Get ye to Ingarsby Hall, Melton Mowbray on Saturday February 2nd to witness the Dianas of the Chase! Sidesaddle daredevils both male and female are travelling from far and wide to take part in the Bernard Weatherill Sidesaddle Steeplechase in aid of Forces in Mind, a charity which helps former servicemen and women reintegrate into civilian life. It’s the first of its kind to be held since the Second World War, and although the course has had to be shortened because of the Big Freeze, it’s still a testing mile over big hedges in classic Quorn-hunt territory. Look out for puissance-record-taker Susan Oakes, Becca Holland of the Flying Foxes sidesaddle display team and Martha Sitwell of Sitwell and Whippet.
It seems like a good time to remember the original sidesaddle steeplechaser, Irish poet and journalist Nannie Power O’Donoghue, whose books on equitation and horsecare are still treasured by fans, and a cracking read. In the nineteenth century she was the first person to ride around Ireland’s three most formidable race courses without a single refusal or fall. These quotations come courtesy of Olga E Lockley’s excellent biography of Mrs Power O’D (more here). From a contemporary sporting magazine:
“The only lady who has ever ridden over the three steeplechase courses of Punchestown, Fairyhouse and Baldoyle; and all those who know the double at Punchestown will be more than ready to admit that this is no light feat… It was sad one day that no horse had crossed these three courses without making a mistake and that probably no horse could ever do so, and seeing how many of the best animals come to grief at the great Punchestown double, failure always seems probable, though perhaps Fairyhouse is the severest of the three courses, the jumps including, to use the famous rider’s own words, ‘post and rails and horrors’. Pleader’s mistress, however, eager in defence and praise of her pet, declared that he at any rate would not fail, and accompanied by Major Stone of the 80th, the three journeys were achieved by her without a refusal or a mistake.”
A few years later the famous jockey George Fordham wrote to Nannie asking for an account of the ride and she replied via her column.
“The course (Fairyhouse) is a most trying one, and the feat was one never before attempted by a lady. I did it to show that my horse was capable of accomplishing the task, and the risk was not what you describe it, for he was too clever to put a foot astray. Major Stone of the 80th accompanied me, and gave me a good lead. The only time I passed him was when his horse refused at an ugly post and rail. It is not true that he was thrown. He rode splendidly, managing a difficult horse. There was no ‘crowd’, and in short it is evident you have received an exaggerated account of the affair.”
There now, is modesty in action. Perhaps Mr Fordham’s version had been confused with that of Regency lady jockey, Alicia Thornton. Good luck and the best of British to the Dianas who will be emulating Mrs Power O’D on Saturday 2nd February. May your mounts all be Pleaders and your leaping horns stay firm.