THINGS had not gone well for Sue Brenton. Her face was a lather of effort, there was a fine film of exertion on her upper lip.

'Got into a real stew, silly old girl,' she panted. 'Went off like a mad thing from the off.'

The silly old girl was Sue's horse, Taroma Bay, known to her friends as Snippet. As Sue talked, the horse was foaming copiously around the teeth.

'Look at her,' she said, pointing downwards from her position in the small of Snippet's back. 'Sweaty thing. Looks like she's just run the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. Actually her father did. And won it.'

Sue and Snippet had just completed the Elementary Round at the Side Saddle Association's Eighth Annual Dressage Championship. It was taking place in an equestrian centre near Guildford, in the horsey zone of Surrey. In these parts, every weekend, the lanes are full of little girls in jodhpurs, stretched full of puppy fat, waddling along on ponies the size of large dogs. Thelwell must have lived nearby.

Side-saddle enthusiasts, however, like to see their pursuit as something apart from weekend hacking. For them the act of sitting sideways-on, instead of astride, a horse is all about elegance and grace and capturing a lost era of civility: a time when women were ladies and only men got their leg over.

'It disappeared as an art because ladies became more liberated and rode astride,' said Cecily Friar, 71, a stalwart of the South-east branch of the Side Saddle Association, who regularly rides out with her local hunt sideways on. 'Once it was considered improper for ladies to show their legs. It's getting more popular again because it's so elegant. A lady looks so much nicer.'

To underpin the elegance of it all, riders adopt a rigorous dress code. Even if you go trotting down the lane side-saddle, it is considered improper not to wear a smart costume known as a 'habit'. And, according to a sticker in the back window of one of the Volvos lined up among the horse- boxes in the equestrian centre's car park, 'Side-saddle is habit forming.'

'Look at me,' said Sue Brenton, indicating her Edwardian garb of top hat, tail-coat, waistcoat, and a long worsted apron slipped over the top of her riding breeches. 'If it makes someone as over-weight as me look elegant, there must be something in side-


Though the colour of your habit can be whatever you like as long as it is sober, you mustn't wear a top hat before noon, she explained. And whatever time of day, riders must cover their face in a light, lattice-work veil. Nobody was quite sure of the provenance of the veil.

'It's so people can't see the blotches on the complexion after a hard round,' reckoned Paula Keeley, a social worker and the most accomplished rider on view. 'It certainly doesn't keep the flies off. I was riding at Goodwood during the summer and a fly got trapped in my veil, buzzing around my face. It was ghastly.'

Even this costume, however, could do little to add grace to the act of getting aboard the horse. According to a turn-of-the-century side-saddle manual, 'ladies will require two grooms to assist them into the saddle'. In the absence of domestic staff most of the riders climbed unsteadily aloft from the back ramp of their horse-box.

As you mount a side-saddle, you are confronted by two pommels: hard, curved leather grips around which you wrap your legs. Sue Brenton teaches side-saddle riding, and tells her pupils to thrust 'knees and toes in. Keep your legs together. Like your mother taught you.'

Oddly, the position naturally encourages you to sit with a straight back. Once on the saddle, said Cecily Priar, you should 'take a deep breath, raise the diaphragm, let the arms relax and your seat goes right under your spine.' Or as Sue Brenton put it more succinctly: 'That's it, tits


It is a surprisingly secure position. Indeed, when someone fired a starting pistol at the Queen during the Trooping of the Colour and her horse bucked, it was widely thought she would have been thrown off had she not been riding in a side-saddle.

'Well, that's what we like to say,' said one enthusiast. 'Probably no truth in it at all.'

Once aboard the custom-built saddle (a new one can cost upwards of pounds 900, more than double the price of a standard model, which partly explains why side-saddle remains a minority pursuit), the aim of the day's activity was to conduct the horse around a large indoor arena, following instructions yelled out by a man with a clipboard standing in the corner.

'At M, circle 10 metres in diameter,' he shouted. 'Halt at X and salute.'

The letters he referred to were marked around the side of the barn- like arena. They seemed to be in no particular order: H, E, K, A, F, B, M. Nobody knew why.

'Gawd knows,' said one male spectator. 'I suppose whoever invented the system was a mason.'

A judge, sitting in a Saab parked at the entrance to the barn, marked the riders for the skill with which they followed the instructions. Along one side of the building was a long viewing gallery, in which riders and spectators sipped at cups of tea (Sue Brenton was drinking wine) and analysed the performances.

'Oooh, look at that,' someone cooed as Paula Keeley undertook a complex manoeuvre that required her horse to bounce sideways, legs straight and stiff, like Spotty Dog from the Woodentops.

'My horse can do that,' said Sue. 'Though not usually when I want it to.'

Paula, who had been an accomplished dressage rider long before she took to the side-saddle, said that it had always been her ambition to go sideways on, but it had taken her an age to find an appropriate saddle.

'It's a lovely feeling,' she enthused. 'And they are a smashing bunch of people, side-saddle people. I forgot my snaffle bridle this morning and someone lent one to me just like that.'

As she spoke, another competitor walked by.

'That's a lovely whip you've got there, Paula.'

'I know,' she said. 'I daren't tell Daddy how much it cost.'

Despite the talk of riders' skill and accoutrements, in the main the conversation was all about the horses. Although she once referred to a horse as a 'rear-engined vehicle', Sue Brenton and the others discussed their mounts exclusively in human terms, talking about them much as you might a child or an elderly relative, assessing their characters loudly and within ear-shot.

'That cob's a terrific old thing, just look at him, ha, ha,' they would say. Or 'Smudgey's a bit thick, but very good- natured,' or 'She's got a very odd sense of humour, the old girl.'

In the afternoon, the riders performed their second discipline of the day: 'dressage to music'. Competitors could choose their own tunes and they favoured anything from the themes of The Great Escape and Brideshead Revisited to Sgt Pepper ('most inappropriate,' sniffed one old boy when that one came over the public address


One woman cantered round to the Monty Python Sousa march, which, given her unusual position on the horse, the peculiar paces she was putting it through, her costume and the serious look on her face, seemed singularly appropriate.

Sue Brenton was one of the first riders to go. She and Snippet went through a series of trots, canters, jigs and reels to An English Country Garden. She kept up a brave and enthusiastic smile throughout, teeth bared, as might someone riding a bucking bronco or a roller coaster.

'That was averagely not too bad,' Sue said afterwards, panting heavily. 'So much better than this morning. It was a bit like what Beecham said about the orchestra: all that is required is that rider and horse start and finish


But she decided there was no point in her husband, Malcolm, hanging on. He came with her to all tournaments and drove the horse-box. ('Ours is a very odd relationship,' he explained. 'We're a happily married couple, and I like doing the things my wife does.') So he took Snippet home while Sue retired to the viewing gallery with a glass of wine. She didn't even notice when the results were posted.

'Sue, well done, you came third,' someone said.

'Yes, yes, yes,' she screamed, grabbing a passer-by and pogoing around in front of the results board. 'I'll get my name in Horse & Hound now.'

Outside it was raining again, so the presentation ceremony took place in the indoor arena. The managing director of Bain Clarkson, the sponsor, picked his way across the sawdust to present the trophies. The top five riders lined up their horses. Sue stood in the middle.

It was her finest moment in side-saddle and here she was, receiving third prize with no horse. When the sponsor pinned a rosette on her lapel instead of her horse's bridle, she leapt in the air. Compared to her, Linford Christie when he won at the Olympics looked disappointed.

(Photograph omitted)