Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Art of Riding Side-Saddle by Victoria Chatham

What do Queen Elizabeth II, Lady Mary of Downton Abbey fame, and Sybil Ludington have in common? Any ideas? Would you like to hazard a guess? After all, the title of this blog really gives it away. That’s right, they all ride side-saddle.

As a reader and author of historical fiction there is no way that horses, in one way or another, don’t creep into my stories. They were virtually the only means of transport for centuries, whether driven (an art I know next to nothing about) or ridden. Gentlemen rode astride, but ladies were expected to ride side-saddle. There was a certain practicality to this, namely it would be rather difficult to ride astride in a long-skirted gown.

To many, both riders and non-riders, the side-saddle may look decidedly uncomfortable and precarious. If properly fitted to both horse and rider, it can be as comfortable and secure as a regular saddle for riding astride and the rider has as much control. Not only that, there is certain elegance in a well-turned out lady riding side-saddle. Hunting, showing classes, and jumping can all be enjoyed. The world record for side-saddle show jumping was set at 6 feet, 6 inches at a show in 1915 in Sydney, Australia.

The earliest depictions of women riding horses, astride, were on Greek vases and Celtic stones. The Celtic
goddess, Epona (from the Gaulish language meaning Great Mare), was worshiped by the Celts and Romans. In the Dark Ages and early Medieval period women were not expected to ride horses on their own. They sat sideways on a small padded seat behind a male rider, with their feat placed on a planchette, a small footrest attached to the pillion seat. Later, when ladies did begin to ride on their own, the saddles were so awkward that the rider had very little control, so the horse had to be led. This required a steady, sturdy horse and is where the term palfrey originate.

Catherine de Medici (1519-1589) was a consummate horsewoman who rode both astride and side-saddle, and is credited with developing the saddle horn around which the rider hooks their right leg. The second horn, often referred to as the leaping head, did not develop until the 1830's. There are records of side-saddles for the lady to ride with her legs to the right, not left, side of the saddle but I have not yet found an illustration of this. It was considered that if the lady always rode with her legs to the left, it might mean uneven development of the muscles of her derriere, which would make her look lop-sided. Heaven forbid! Grooms during the Regency era often contended with teasing from their fellows when they exercised their mistresses’ horses side-saddle.

Once a lady is in the saddle with her right leg in position, the stirrup leather is then adjusted for length. When
the rider’s foot is securely in the stirrup, the left leg then tucks firmly under the leaping head.  Having ridden side-saddle, I can attest to the comfort and security of it. Riding habits have evolved from when ladies used to ride in their everyday clothes. French ladies in the 17th Century wore an outfit called a devantiere which, split up the back, allowed a lady to ride astride if she wished. Riding habits were meticulously tailored, often designed along military lines. They consisted of a jacket, a long skirt, and a tailored shirt with a necktie or stock. Boots were low healed and gloves and a hat were required to complete what was, in effect, a uniform of sorts. A riding habit might be trimmed with fancy buttons but was typically a darker color than everyday clothes. Much more practical for today is the open-sided apron developed in the 1930’s which fits over breeches. The veil which helped to hold a lady's hat in place was not introduced until the Victorian era.

While you may be familiar with Queen Elizabeth II and Lady Mary, you may be asking who is Sybil Ludington? Sybil was a heroine of the American Revolutionary War. Daughter of Colonel Henry Ludington, Sybil rode through the night of April 26th, 1777 to alert rebel forces that the British were coming. Paul Revere’s ride may be better known, but 16-year old Sybil and her horse Star rode twice as far. That makes her a true heroine in my eyes.

Side-saddle riding has gained in popularity in the last few years. Groups of side-saddle riders may enjoy an afternoon hack together. Showing classes are seeing growing numbers. Some of it may be that Downton Abbey really did have an effect, or maybe it is just the sheer elegance of it that appeals to ladies of all ages, everywhere. 

See more of Victoria Chatham's books here: and find her on

The date on Victoria Chatham’s driver’s licence says one thing but this young-at-heart grandma says another. Now retired, she writes historical romance and reads anything that catches her interest, especially historical and western romances. She loves all four-legged critters, particularly dogs, but is being converted into a cat lover by Onyx, an all black mostly Manx cat who helps her write. However, it’s her passion for horses that gets her away from her computer to trail ride and volunteer at Spruce Meadows, a world class equestrian center near Calgary, Alberta, where she currently lives.

She loves to travel and spends as much time as she can with her family in England.