Texas Ladies Aside

“That Peruvian horse of yours looks really smooth! I wonder how he’d go under this sidesaddle I just got?” “Well, let’s tack him up and find out!”

What began 21 years ago as a casual meeting between two Caldwell, Texas horse lovers has burgeoned into a thriving, dramatic exhibition team that has wowed audiences from Lima, Peru to Calgary, Alberta and quite a few points in between. The Texas Ladies Aside, the Official Equestrian Drill Team of Texas (74th Leg., 1995), is a unique group: the women ride only Peruvian Paso horses and they ride them aside.

“These horses might have been made for exhibitions and drills,” remarks co-founder Eileen Craig, who began importing and breeding Peruvian horses in the early 1980s. “They will give you everything they’ve got, and then some, and they really love parading and being in the limelight. When they hear applause, their brio goes through the roof!” (Brio is what Peruvians call the willing, controllable spiritedness that typifies the breed.)

Adds Sallie Cochran, the other group founder, “Sidesaddle riding is the perfect way to show this breed. Peruvians are beautiful, elegant, and refined, just as riding aside should be, and we in the TLA strive to preserve the traditions of sidesaddle riding while expanding our capabilities as riders. Getting to show off our wonderful horses is just a bonus to us.”

The members of the Texas Ladies Aside number over 100, and, while most of these folks are content to lend support and enthusiasm, the team fields a drill/exhibition team of about 20 active riders. Many more riders, including both the ladies and their unofficial auxiliary, “The Men Beside,” participate in the numerous parades throughout the year. “Because of work conflicts, horses being unavailable, or other issues, we are sometimes lucky to be able to get eight riders to commit to the intense team practice schedule we have to maintain to stay competitive,” says Eileen. “This year, knock on wood, we have enough riders to have a team of 12, which is pretty thrilling for us.”

The TLA entered the competition arena in 2003 at the National Equestrian Drill Competition in Myrtle Springs, Texas, where they found their niche in the Gaited Division. “We have a different style of riding than most of the drill teams,” notes Sallie. “We don’t show our horses at the gallop but at their exquisite four-beat gait that just floats and dances across the ground.” Apparently the judges recognized the team’s special qualities, as the group has won the Gaited Division of the National Competition the first two years that they entered, in 2003 and 2004. They are hoping for a repeat this year: “We’ve got an awesome drill this year, and the ladies are working hard every practice, “ enthuses Bernice Farrow, winner of this year’s “Yellow Rose,” a prize given at the yearly Awards Banquet to that TLA member who best exemplifies the optimistic spirit and inclusiveness that is the cornerstone of the group. She is also typical of the TLA members in that she drives over three hours, one-way, to attend the two-day practices held several times a month.

For the last few years, practice has been at the TLA’s “Official Home,” Carousel Acres, in Wellborn, Texas, owned by Beverly and Brad Raphel. Members currently riding in the competition team range in age from 13 to 76, and vary in profession from schoolgirls to retirees, with a healthy mix of veterinarians, ranch managers, teachers, and “you name it.” “I love the variety of people we get. I’ve seen many, many women come and go over the last 19 years since I’ve been riding with the TLA, and I value them all. We learn a lot from each other, not least learning to work out differences and commit to a common goal. It’s a great thing to be a part of, especially for the young riders. Girls always need good female role models, and there are some amazing ones in this bunch,” related a longtime team member. She also confessed, “This group is one of the passions of my life.”

For those who don’t know the breed, Peruvians were developed over the last 500 years in their home country, isolated by ocean and mountain, to provide comfortable, long-distance travel. The breed is naturally laterally gaited, meaning there’s no trot to jar the rider, but instead riders are treated to a smooth paso llano gait, with great reach in the rear legs and an intriguing twist in the front: the forelegs turn to the outside with every step, an desirable extravagant movement that was purposely bred for, and makes the horses look as though they are dancing as they pass by.

On their flamboyant mounts, the group has twice been invited to ride in the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade, fulfilling a lifelong dream for team member Alice Wolf. “I grew up out there, and I always wanted to ride in that parade. I can honestly say it was as big a thrill as I’d ever dreamed.” The first time, in 1998, the team hauled their horses the 1500 miles to California themselves, a trip fraught with the excitement of truck breakdowns, flat tires, snow, missed exits, keys locked in cars, and other fun. The second time, in 2003, they raised funds to have a professional equine hauler take the horses. In 1998, despite the nail-biting worry about arriving in California too late, the team blew into Pasadena just in time to participate in a pre-parade celebration of some of the horse acts and had the thrill of seeing their drill televised on CBS. “Those horses literally were unloaded from the trailers after a very long haul, fed and watered, given a few hours alone while we checked into our hotel and changed clothes, and then went right into dress rehearsal for our performances,” said the TLA’s Rose Parade organizer Corey Hewitt. “What troopers they are. However, we choose not to put them (or us!) through that whole ordeal in 2003!”

The Texas Ladies Aside has also been to Peru twice, where they entertained President Fujiyama in 1994, riding borrowed horses that learned drill maneuvers and how to cope with flapping skirts and sidesaddles in four practices. They were invited again in 2003, and were a great success at the national horse show in Lima.

In 2000, the group competed at Equidance, a drill competition held in conjunction with the Calgary Stampede, the world’s largest rodeo, in Calgary, Alberta. There they also used borrowed horses to great success. Members of the group have ridden in the 1990 Kentucky Derby Pegasus Parade, have been regulars in the San Antonio Battle of Flowers Parade, the Houston Thanksgiving Day Parade, the Dallas Cotton Bowl Parade, and two active members have ridden in Presidential Inaugural Parades. In 1996, the TLA was the only nonprofessional group invited to ride at the first-ever Equitana USA’s Mane Event, held at the Kentucky Horse Park.

More recently, the group has given exhibitions in historical costume for the National Park Service at the Fort Davis Historic Site in west Texas, at the Texas A&M University Vet School Open House, at the Winnie Rice Festival, at Peruvian Horse Shows in Oklahoma and Texas, including the first Combined Peruvian National Show, the Southwest Peruvian Horse Club Show, and the Lone Star Peruvian Show, all in 2004. The ladies have graced such recent parades as the 4th of July Celebration in Ft. Davis, TX and the Crede, Colorado, Independence Day Parade, the Tyler Rose Parade, and the Bryan/College Station Christmas Parade, to cite a few. The TLA is also proud to have been involved in helping establish the recently formed United States Equestrian Drill Association.

Some of the drill maneuvers the ladies use derive from the traditional performance techniques in Peru, such as the barrida, or “wall,” wherein the horses thunder down the arena, side by side. Other moves, like the Box or the Wheel, have come from modern drill team riding, modified for sidesaddle riders. “Some we just invented,” laughs Eileen, who has assumed the “Drillmistress” role for the group.

The showy costumes that the TLA is known for are the result of group decisions. “Usually, we strive for something that reflects both the traditions of sidesaddle and the horses’ Spanish ancestry, with a little Texas thrown in,” notes Sallie. “We also have to have an eye toward safety. Most of us have Victorian-style riding habits that we use for historical events. Occasionally, we design theme costumes that are just for fun, like our pirate outfits or the 50s-look costumes. We like to be colorful, which is definitely not in the English sidesaddle tradition, but we try to respect those traditions even though our style of riding is a little different. But we also love dressing up and having fun!” One longtime rider chuckled, “I’m most comfortable in jeans and sneakers. The other women all tease me that the only time they ever see me willingly put on pantyhose is when I have to dress up and ride!”

The sidesaddles the women use are mostly the sturdy and secure saddles that stem from English hunt tradition. Some of the women ride in western sidesaddles, too, or the occasional traditional Peruvian saddle. A leaping head, or second pommel that can help support the left leg in an emergency, is essential. “Safety is the first goal. Most antique sidesaddles, with their dipped seats and lack of leaping head, are not useful for modern-day riding, nor do they fit modern-day horses,” says Sallie, who has become an acknowledged expert on sidesaddles. “We try to educate new riders about saddles and make sure what they bring to practice in is safe for both rider and horse.”

Every year in March, the Texas Ladies Aside holds a sidesaddle clinic in College Station, Texas, where new and experienced sidesaddle riders can try out dozens of sidesaddles, ride trained Peruvian horses, and take instruction by nationally and internationally recognized teachers of the art of riding aside. “We’ve been extraordinarily fortunate in the caliber of instructors we have been able to attract, both for sidesaddle and for astride riding. Award-winning instructors like Jo Santay, Joan Bennett, Mary McCartney, and Roger Philpott of England have consistently been generous in their help and support of this group,” Sallie Cochran states proudly. “And we’re committed to bringing the finest people we can to instruct our team members, both the new riders and the veterans.”

Finding a sidesaddle that fits both rider and horse can be quite an ordeal, as few modern ones are being manufactured and good quality vintage saddles are rather pricey. The TLA tries to help new aside riders learn what to look for, what correct position really is, and how to fit the saddle to the horse. “The willingness of our members to lend saddles and help new riders tack up different ones to try over and over is pretty amazing,” smiles Laura Ellis, who has run the clinic the last couple of years. “It’s a group I’m proud to be part of.”

The Texas Ladies Aside will be proudly performing their drill at the Equine Expo of Texas this May 14 and 15 in Fort Worth’s Will Rogers Memorial Arena. Bernice Farrow says with a grin, “Everyone is thrilled to be a part of this. There’s a great lineup and we take our triple commitment to Peruvian horses, sidesaddle riding, and the State of Texas very seriously, so we plan to knock everyone’s socks off!”

For more information about the Texas Ladies Aside, you can call Barbara Bordman at 979-589-3001 or visit their website

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