Dear Gentle Readers: I welcome today a member of our South Carolina Jane Austen Book Club, Carol Lobdell, who, besides being a lover of Jane Austen, is also an accomplished horsewoman. She recently tried riding sidesaddle for the first time and writes here about how it gave her a better understanding of each of Jane Austen’s horse-riding heroines – think Jane Bennet (in the rain), Fanny Price, Mary Crawford, Elinor Dashwood (alas! only in the movie)…and anyone else??
Ride Like an Austen Heroine: Sidesaddle
Elizabeth Bennett and most of Jane Austen’s heroines show no hesitation to stride miles about the countryside in order to visit friends and family. They also travel on horseback, in many ways the most practical and efficient means to get around the neighborhood at the time.
And if they rode, they did it in a sidesaddle.
Movies and programs like “Downton Abbey” make riding in a sidesaddle look effortless. The image of a woman trotting and cantering on a horse through the English countryside – garbed in elaborately embellished jackets, flowing skirts, and flattering feathered hats – is graceful, romantic, and powerful.
But, folks, it ain’t easy! Ginger Rogers, as the old saying goes, did everything Fred Astaire did, except in high heels and backwards. So too, lady riders for centuries did everything the men did, except with one stirrup!
Brief History of the Sidesaddle
Women in antiquity usually weren’t riding horses unless they were passengers, perhaps on a pillion (pillow or platform) behind a male rider (who rode astride) or in a horse-drawn cart. Part of the reason was culture – the males did most of the hunting and fighting, and they did quite a bit of that on horseback – and part was practicality – women wore long skirts that were not conducive to riding astride and risked immodesty. Riding astride was also seen as a risk to virginity and childbearing.
However, as the centuries went on and the titled elite and leisure classes grew, many women wanted to ride for sporting and social reasons.
Tradition has it that that Princess Anne of Bohemia rode side-saddle across Europe in 1382 on her way to marry King Richard II. Riding sidesaddle was seen as a way to protect virginity.
Sources say that the earliest functional sidesaddle was a chair-like construction, where the woman sat sideways on the horse with her feet on a footrest. Catherine de Medici is said to have developed a more practical design, placing the rider’s right leg around a pommel (a raised, curved projection or “horn”) at the front of the saddle. Riding this way allowed better control of the horse and enhanced stability, enabling the rider to move beyond the walk, to trot and canter safely. Some early sidesaddles had a U-shaped pommel for the right leg.
A second pommel for the left leg, added in the early 1800s, made “riding aside” even more safe, enabling the rider to gallop and jump, while maintaining modesty and decorum (and virginity). Upper-class ladies rode for pleasure and many “rode to hounds” with their local fox hunts, galloping through the English countryside over ditches, hedges, and fences. (As a rider myself, having fox-hunted in England, I can tell you it’s a challenge even in modern saddles!)
Riding attire evolved along with innovations in the tack. After struggling with daywear for riding, less voluminous “safety skirts” were developed in the late 1800s, evolving into an “apron skirt” which buttoned around the waist, covering the legs. Women donned riding britches under these aprons and that’s still the basic structure of formal sidesaddle attire today.
Diagram showing the position of the legs when riding sidesaddle
[image source – Wikipedia]
The saddle and posture of a woman riding sidesaddle back in the day was very much as it is today. The rider first sits astride, with the right hip back to allow the shoulders to fall into line. The right leg is then placed on the front of the saddle (around the upper pommel), with the left leg bent and resting on the saddle (with the thigh under the lower pommel) and the foot in the stirrup.
Below: The right side of a modern sidesaddle. The girth is a standard type that could be used on most saddles. The extra stability strap affixed to the rear of the saddle is unique to a sidesaddle.
Below: The left side of a modern sidesaddle. You can clearly see the two “pommels” for the rider and the single stirrup (looped over the lower pommel).
Women began to ride astride – wearing split skirts or riding britches – in the early 20th Century. Sidesaddle fell out of favor for many years; however, traditionalists and riders looking for variety kept the sidesaddle alive. Today, groups across the country and around the world continue to “ride aside” for fun as well as for sport and competition.
What’s it like to ride like an Austen heroine? I’ve always ridden astride in English saddles, so the basic feel of the saddle was not very different, although it’s a flat saddle seat, not curved like many English saddles. English riding also calls for a straight posture, which is even more important in a sidesaddle to maintain balance. I found the basic posture to be comfortable, much like sitting in a chair with one knee crossed over the other.
Above: The author in a modern sidesaddle, about to take her first trot “aside.”
The biggest difference is that one doesn’t “post” in a sidesaddle (the up-and-down motion riders generally use at the trot) or rise into a half-seat for a jump. No matter what gait the horse is doing – walk, trot, canter or jumping – the sidesaddle rider stays glued to the seat of the saddle. For jumping, the rider bends forward at the hip to follow the motion of the horse, instead of rising into a half-seat as the horse jumps.
The first few minutes in the sidesaddle felt very unbalanced, though, as I’m used both legs hugging the horse and a firm seat on the horse’s back. With only one stirrup, I was very wary about stability and steering. However, I was able to walk in both directions in the sidesaddle pretty quickly, once I got the hang of the balance and kept my weight over on the right hipbone. Trotting took a bit more practice, with the key, again, keeping the balance to the right hipbone, an upright posture and firm seat on the saddle. It did feel odd not to have the right foot in a stirrup. The left foot (in the stirrup) was useful for steering, as always. Without the right stirrup, it was a little more difficult to steer, but happily, I was on an experienced sidesaddle horse for the lesson (Lulu, a lovely mare), so she was able to interpret my body language and instructions pretty well. A sidesaddle rider also uses a crop or whip in the right hand to help make up for the missing right stirrup. The riding was really quite comfortable, I thought. (Next time I give it a try, maybe a short canter!)
There are a number of sidesaddle groups around the USA and the UK. In the US, women don safety aprons and fox hunt as well as compete. Sidesaddle jumping is a standalone sport; only the brave need apply! The current world record for sidesaddle jumping has stood since 1915, when Esther Stace, of Australia, cleared a record 6’6” at the Sydney Royal Show.
In Mexican-style rodeos, the women in California’s Escaramuza Charra drill teams perform complicated patterns at high speed in sidesaddles. They ride aside, or “to mujeriegas,” in a saddle known as an albarda, in quick, complex maneuvers often performed on horses with reining training. Traditional costumes with layers of petticoats under decorated skirts or breeches and jackets are the usual garb. [image from damacharra.com]
I enjoyed my sidesaddle lesson and plan to take a few more. Whether I invest in a saddle and attire remains to be seen, but it’s always fun to try something new in a sport that I love, with the extra fun of riding like an Austen heroine!
For Further Reading:
Thank you Carol! Anyone out there want to share their own sidesaddle experiences? (and one question: is it side saddle, side-saddle or sidesaddle??)
c2017, Jane Austen in Vermont. Text and photographs (unless otherwise noted) by Carol Lobdell