Ah, the sidesaddle, a piece of horse tack designed in the old west to make those flowing skirts women wore to flow equally well on horseback … NOT!
In actuality, the sidesaddle was invented way back in the fourteenth century to … wait for it … protect the virginity of a teenaged princess as she made her way across Europe to wed the young King of England. Wow. Just wow.
So, the assumption the sidesaddle was a product of fashion because of long flowing skirts and dresses, isn’t how this particular piece of tack came about. Instead, it was to protect the physical proof of a princess’s royal virtue. And the rest is history.
This bright idea (I’d really like to know who came up with it) set forth the notion that the only way for a proper lady to ride was “sideways.” Never mind the fact you had to hang on like your life depended on it (which for many it did) it’s how you were supposed to ride. So, for some five hundred years this was how it was done. YIKES!
The sidesaddle we still know today was invented in the 1830s by Jules Pellier. His version has a fixed pommel to support the rider’s right thigh. He also came up with a revolutionary second pommel for the left leg. This allowed more security and control, giving the woman the freedom to stay on at a gallop and to jump fences. It was a far cry from early sidesaddles, The earliest of which was nothing more than a pillow and a piece of wood that had the woman facing left. Horses are mounted on the left side, so even the earliest versions were made this way.
Fast forward to the early twentieth century where the sidesaddle was a permanent fixture for women when it came to the proper way to ride. Worse, the slightest suggestion to the contrary could get you an earful. Take for example an article in the Los Angeles Times from 1905 (and yes, this was written by a guy): “The woman does not live who can throw her leg over the back of a horse without profaning the grace of femininity; or grasp with her separated knees the shoulders of her mount without violating the laws of good taste; or appear in the cross-saddle with any semblance of dignity, elegance or poise.”
There were women writers of the time who agreed. But as with anything, rumblings against this mode of riding were bound to start. In this case, it was British author Alice Hayes who made some of the first complaints against a sidesaddle, despite the fact she argued women should ride sidesaddle. But she also saw the sidesaddle’s impractical design and how it placed women in harm’s way.
“The fact of a lady having to ride in a sidesaddle, subjects her to three disadvantages: she is unable, without assistance, to mount as readily as a man; she cannot apply the pressure of the leg to the right side of the horse, and she cannot ‘drop her hands’ in order to pull her horse together to the same extent as he can,” wrote Hayes, in her 1893 book, The Horsewoman: A Practical Guide to Side-Saddle Riding.
By 1900, American women were geographically split on the issue. Women in the East clung to the sidesaddle as
proper and necessary, while Western women saw them as impractical and dangerous. Women out west were far more likely to use a horse for farm and ranch labor than those in the East, who were more likely to use a horse for weekend entertainment. Now there are sidesaddle riding clubs, events in horse shows for the sidesaddle and of course, other interesting places in the horse world where riding sidesaddle is the used.
My sister and I grew up with horses, and we tried riding side-saddle by wrapping our right leg around the saddle horn. Dangerous? Yep, but we were Tomboys, what did we care about the danger? And yeah, we worked our way up to a canter riding that way. But we weren’t going to go for a gallop! Have any of your seen women riding sidesaddle in parades or at horse shows? Have you ever ridden a horse that way or thought it an elegant way to ride?