2019 by Nancy Jaffer)

“You open them up and 10 other things fall apart, this piece falls off and that piece falls off. They’re old. I wish they could talk to me,” Amy said.

“World War II crushed the side-saddles because women started riding astride and all the skilled artisan craftsmen went off to fight the war and never came back.” Some of the companies that made side-saddles also didn’t survive, so the pre-war saddles must be treasured and preserved.

She rides her Hanoverian, Little Lady, in a side-saddle, doing everything from eventing, point-to-points and dressage to hunting and showing. Amy had ridden side-saddle for 30 years, but really focused on it when a horse reared up and fell over on her in 2001. Ending up with a crushed pelvis and broken back, she found the side-saddle more comfortable for her when she resumed riding..

Participants were supposed to demonstrate their improved skills at the Liberty International Side-Saddle Network shows this weekend, but in the interest of horse and rider safety, they were cancelled due to the excessive heat wave.

A regular instructor at the camp had been Roger Philpot of Great Britain. For nine years, he served as head of that nation’s prestigious Side Saddle Association, and spent more than two decades teaching in the U.S.

A tribute to the late Roger Philpot at Camp Leaping Horn.

He had talked to Jen about starting a Camp Leaping Horn in the United Kingdom, but sadly died last year before that could be accomplished.

An award in his name for the most improved rider was presented to camper Abigail Thurston, a cardiothoracic pediatric nurse-anaesthetist.

Jen is buying a farm in Stockton, where she hopes to run another clinic this fall and have more regular side-saddle get-togethers before the next Camp Leaping Horn.

This is a copy of an article that originally appeared on Nancy Jaffer Equestrian Sports and is reproduced here with permission. ©2019 On The Rail LLC and Nancy Jaffer. All rights reserved.