Riding Aside Across Colorado
by Diane Whiteside
When I set out to write THE SOUTHERN DEVIL, I knew Morgan and Jessamyn would be racing the villains to find the buried Spanish gold. Racing, in fact, from Denver and across the Colorado Rockies, covering approximately 350 miles through a broad valley and some of the roughest, most remote country in America. Thanks to Morgan working for a California outfit, they’re using very high-tech pack animals – mules equipped with aparejos, which can carry more and travel longer and more sure-footedly than horses. On the other hand, the villains are entirely equipped with horses. THE SOUTHERN DEVIL is set very specifically in the summer of 1872, before mules equipped with aparejos had given Crook the edge in capturing Geronimo.
Jessamyn is going to have to ride over extremely difficult terrain, in order to keep up with ex-cavalrymen who are traveling as fast as they "safely" can and still race. So who’s Jessamyn?
She’s a Southern belle, born and raised in a horse-loving Tennessee family. She’s the widow of an Army officer, who served on the extremely violent Kansas frontier and encouraged her love of riding. Given the lack of other occupations, many Army wives competed in riding and sharpshooting at this time. Their fond husbands enjoyed bragging rights for their successes.
Army wives who were expert horsewomen were expected to be able to ride out on patrol with their husband to a distant post. At the end of a long day’s ride, their husband and his men would relax. But the wife would be invited to a ball, thrown by the post’s lonely officers and men. Thus, an Army wife was expected to be able to ride all day like a trooper – and then dance all night. In token of such expertise, they wore a riding habit cut and styled just like their husband’s uniform, down to matching the fabric.
What kind of horse does Jessamyn have? The most likely horses for her – again, on the Colorado frontier in 1872 – are a Morgan or a mustang, which would have been very close in size to what we know as a Barb, not today’s mustang. (The Federal government later released thoroughbred stallions amongst mustang herds to increase the horses’ size.) The best horse would have been a Morgan, which is very good in mountains and was readily available back then.
Morgan could have found a thoroughbred for her but it wouldn’t have been the best for the very difficult rocky terrain ahead. Even if he had done so, her backup horse would have been a Morgan or a mustang, given the greater availability of those breeds. But Morgans and mustangs are noticeably smaller and rounder than thoroughbreds and can’t use the same sidesaddle.
But could Jessamyn have found a useful sidesaddle?
The "tree" is the skeleton of a saddle, around which everything is built. For sidesaddle riding, the tree must fit the horse in all dimensions – barring luck and an extremely skillful groom close at hand – or there will be a very unhappy horse. As in, he may express by immediately bucking off the lady. Happily, the converse is also true. Some horses find the perfect sidesaddle so delightful that they take to it immediately, happily perplexing all viewers.
Americans bought sidesaddles from either the eastern United States or London. The best were London-made, whether commercially-made or custom-made. Eastern-made saddles were generally copies of London-made saddles.
However, London-made sidesaddles had one big advantage: they were safer, since they had a breakaway stirrup, invented in 1850. If the rider fell, the inner stirrup would spring free and the foot would slip out. (This only worked on sidesaddles, since the lady’s skirt protected the mechanism, which tended to attract mud.) American-made sidesaddles didn’t start incorporating safety features such as this – or the breakaway stirrup leather – until the beginning of the twentieth century.
Given that most people lived in cities, most commercial sidesaddles were built for city women – and their thoroughbred horses and their placid streets. The most widely available sidesaddle at this time– as it had been for the past 150 years – was extremely narrow in the tree and lacked a leaping horn. Leaping horns were a fairly newfangled invention – first appearing around 1830 – and ensured that the rider’s right leg remained in the saddle, even if the horse leaped over a fence.
This saddle would not fit the horses most available to Jessamyn, nor would it be suitable for the countryside she was about to risk her life riding across. (If I could have just slipped the date of my book back by a few years to 1874 or so, she could have ridden a fine American-made sidesaddle from the Gathright family in Kentucky, which would certainly have fit a Morgan or mustang. On the other hand, it probably wouldn’t have had a breakaway stirrup. Argh!)
When I found that out, I begged Jessamyn to reconsider and accept riding astride. She was adamant. She was a perfect lady, in contrast to the villainess. She would maintain the distinction in her traveling method.
Wonderful. I did a serious amount of banging my head against the keyboard at this point.
Then I remembered those competitive Army officers. And I wondered exactly when and how Empress Elizabeth of Austria had gained a reputation as such a superb rider. And I started to smile. You’ll have to read THE SOUTHERN DEVIL to learn my solution.
A few books I found useful:
The Fair Lady Aside by Mary L. Thomas, illustrated by Linda Knudsen
The Western Side Saddle, written and illustrated by Rhonda C. Watts
The Sidesaddle Legacy: How to Ride Aside the American Way by Martha Coe Friddle and Linda A. Bowlby, illustrated by Sandi John Petrie
Manual of Pack Transportation by H.W. Daly, Chief Pack Master of the United States Cavalry (originally published in 1908)