Since the premier of the British show Downton Abbey, sidesaddle riding has gained new interest in the equestrian world. When many people think of sidesaddle riding, they may imagine Victorian ladies with their frivolous gowns riding down the country road with their groomsman and dogs following behind doing nothing more than a walk. Downton Abbey shows some of the versatility and skill in sidesaddle riding, and the evolution of women riding on a horse. In Season 1, we saw Lady Mary participating in a foxhunt wearing a fitted riding habit, jumping over a fence, and galloping through mud to keep up with the men. You can read my post about this scene here: Downton Abbey - Equine Traditions from Fox Hunting. In Season 5, we see Lady Mary again riding in a sidesaddle, but this time racing in a point-to-point steeplechase in a more fitted tweed hunting habit. Watch the video below explaining the making of the point-to-point scene, and make sure to listen to the historian's comments in regards to sidesaddle riding.
Instead of reading about sidesaddle equitation, I decided to experience it for myself and speak with someone who has ridden in a sidesaddle for many years. I took a road trip out to Eastern Washington into the Palouse fields and met with Judy Hastings--Vice-President of the American Sidesaddle Association with 30 years sidesaddle equitation experience. She mainly travels within the Pacific Northwest teaching equestrians and horse enthusiasts about sidesaddle riding at clinics with her mule Atti-May. She also loves to participate in parades riding in one of her sidesaddles in period dresses she has sewn herself. Judy had agreed for me to come out to her farm and let me ride in a sidesaddle on her mule.
Judy first showed me some of her saddles. I always thought sidesaddles were only English, but saddle makers also made Western sidesaddles. All of Judy's saddles were Western and were all originally made between 1880 and 1910. When her saddles were built, their trees (the wooden skeleton of the saddle) were formed for horses with narrower backs. Many antique sidesaddles do not fit modern horses who tend to have broader backs than their pre-20th century ancestors. Also, these saddles were made for smaller ladies. A sidesaddle needs to fit the rider as well as the horse which is done by measuring from the rider's bend of the knee to the back of the tailbone in a sitting position. Antique sidesaddle seats are typically 18 inches, which typically fit women under 5'3", so finding an antique saddle that would fit a modern horse and rider today would be difficult. I am 5' 7" and my thigh length is about 21 inches, so the saddle was a little small for me.
Judy's husband, Dick, saddled up Atti-May with another Western saddle. Something interesting to notice about the saddle on Atti-May was the skirt was trimmed to the embroidery. Usually, the saddle skirt would have extended out further to protect the lady's legs from becoming sweaty against the horse. Judy believes the leather was cut and likely used to repair someone's leather shoes in the past, which was a common practice done if supplies and money were limited. Another feature to this saddle was the back cinch. This is called a balance strap and it is attached further back on the right side and comes under the horse and attaches right next to the front cinch. This helps keep the saddle from twisting and popping off the horse's back.
To mount, a lady traditionally needed a mounting box or a groomsman to kneel and offer his knee for her to step on. She'd placed her left foot in the stirrup, and gracefully pull herself up into the saddle, placing her right knee around the pommel while keeping her dress modestly draped over her legs and ankles. As a scandalous modern-day woman in breeches, I stepped onto a mounting block, and mounted as if I was about to ride astride, and then brought my right leg around the upper horn/pommel.
The groomsman would always tighten the cinch/girth on the horse's right side after the lady mounted so he would not need to lift up her dress, see her ankles, and break social conduct. Dick properly tightened from the right side keeping my honor intact; what a gentleman!
In the picture to the right, there were two horns/pommels on this sidesaddle. The lower one over my left leg was called a leaping head (also called a leaping horn or leaping pommel.) This was a safety device that rotated on my left thigh and acted as a brace. Leaping heads did not exist until the 19th century. Earlier saddles have only one pommel on the top to wrap the right leg around. To keep my left thigh snug against the leaping head, my left foot was placed in a high stirrup at about the same length as a huntseat stirrup. Then there was the upper horn/pommel that I wrapped my right leg around. My upper body faced forward as if I was riding astride, and my right thighbone lined up with Atti-May's neck which kept me square and centered. Now my feet position was a little awkward at first. I have been riding horses most of my life, so keeping my heels down has never been a problem for me. However, in a sidesaddle, I kept wanting to bring my heels up to push into the leaping head and lean into the upper horn/pommel. I just had to keep checking myself, but as I rode and began to trust the saddle, I became more relaxed and comfortable. I know if I had more practice, I could easily ride sidesaddle as well as if I was astride.
In regards to the bridle, the only different feature was the longer reins. Since the rider sits up higher on the horse, longer reins are needed. If you are familiar with riding in Western or Saddleseat, riding Sidesaddle is not that much different in terms of sitting up, keeping your hips vertical, and riding with longer reins. Huntseat riders who are accustomed to keeping their hips tilted forward would have more difficulty adjusting to the seat position.
The only major challenge I had riding Atti-May was posting at the trot. When posting in a sidesaddle, the rider does not lift from the stirrup since that causes imbalance and the saddle to slide left. The rider must grip with the right leg and roll the hips forward a bit, but never leave the saddle. It's half way between posting and sitting the trot. I used to ride an Arabian who had the choppiest trotting gait, and honestly, I have no idea if I could have successfully posted in a sidesaddle on him without bouncing all over his back.
I asked Judy if there was any special training for a horse to be ridden in a sidesaddle. Judy said any horse that is calm and confident would not have any issues with a sidesaddle. It usually only takes a horse about an hour to get accustomed to the rider's legs being on one side. Communicating gait transitions in a sidesaddle is what would take some time for the horse and rider to learn. Sidesaddle riders will usually hold a cane or crop in the right hand, which many riders will use to replace the right leg, but a horse can be trained to understand subtle weight shifts from the rider on when to transition into a walk, trot, or canter or change directions.
Okay, so you want to watch me ride sidesaddle for the first time? Watch the video below.
There were some (okay, many) moments in this video where I lost my center or did not have complete control, but I never felt like I was going to fall off. Instinctively, I would tighten my knees to grip the horns/pommels, keeping myself secure in the saddle. If you watched the first video of the point-to-point race in Downton Abbey, the historian spoke about how the ladies would stay on their horses better than the men. I can see how this was possible after riding in a sidesaddle with the leaping head to stabilize me.
Another question I had was why did sidesaddle equitation diminish and become unpopular? Back at the beginning of the 20th century during the women's suffrage movement, women wanted to ride astride just like men. They felt safer riding astride in breeches where they did not need to worry about dresses getting caught on the horns/pommels if they should fall. Also, sidesaddles were not always available in many areas. In order to push their cause, women burned their sidesaddles and protested how it was part of women's oppression. Sidesaddle riding fell out of favor and saddle makers stopped making them completely by the 1950s . It was not until the 1970s did a new interest in sidesaddle riding came around. Breed organizations started adding sidesaddle classes to their horse shows, celebrating the traditions of sidesaddle riding with their breeds. The International Sidesaddle Organization and the American Sidesaddle Association are two wonderful groups that can help anyone interested in learning to ride sidesaddle or offer information about the sidesaddle.
One of the last questions I asked Judy before my riding lesson ended: was there anything a sidesaddle rider can't do? She answered, "Rope cattle. There's no roping horn, but you can still drive cattle." I may need to have a few more lessons before I try and drive cattle in a sidesaddle.
Would you be interested in riding in a sidesaddle? Have you ever ridden in a sidesaddle? What was your experience like?
In the show Downton Abbey, there are a couple scenes over the seasons showing Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, and his oldest daughter Lady Mary Crawley hosting a fox hunt. First, a brief history about English fox hunting. English farmers would take their packs of dogs over the countryside to hunt foxes who threatened their livestock. It was not until the 18th-century when an aristocrat named Hugo Meynell bred hounds specifically for hunting foxes and used horses for the chase across the English countryside. Foxhunting then became a popular sport for the rural aristocracy. While fox hunting has been banned in most of Britain due to concerns in regards to animal cruelty and property trespass, the equitation skills and traditions still live on and are celebrated in English riding disciplines and competitions today.
First, let’s look at the coats worn by the hunters. Watch this scene and pay attention to the colors and the number of buttons on each character's coat. Downton Abbey Fox Hunting scene.
During the official fox hunting season starting in the autumn after the harvests, the riders wore melton coats - tightly woven wool coats with a smooth finish - that kept the riders warm and dry. The colors and number of buttons distinguished the staff and other participants in the party. The main hunting staff were the Master of Foxhounds, the Huntsman, and the Whips.
The Master of Foxhounds organized and directed the hunt. He would wear a scarlet, single-breasted coat with square corners and four brass buttons.
The Huntsman directed the hounds and carried a horn to communicate with the participants in the hunt while the Whips carried rope or leather whips, as you saw in the scene, to keep the hounds together. They all wore scarlet coats with round corners and five brass buttons. Gentlemen, such as Lord Grantham, could wear a scarlet coat or a black coat with three buttons, and ladies riding astride could wear a dark navy, grey, or black coat like Lady Mary. The hunting staff would wear bowler hats while the gentlemen could wear either a bowler hat or a top hat. Everyone would wear white stocks around their necks with a horizontal pin, tan or white breeches, and a black knee high boots. The stocks and pin could serve as a bandage for a wound or use as a sling if the rider was injured on the hunt. The knee high boots protected the lower legs from being scratched by bushes and brush. In modern competitions, hunt riders and jumpers will usually wear a black or navy coat typically with three buttons and a white shirt underneath with a high collar and pin.
It was not unusually to see ladies participate on the hunt with the gentlemen, but usually they rode in a sidesaddle. Watch this clip of Lady Mary in a sidesaddle: Downton Abbey - Lady Mary in habit.
Lady Mary was wearing a riding habit, which was a full length dress designed for riding in a sidesaddle. When the lady sat in the saddle, her dress bottom hem would hang horizontal and not slanted like a normal dress. In this clip, Lady Mary was also wearing a double-breasted, dark melton coat with a top hat and thin veil. Personally, I would not mind wearing a veil while galloping through the countryside as it would help keep the bugs out of my eyes and mouth. Women who ride sidesaddle in shows today still wear riding habits with top hats and a veil.
Horses and Equipment
There was no designated hunting horse breed, but a rider would want a horse that was athletic, sound, and obedient. Thoroughbreds or Thoroughbred-crosses were the most popular choices because of their stamina and ability to jump high, but ponies and even light draft breeds were used by hunters.
The saddles, called hunt seats or forward seats, position the rider to sit forward. Unlike other English saddles, the stirrups are shortened making a deeper bend in the rider's knees. This helped the rider to lift his or her weight out of the saddle into a "two-point contact" position - the rider’s legs are the only points of contact with the horse vs a "three-point contact" where the rider's buttocks are in the seat. The two-point position takes the rider's weight off the horse's back to allow the horse greater movement to run faster and jump higher. I grew up riding in a western saddle, so when I rode in a hunt saddle for the first time, I felt like I was perched on top of the horse and had to balance myself more, but I could tell how my horse did have more freedom to move. Hunter horses were ridden in a simple bridle and snaffle bit with one rein. Sometimes pelham bits, a combination of a snaffle and curb bit with double reins, were used on less experienced horses.
Watch this clip of Pamuk and Lady Mary going over a fence and through water: Downton Abbey - Pamuk and Lady Mary.
There were many obstacles throughout the English countryside for hunters to overcome, such as stone walls, wooden fences, hedges, ditches, logs, water, and uneven terrain. The horses had to be accustomed to these obstacles and trustful of their riders to lead them through. These equitation skills can still be seen in equestrian competitions today, such as cross-country equestrian eventing.
Some equestrian cross-country eventers write about their competitions and the challenges they and their horses face, such as amateur British equestrian Nicki Strong, author of Head Strong Equestrian. Check out her blog www.headstrongequestrian.com and her Facebook page Headstrong Equestrian to see all the amazing photos of her and her horses riding through courses that replicate the obstacles similar to the ones found in the English countryside.
Aspects in the fox hunting sport have changed in recent decades and there is still much active debate about the future of the sport, however, the equestrian skills and traditions that have developed in this sport are still seen and celebrated around the world in equine competitions, including the Olympics.
I am Amy. I love movies, TV, and horses. I grew up with horses and taught kids how to ride during my summer breaks from school. Now I am a country girl living in a city hoping to someday move back into a rural area and own a horse again.