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 All of Judy's saddles were Western and were all originally made between 1880 and 1910.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?
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.