Sidesaddle in the Ancient World
Many people trace the history of the side saddle back only a few hundred years, and so they treat it as a relatively modern invention. However, the sidesaddle appears in ancient art, such as a 6th-century depiction on a vase of Hephaestus riding sidesaddle on a mule.
Hephaestus, the male god of blacksmiths, demonstrated that a sidesaddle form of riding occurred from ancient to modern times, especially with donkeys and mules.
Early Pillion Pads
Riding with one's knees together was historically considered more modest and therefore more appropriate for women. In the earliest depictions, sidesaddle riding was limited to female pillion passengers behind a male rider. A blanket or cushion would be affixed to the back of the saddle to accommodate a female passenger.
From about the 13th to early 20th century, even women riding alone often rode with both legs to one side of the horse. In some periods, especially among the upper classes and nobility, it was deemed important that a bride be anatomically clearly a virgin. This made riding astride a risky behavior.
Why Women Used Side Saddles
There were also several other (somewhat ridiculous) reasons for having women not ride astride, such as that their thighs were too rounded for this position or that the position was "physically unhygienic".
However, across all historical periods, women were portrayed both side saddle and astride, suggesting both methods were in widespread use. And some prominent women refused to ride side saddle, including Catherine the Great of Russia. And women who rode considerable distances were inclined to opt for comfort over propriety.
However, into the Victorian period some women road prodigious distances on a side saddle. See: Celia Fiennes (1888), Ella Sykes (1898).
The sidesaddle was considerably improved over the years, especially during the Victorian period. The first specifically designed side saddle accommodated a woman sitting fully sideways in a "planchette" saddle which was like a chair with a footrest.
Women riding alone probably began by riding a standard saddle with one horn, as shown below. But specially-designed sidesaddles were soon developed.
Various arrangements of single or double stirrups and pommels were in use, with the women still sitting to the side with both feet side-by-side in one or two stirrups or on a shelf.
In some cases, the woman would hook her leg over the pommel at the front of the saddle, causing her to turn slightly forwards. Queen Catherine de Medici is credited with developing this position. Around this time, saddles were designed that had a second pommel further down to the side and supported a more secure position.
An 1830 development added a small third pommel over the lower thigh, allowing side saddle riders to remain stable while racing and jumping.
How to Ride Side Saddle Like a Victorian Lady
Most women ride with their legs on the horse's left side (called the "near" side). But "off side" versions are made where the woman sits with her legs to the right. Historically and in the present day, they are usually made for riders with injuries that make the conventional position uncomfortable. (For example: see long rider, Harriet Wadsworth Harper).
Feats of Sidesaddle Riding
Some women achieved incredible maneuvers using a sidesaddle. For example, the photo above was taken in 1915 and shows a rider clearing a 6'6" jump.
It is amazing to see women in this contorted position jumping tall fences. Women on sidesaddles rode on battlefields, in the Olympics, and on treks of thousands of miles.
Belle Starr (1848-1889) was a notorious female outlaw who managed to forge a reputation as the female equivalent of Jesse James, all while wearing velvet and riding sidesaddle.
The combination of sidesaddle and long skirts meant that female riders could not fall clear of the horse in the event of an accident. That made them more likely to be seriously injured.
The uneven placement of the saddle was also potentially damaging to the horse. A recent study confirmed that sidesaddle put asymmetrical pressure on the horse's body (Winkelmayr, 2006).
The End of Side Saddle
Between 1900 and 1950, sidesaddles fell out of use as it became acceptable for women to ride astride and wear trousers. They lasted the longest for ceremonial uses, such as when Queen Elizabeth rode for the trooping of the colors.
Victorian horsewoman Alice Hayes spoke of the sidesaddle by writing that men ride the horse, but women ride the saddle. It forms a considerable obstacle between the rider and the mount. And if one's goal is to simply ride the horse for transportation or pleasure, it is something we are much better off without.
The Modern Side Saddle
During the 1970s sidesaddle riding experienced a modest return to fashion in historical reenactment, sport, and an appreciation of its perceived elegance. It strikes me as a picturesque but rather peculiar affectation of modern riders.
- International Side Saddle Association (founded 1974)
- American Sidesaddle Association (founded 2007)
The side saddle position was used with a number of species including camels, ostriches, mules and zebras.
Side saddle design was even used for devices such as the 'exerciser' shown below.
Sidesaddle pillion motorcycle riding is mandated in some parts of Indonesia.
Side Saddle for Men
Historically women were often taught riding by men; they were, of course, taught more effectively if they were also competent with riding sidesaddle, thus having real understanding of the technique.
Men would also occasionally ride side saddle when exercising a lady's mount. It was also sometimes used by men who had lost a leg or for activities when heavy equipment was mounted on one side of the horse, like cable laying.
Sidesaddle is demonstrated by a number of males (including Mike Flemmer) to give exhibitions of historical saddles and instruct modern female riders in the technique.
There is also the interesting little mystery of this ancient Chinese sculpture, which seems to show a draped man riding sidesaddle.
- Through Persia on a Side-saddle by Ella Sykes
- Through England on a Side Saddle: In the Time of William and Mary by Celia Fiennes
- The Horsewoman: A Practical Guide to Side-saddle Riding by Alice M. Hayesks
- Hensly, C. (2013). Proceed to Olympus: The Iconography of the Return of Hephaestus.
- Winkelmayr, B., Peham, C., Frühwirth, B., Licka, T., & Scheidl, M. (2006). Evaluation of the force acting on the back of the horse with an English saddle and a side saddle at walk, trot and canter. Equine Veterinary Journal, 38(S36), 406-410.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: Have you seen a western-style side saddle with a back on the off side?
Answer: That is not something I have seen or heard off.
Penny Skinner (author) on November 08, 2019:
Generally, any place with a focus on sporting activities or horses will be interested--or possibly a university with an animal science or veterinary program.
Maria T. on October 29, 2019:
Hello, Thanks so much for the Sidesaddle History! I have not had a horse in over 20 years, and am in my 50's. The family Sidesaddle from my Great (or possibly Great, Great) Grandmother has been passed on to me. Do you know of a Museum somewhere that might be interested in having it, please? Or, if someone is interested in purchasing it, that could be a possibility. It is doing no one any good sitting in my basement. Thank you kindly!
Amy Naylor from England on July 30, 2014:
Great hub my friend! Thank you for posting on the Hubpages Subreddit ;-)
hlwar on March 03, 2014:
Side-saddle is something I've always wanted to learn; there's just something so lovely and purely ladylike about it. Great article, and an interesting topic to find here on HubPages. Thanks!
Sally Branche from Only In Texas! on October 11, 2012:
When I was girl, my mother got a side-saddle from an old friend who had grown up riding side-saddle. I used it with my horse several times, and it was actually quite comfortable and easy to use. Interesting topic! Voted up and awesome! ;D