Well-Behaved Women Rarely Make History: Riding Sidesaddle

Jun 9, 2010 - 5:18 PM
Esther Stace cleared a record 6'6" at the Sydney Royal Show in Australia in 1915 riding sidesaddle. Photo courtesy of the Walcha Historical Society.

In Middleburg, Va., you know summer is on its way when the Upperville Show Grounds start to come to life. About mid-May, the tent stabling begins to go up, and as the days roll on, the jumps appear, the flowers line the fences, and the vendor booths start filling with merchandise.

The Upperville Colt And Horse Show draws some top talent, but the thing that stands out about the show to me is the unique variety of classes it offers. I remember attending the show last year and truly enjoying the elegance of the sidesaddle division. Sidesaddle riders seem to hark back to an older, more elegant era, and I wondered about the history of riding sidesaddle.

Sidesaddle didn’t become the accepted style of riding for women until the 15th century. Before then, it’s likely that women were just as likely to ride astride as men. However, examples of women riding with both legs on one side have been found on 5th century Oriental artifacts and 9th century artifacts from Greece and on medieval Celtic stones. In the medieval time period, women often sat aside while being led by a man, or sat on a pillion behind a male rider. These riding methods did not allow a woman any control of the horse.

Anne of Bohemia, who married King Richard II of England in 1382, developed the first version of a sidesaddle. It was much more bulky than the modern-day version and had women sitting completely sideways. Because it was hard for a woman to stay on and use the reins properly, they still had to be assisted by men. This particular saddle design also helped the palfrey, an expensive and well-bred riding horse, become a popular mount for women.

In the 16th century, Catherine de’Medici decided she was tired of having men help her ride, so she designed a sidesaddle with a more forward seat. There is some debate over whether she was the one who added the second horn to the saddle to better secure the rider’s right knee. Even with these improvements, the sidesaddle was not entirely stable. Some women, such as Marie Antoinette and Catherine the Great, still chose to ride astride.

It wasn’t until the 1830s that sidesaddles saw improvement again. Jules Pellier added the third pommel, or the leaping head, which gave riders a far more secure seat than any other model of saddle. It’s unclear whether Pellier was the inventor of the leaping head or merely the man who decided it would be smart to market it. The new design allowed women a safer way to jump, although they certainly jumped before the leaping head. Hunting was a favored activity by Queen Elizabeth and many other high-profile women.

The sidesaddle remained the saddle of choice for women until about the 1930s, when jumping competitions became a popular sport. Sidesaddle riding faded off until about the 1970s, where the last improvements were made to the sidesaddle. The leg horn was made shallower and the seat flatter. This allowed a woman to move her leg more freely in case of trouble.

Today, sidesaddle riding has found a niche in the horse show ring, and riders compete in hunters, dressage, eventing, western and saddleseat. Sidesaddle riders can also be found on the hunt field, in parades and in demonstrations all over the world.

If you’re in the area this weekend, be sure to check out the sidesaddle division at Upperville on Saturday around 8 a.m. I’m not sure I will be attempting riding sidesaddle anytime soon, but I certainly appreciate the women who decided they were done riding with the assistance of men!

That’s girl power, for sure.

Did You Know?

In the sidesaddle hunter divisions at rated U.S. Equestrian Federation horse shows, competitors carry a sandwich case that must have a sandwich in it. The sandwich must be sliced turkey, chicken or watercress with the crust cut off and wrapped in wax paper. They also have to carry a flask filled with tea, sherry or brandy.

One of web writer Coree Reuter’s favorite parts of working at The Chronicle of the Horse is adventuring up into the attic. While it’s occasionally a journey that requires a head lamp, GPS unit and dust mask, nearly 75 years of the equine industry is documented in the old issues and photographs that live above the offices, and Coree is determined to unearth the great stories of the past. Inspired by the saying: “History was written on the back of a horse,” she hopes to demystify the legends, find new ones and honor the horses who have changed the scope of everyday life with this blog.

Category: Blog Entry
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