The History of the Side Saddle
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 same time periods, especially with 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 a number of other (somewhat ridiculous) reasons given 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 a number of 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.
The sidesaddle was considerably improved over the years, especially during the Victorian period. The first specifically designed side saddle accommodated a women sitting fully sideways in a "planchette" saddle which was like a chair with a footrest.
Women riding alone probably began by ride a standard saddle with one horn such as shown below. But specially-designed side-saddles 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 allowed side saddle riders to remain stable will racing and jumping.
Most women ride with their legs on the horse's left side (called the "near" side). But "off side" versions are made where the women sits with her legs to the right. Historical and in the present day they are usually made for rides with injuries that make the conventional position uncomfortable. (For example: see long rider Harriet Wadsworth Harper).
Feats of Sidesaddle Riding
Some women achieved amazing maneuvers using a sidesaddle. For example the photo shown right 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 battle fields, 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 rides 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. recent study confirmed that sidesaddle put an asymmetrical pressure on the horses body (Winkelmayr, 2006).
The End of Side Saddle
Between 1900 and 1950 side saddles fell out of use as it became acceptable for women to ride astride and to wear trousers while riding. They lasted for the longest for ceremonial uses such as when Queen Elizabeth rode for the trooping of the colors.
Victorian horsewoman Alice Hayes spoke of the contraption that is 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 very much better off without.
The Modern Side Saddle
During the 1970 riding side saddles experience a modest return to fashion in historical reenactment, sport or 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)
Side Saddle for Men
Historically women were often taught riding by men, more effectively if they were also competent with riding in this manner and so had a 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.
Side saddle is demonstrated by a number of males to show historical saddles and instructing modern female riders (including Mike Flemmer).
There is also the interesting little mystery of this ancient Chinese sculpture which seems to show a draped man riding sidesaddle.
- 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.