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17 March 2008

The Quick Guide to Riding Aside

I confess that I'm not a big fan of horses. I can take them or leave them. Whenever I write a scene with horses, I find myself at a loss. I'm much more interested in researching historical dress, or societal trends, or even the history of finances.

Recently I decided to tackle a bit of research into women and horseback riding during the Regency. I wasn't able to find one source that answered all of my questions (although I'm sure one exists), but I was able to pull together some information from assorted research books that I already had. That's my M.O. as a writer – learn just enough to make the scene believable, and don't spend time reading huge treatises on the topic.

Modes of dress and standards of modesty affected every aspect of a woman's life during the Regency. Nowhere is this more apparent than when a woman rode a horse. Riding "aside," known more familiarly today as riding side saddle, was the only accepted way for a Regency lady to sit a horse. Not only was it considered immodest to ride astride (possibly exposing your lower limbs), but riding astride was also considered dangerous for women who were petite or less athletic. It takes strong legs to stay in a saddle, particularly an English saddle (which lacks the convenient horn of Western saddles). Ladies were thought to lack the athletic ability to ride astride safely.

To ride aside, a lady would place her right leg in a U-shaped ridge on the top the saddle, hooked behind a horn on the side. The left foot would be in a stirrup that was positioned much higher than the stirrup on a regular saddle. Contrary to what I've read in a few manuscripts, the hips and upper body would face forward, even though the legs were positioned to one side.

To control a horse while riding astride, you use both legs to squeeze the horse's sides. Ladies riding aside had both legs on one side of the horse, so they had to hold a riding crop in their right hands, point it backwards to the midsection of the horse, and press down with it to mimic the squeeze of a right leg.

A few factoids about riding sidesaddle --

The first known side saddle was invented by a woman circa 1390. So was the second major improvement to the side saddle – in the 16th century, Catherine de Medici invented the positioning of the pommel that held a woman's right leg, and the side horn that secured the leg in position.

A still more advanced design with two pommels was invented in 1830. (Queen Victoria's saddle, pictured at left, is one of this design). Until that revolutionary addition, women who rode aside were usually limited to a walk or a trot. During the pre-Victorian and Regency era, going faster than a trot was for only the most experienced horsewomen, which prevented the vast majority of ladies from riding to the hounds or taking jumps. Only the most experienced horsewomen of the Regency dared take a jump while riding aside.

Horses were specially trained to take a rider aside, and grooms had to ride side saddle to keep the horses broken to the special balance and motion of the side saddle.

Riding side saddle fell out of favor in the 1930's and disappeared for several decades. In the 1970s, equestrians took up the side saddle. Today there are several societies devoted to riding side saddle (often in Victorian costume) and equestrian competitions hold events for riders seated aside.

There you have it – Doreen's quick and not-so-comprehensive guide to riding aside in the Regency. I'd love to hear any comments, though I don't have any clever questions to ask.

11 Comments:

Anonymous Sarah said...

Hi, very fun post:)

If you ever need more information of horses or side saddle riding, I would suggest either contacting the United States Equestrian Federation, or the International Side Saddle Organization. Horse people are a great lot, and quick to share knowledge. As you said, research books often have incomplete (and often incorrect) knowledge.

A few misnomers exist in most research about riding in general, and they tend to drive horse people nuts (trust me, there is a 20+ page thread on an equestrian forum, related specifically to horse related mistakes in novels and movies ;) ).

The big one is that strength is applied over balance .

The 2nd (though you have it correct) is that women faced the side. That syle was known as pillion and existed only until the CDM style saddle was invented. Until that time, a woman needed a groom to walk her horse while she rode, or a man sitting in front of her. In Modern (Post CDM) SS, the woman faces shoulders and hips forward :)

Just a little extra about side saddle riding. At least in the victorian era, there was a prevailing belief that riding Astride could cause fertility issues, and that riding astride for a woman was sometimes considered immoral because of a belief that women gain *ahem* pleasure from doing so (That old wives tale cracks me up every time, lol).

Riding at speed and over fences was forbidden more for the reason that side saddles were death traps, than that women lacked strength or balance. Riding astride, a man would usually (not always though)be thrown clear in an accident. A woman riding side saddle would be hung up in the saddle. The saddle invented by CDM (and then revamped into the one shown) actually locked a womans leg into that position. Being thrown (or falling) hurts, but getting caught in the saddle can kill.

Side saddle fell by the way side in the 1930's because of the popularity of jumping competitions. Then the SS was revamped again (as were most saddles, in the 1970's), the leg horn was made shallower, so that the leg rests on it, but is not locked into position. The seat was also flatter. With these changes, a woman could get her leg out of that position easily in case of emergency. Today, SS is gaining some popularity, and there are a few classed available at national competitions. It is always lovely to watch (I'll see if I can find some pictures for everyones amusement.)

11:22 AM  
Anonymous Ciara Stewart said...

That's really interesting - I had no idea *anyone* rode side saddle in modern times. I've read some Regency novels where women are riding side saddle and jumping over fences and whatnot - is this historically accurate? Did the side saddle of that time give enough balance and control for complicated maneuvers? Thanks!

Ciara Stewart

4:07 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post! Doreen, I always worry about getting details about horses and riding right too. Fortunately, I have a good friend and fellow writer who has her own horse (and her husband teaches riding) so when she reads my manuscripts I have her double-check horse and riding related details. I took riding lessons for a few years, age 10-11ish, and I always wanted to ride side saddle because I loved historical novels and movies and it seemed so elegant. Interestingly, I recently saw an exhibit about Marie Antoinette at the Trianon that included a painting of her riding a astride in breeches.

6:40 PM  
Anonymous Sarah said...

Oh yes, women can and do jump side-saddle. Historically women did hunt but it was sometimes frowned upon. It seems that this was more because the boys sometimes felt like their fun was limited by having ladies around (racing and hunting are traditionally an old boys club). Once actual hunt clubs were organized it depended on the Master of the Fox Hunt (MFH), who is sort of like club president. First recognized MFH was Hugo Meynell in 1753 :) The modern sidesaddle did not change the use of balance so much as it was just made a bit safer.

I was going to post some pictures but they won't work, but these two organizations have fun photo galleries

American Sidesaddle Association (check out photo Gallery :) )
http://www.americansidesaddleassociation.org/

http://www.minnesotasidesaddle.com/index.htm

6:46 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

Terrific research, Doreen! Actually I did ride sidesaddle as a young girl and managed to jump hedges while doing so. I lived in a little village in Suffolk and the master of the local hunt club owned the stables where I had my first job. (I was all of 9 years old the first time I rode to the hounds!) The sidesaddle thing was something I learned from the two sweet little old ladies who lived next door to us. They had a three stall stable at the bottom of their garden and had two magnificent hunter jumpers.

I will confess that my most vivid memory of riding aside was one of sheer terror! Going over a hedge like that was one of the scariest things I have ever done. The funny thing? The only times I ever fell or was pitched over a fence was when I was riding astride!

7:01 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Oh, my favorite topic, Doreen. I carry a camera whenever we go museum treking or to the California missions---it is amazing where vintage side saddles turn up--oft neglected and dusty, but still beautiful.

And someday, I would love to dress up in a real Victorian riding habit and ride across the countryside...that's the romance writer in me. ;-) Not the sane, horsebacking riding person!

9:49 PM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

Thanks, everyone! Sarah, I appreciate your comments. One of the problems I've had with contacting side saddle riding associations is that most of them know the Victorian saddle or the modern saddle, not the Regency saddle.

Regarding hunting and jumping, there is a vast difference between a "modern" (post Victorian) side saddle and the ones of the Regency era. Only the best horsewomen of the Regency could ride well enough in the side saddle of that time period to canter (go faster than a trot) or take jumps. After the safer, two-pommel side saddle was invented, it became much easier for women to hunt and ride fast.

I found it interesting that horses had to be trained to carry a rider side saddle. I grew up with horses (all of my neighbors had them, but I never had one of my own) but it never occured to me that a horse would feel the difference between a side saddle and a regular saddle.

1:12 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Extremely educational, Doreen! I've never seen a side saddle up close and personal, so your photo of Queen Victoria's is the closest I've ever gotten to seeing how one really looked. I'm still stymied as to how the woman's leg rested safely and comfortably in the U-shaped brace while she had voluminious petticoats and skirts on -- all that fabric in the way and no room to put it anywhere. I know that the skirts of riding habits were asymmetrical and the fabric cascaded down the horse's left flank -- but I'm still wondering about all those underskirts and how the woman's leg could rest in the brace.

7:38 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

The claim that the third horn (the "leaping horn" as it is now known) wasn't invented until 1830 is somewhat questionable. The "French Horn", which is identical, was in use in the late 18th century, but the design was popularized in the 1830s. Knowing this, I gave such a saddle to my heroine in LORD SIN, cause I knew she was going to be riding to hounds with the boys . . .

I haven’t ridden aside since I was eight (and still made of rubber) but it was great fun!

8:24 AM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

Hi Kalen,

All of the documented sources I found said that Jules Pellier invented the two-pommel side saddle in 1830, though of course he could have simply been the first person to think about patenting or marketing it. It's certainly believable that an avid horsewoman might have had one earlier.

6:13 PM  
Blogger Hippidion said...

Hi Doreen,
Jules Pellier jr. wrote in his book 'La selle et le costume de l'Amazone' that his father didn't invent the leaping horn. It is a great book on saddles and habits. It is a pity, that the chapters on the history of side saddle riding are just inaccurate sentimental rubbish.
Women did jump in pre-19th.century side-saddles. It is a little known fact, that since the renaissance side-saddles had leather straps to secure the thighs of the rider. Very dangerous, but probably as effective as the leaping horn. The earliest picture I've got of these 'safety-belts' dates from the first decade of the 16.th century. Ever since I`ve found that picture, I've asked myself if the thigh-belts of the regency riding-habits had just the function to keep the amazons modest, or if they where attached to rhe saddle to keep them safe while jumping.

3:02 PM  

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