The Art of Side Saddle


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Up until the early 1900’s, side saddle was the ONLY way for a lady to ride!

As far as history goes, women didn’t always ride side saddle...many actually preferred to ride astride. But someone decided women wouldn’t make good riders due to their ‘rounded thighs’ and so the side saddle was developed. At first it was a type of chair where women sat at a 90 degree angle (side on) to the horse’s spine with their feet resting on a platform called a ‘planchette’, clutching the horse’s mane while being led by a servant.

Then women probably decided they wanted to do their own steering, so a saddle ‘horn’ was added for them to throw their leg over, allowing them to face towards the front. A second horn was added on the off-side of the saddle for greater security (see Queen Victoria’s saddle pictured) but this gradually got smaller and smaller and was eventually replaced by a horn lower on the left-hand side that was curved downwards. This was called a ‘leaping horn’ and gave added security during jumping, or ‘leaping’ as it was called back then. The platform was replaced by a velvet lined slipper stirrup and this in turn was replaced by a safety stirrup.

The seat was originally dipped like our astride saddles, gradually flattening out over time but these older-style dipped seat side saddles aren’t suitable for riding in today as they usually don’t fit our well-fed horses!

Side saddles are kept in place by a girth the same as astride saddles but as the weight of saddle and rider tends to lean slightly to the left, a ‘balance’ strap was added to the off-side for even more security. The girth is fastened more tightly than on regular saddles to prevent rocking and slipping and side saddles take longer to put on as they need to be carefully positioned and fastened. Modern side saddles have a cut back head which allows better fit, ventilation and helps the rider keep position. When it’s on the horse’s back, the tree is clear of the wither.

Side saddles are always lined with cloth which is more suited to regular re-stuffing while the seat is often pigskin which offers good grip.

Queen Victoria was an acomplished rider. Queen Victoria was an acomplished rider.

Position

A lady riding side saddle is unable to mount alone and if there’s no-one around to help, she has to scramble on using a crate or mounting block in a most un-ladylike way! If there’s a helper, then she is ‘put up’ (the official term) into the saddle. When viewed from behind, the rider’s spine should be in alignment with the horse’s spine...in other words, the upper body is in the same position as if the rider was astride.

The right leg is hooked over the top pommel so the top of the leg from knee to thigh is parallel to the horse’s spine.

The knee beneath the leaping head shouldn’t project too far and be inclined inwards.

The reins are longer so the hands are further back and they are also wider apart to go either side of the right knee.

It can take some getting used to and most riders trying side saddle for the first time find it takes a lot more effort than riding astride!

This side saddle was made to fit horse and rider. This side saddle was made to fit horse and rider.

Want to try riding side saddle?

One thing NOT to do is throw your right leg over a normal saddle to see what it feels like! If your horse spooks, you’ll have nothing to hold you in place and will probably fall off. Ditto bareback!

Try and find someone with a properly fitted and well balanced side saddle who is willing to let you have a ride in it on a horse who’s used to wearing it. Most horses adapt with no problem at all, but the saddle needs to be correctly fitted, so you won’t be able to use just any side saddle on your horse as a badly fitting one will result in a sore back. Ideally a side saddle should be specially made to fit horse and rider. You’ll find a few side saddles for sale on Ebay or in antique shops BUT beware of buying them. Again, a side saddle needs to be properly fitted to you and your horse and it’s rare to find one that will suit both.

With the right saddle and instruction, you can do anything an astride rider can, including dressage, jumping...even cross country.

A few Royal Shows have side saddle events, so go along and have a look at the gorgeous outfits some competitors wear. ..there’s usually three classes; Period Costume, Turnout and Side Saddle Rider for various age groups. Some agricultural shows also have side saddle classes while occasionally a hack will be shown in regular classes being ridden in a side saddle...and often winning!

Side saddie was once the only acceptable way for a lady to ride. Side saddie was once the only acceptable way for a lady to ride.

Clothing

Up until the 16th century, women wore their everyday clothing for riding. After that, special outfits known as ‘habits’ were made. The earliest tended to copy male military fashions, then French ‘court’ trends before becoming simpler and more functional. Breeches were worn beneath the skirt for comfort but were hidden so it looked like a skirt only.

A whip is carried to act as a rider’s outside leg aid and if a spur is needed, it’s worn on the left boot only.

To protect a lady’s delicate complexion, a hat, high neckline and gloves were worn.

Nowdays, all side-saddle competitors must wear an approved safety helmet. Previously they wore dressy hats, as well as a bowler, or a top hat and veil. Habits are usually tailor-made and today’s side saddle aprons are attached to the legs using velcro, which holds them in position yet will give way in the event of an accident. The apron should cover the boots completely and the hem be parallel to the ground. When the lady dismounts and wants to walk around, a special button allows her to gather the material and attach it to the button, so she can walk freely.

As far as side saddle is concerned, emphasis is on elegance but today’s inventions (like velcro!) have added an unobtrusive safety element as well.

Why did women stop riding side saddle?

Women began fighting for the right to vote and do other things men did...and this included riding astride. The tide began to turn late 1800s, early 1900’s with women becoming more assertive.

“Riding astride is the most healthful and the most comfortable fashion. I have more purchase, more command. It’s not good to ride twisted, any doctor will say the same thing.” declared Broadway actress Anna Held around 1900.

Many riders enjoy riding side saddle today as a reminder and tribute to a bygone era.

Books in the 1800 Books in the 1800's used men to illustrate the correct position!

Side Saddle Trivia

• Sometimes side saddles had a fold-away stirrup and stirrup leather tucked away beneath the off-side flap. This was so that ladies out hunting could take a carriage home and their grooms could ride their horse astride on the side saddle.

• French fashion house Hermés started out making saddles 1837, including many side saddles.

• Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II used to ride side saddle on parade and during Trooping the Colours (she now rides in an open carriage). If you get the chance to see photos or old movie footage of her riding side saddle, observe her perfect riding position!

• A lady’s side saddle riding outfit is called a ‘habit’, the word is derived from the Latin word, habitus, meaning “condition, appearance...a manner of dress”. A nun’s outfit is also known as a habit.

• Some countries rode side saddle on the OFF (right) side of the horse (like how some countries drive on the opposite side of the road to us). Occasionally young girls were instructed to ride in an off-side side saddle if it was thought they were showing signs of curvature of the spine.

• When breeches began to be worn beneath habits for comfort, it was often tricky for ladies to get well fitting ones as most tailors were men and it just didn’t do for one to be measured by a man!

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