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"The Pride of the State"*

“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 in 1984 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 with 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,” says 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!” 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; most of these ladies are members of other side saddle organizations located in the East and are content to lend support and enthusiasm. A drill/exhibition team of about 20 active riders comes from all over Texas – Beaumont to Fort Davis, Dallas to San Antonio. Many more riders participate in the numerous parades throughout the year. “Because of work conflicts, or 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. “In 2005, we had enough riders for a team of 12, plus 2 alternates, which was pretty thrilling for us.” For the Rodeo Houston exhibition in March of 2006, the TLA will have sixteen riders and four flag carriers, called “The Men Beside.” This will be the largest team ever.

The TLA successfully 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,” says Sallie. “We don’t show our horses at the gallop, but at their exquisite four-beat gait that floats and dances across the ground.” Apparently judges recognized the team’s special qualities, as the group has won the Gaited Division of the National Competition in the first three years that they entered: 2003, 2004, and 2005. They are hoping for a repeat this year: “We’ve got a fast-moving drill, and the ladies are working hard every practice,” enthuses Bernice Farrow, 2004’s winner of the “Yellow Rose” award, given at their annual Awards Banquet to that TLA member who best exemplifies the optimistic spirit and inclusiveness that is the cornerstone of the group. Bernice is also typical of the TLA members in that she drives three hours one-way, to attend the two-day practices held several times a month.

Members currently riding in the competition team range in age from 14 to 76, and vary in profession from schoolgirls to retirees, with a healthy mix of veterinarians, managers, teachers, and “others.” “I love the variety of people we get. I’ve seen many women come and go over the last 19 years since I’ve been riding, and I value them all. We learn a lot from each other, by committing to a common goal and learning to work out differences as a group. It’s a great thing to be part of this team, especially for the young riders. Girls always need good role models, and there are some awesome women in this group,” said a longtime team member. She also admitted, “This group is one of the passions of my life.”

Peruvian Horses 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 extravagant movement called “termino” that was bred for and is quite desirable, and makes the horses look as thought 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 1000 miles to California themselves, a trip fraught with the excitement of truck breakdowns, flat tires, snow, missed exits, keys locked in cars, and other such fun. The second time, in 2003, they fundraised to have a professional hauler take the horses.

The Texas Ladies Aside have also been to Peru twice, where they entertained President Fujiyama in 1994, riding borrowed horses that had to learn drill maneuvers and how to cope with flapping skirts and side saddles in only four practices. They were invited again in 2003 and were warmly received at the National Horse Show in Lima.

In 2000, the group competed in 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 regular winners in the San Antonio Battle of Flowers Parade, in the Houston Thanksgiving Day Parade, the Dallas Cotton Bowl Parade, and two members have ridden in Presidential Inaugural Parades. In 1996, the TLA was the only nonprofessional group invited to ride at Equitana’s Mane Event, held at the Kentucky Horse Park. More recently, the group has been the only horse unit for the Dickens on the Strand weekend in December of each year. Each rider designed a riding outfit to complement Dickens’ Victorian era. Until the historic stables that dated from before the Galveston flood were torn down in 2002, the horses had their own “yard” with stalls right between the two main streets of the festival. In 2005 the TLA won their third-in-a-row USEDA (United States Equestrian Drill Association) competition. In the Peruvian Horse Show world this made them “Laureado Champions” having taken top honors three times at the same show. In 2004, they also received the first-ever “Spirit” award given by the USEDA.

Every March, the Texas Ladies Aside holds a side saddle clinic in College Station, Texas, where new and experienced sidesaddle riders can try out dozens of side saddles, ride trained Peruvian horses, and take instruction from 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 side saddle and astride riding, award-winning instructors like top American Riding Instructor (ARIA) members Jo Santa and Mary McCartney. Joan Bennett, the first aside rider to earn the Bronze Award in dressage, has also given clinics, as has Roger Philpott of England,” Sallie Cochran says proudly. “We are committed to bringing the finest people we can to instruct our riders, both new and veteran.”

Finding a side saddle that fits both rider and horse can be quite an ordeal; few modern ones are being manufactured and good quality vintage saddles are rather pricey. The TLA helps new aside riders learn what to look for, what the correct riding 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 on their horse until they have learned what to look for 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 a part of.”

The Texas Ladies Aside will be exhibiting their drill at Rodeo Houston every Saturday and Sunday at 6:00 pm, just before the evening’s main entertainment begins. They will be riding for five minutes while the stage is being prepared. This has called for one of the most unique drill patterns ever performed. The center of the Reliant Stadium will contain the stage and behind that all the electrical wiring needed for such a music performance will run back to the far exit. This will leave a U-shaped area for the twenty riders to fill, so that the entire audience can see the drill. After entering in five lines of four, led by the four Men Beside carrying Texas flags, six riders will proceed up each arm of the U to ride a complicated, mirror-image drill. The remaining eight riders will create their own patterns in the large lower base of the U. At one point all the riders will momentarily reunite, then separate into two groups of ten to perform a walkabout down each side of the arena, finally exiting as they entered, in five lines of four, “waving and blowing kisses” as one English clinician insisted, “to thunderous applause.” Bernice Farrow says with a smile, “Everyone is thrilled to be a part of this. There’s a great lineup and we take our triple commitment to Peruvian horses, side saddle riding, and the State of Texas very seriously. We plan to knock everyone’s socks off!”

*Portions of this article originally appeared in the April, 2005 edition of Texas Horse Gazette.

**Brio: the willing, controllable spiritedness that typifies the breed.

Written by Ruth Riegel, proud member of the Texas Ladies Aside since 1987