Frock Flicks note: This is a guest post by Deb Fuller. She’s a horse-crazy independent costume historian in the Washington, DC, area. She started riding at 9 and hasn’t stopped, nearly 40 years later.
Sidesaddle, where to start? Like all things historical, sidesaddle riding on the screen is often inaccurate or used for effect. The simple summary is that women rode either aside or astride or both throughout different time periods in history. How they rode and what they wore while riding depended on who they were and what they were doing. Attire specifically for riding started in the 17th century and eventually evolved into the sidesaddle habits worn today.
A note before we start off — films use “modern” sidesaddles like everyone else who rides sidesaddle these days. The reason is that older saddles are rare and usually aren’t in any condition to be used without extensive refurbishing. Older sidesaddles are also often too narrow for today’s horses or were made for donkeys. “Modern” is in quotes because these saddles were usually made from 1900ish to the 1950s(ish). With good care, these saddles last literally 100 years or more because they are made that well. The best leather I have ever seen was on my 1920s Whippy sidesaddle. It was like butter. A few companies make quality sidesaddles today but the rest are cheaply made, won’t fit any horse, and aren’t safe. Sadly, there are few independent sidesaddle makers and saddle fitters/repair people around today so if anyone wants a new profession, this would be a good one. You’ll have plenty of work too.
Women Riding in Ancient Times
Let’s start out with one of my favorite movies, Wonder Woman. Yes, it’s a superhero movie but the Amazons are based off of the mythological Amazons, ancient enemies of the Greeks. Movie Amazons apparently have saddles and stirrups, which didn’t exist at the time. I’m okay with that because I am not going to nitpick a movie interpretation of a mythological tribe of women.
The images you see of women riding in the ancient world are often these legendary Amazons, who were thought to come from the area around Scythia. On this water bowl, the Amazons are on the left with the one in front riding the horse. They are battling Greek hoplites (foot soldiers) on the right.
From what I have researched, women in ancient Greece and Rome did not ride horses or just sat sideways and were led. And like most time periods, horses specially for riding were only for people wealthy enough to afford them. In ancient Rome, the equites, or equestrian class, were part of the lower aristocracy right below the senators. They were often military officers and have been equated to knights in the middle ages — aka people wealthy enough to be able to have their own horses so that they could ride with their troops instead of having to walk.
The Romans got Epona, the goddess of horses, from the Celts, which is where the Romans also got the saddle. Note that saddles at this time didn’t have stirrups. Epona, being a goddess, doesn’t need a saddle.
Verdict on ancient times: Women didn’t ride unless you were a goddess or a mythological Amazon.
Women Riding in the Middle Ages(ish)
One of the common tropes in movies is seeing women riding aside during time periods where they wouldn’t have been. Apparently some production designers think that if women have long skirts and dresses, there’s no way they could straddle a saddle, right? Take Queen Guinevere in Excalibur for example:
Guinevere in First Knight, doesn’t have this issue and just plopped on the horse behind Richard Gere, skirts be damned. You do you, girl.
An oft repeated “fact” in the sidesaddle world is that in the late 1300s, Anne of Bohemia rode sidesaddle from her home to England to preserve her virginity for her future husband, Richard II. I assume that she just rode to a ship that would take her across the channel because riding across the entire English channel would have been … awkward. I cannot find an actual academic citation about her riding sidesaddle. Linking riding astride to preserving virginity is a whole dissertation in and of itself too. But during the later middle ages, you do see images of women riding both astride and aside.
In August from Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry), there is a hunting party with both men and women. One woman rides astride, carrying a falcon on her wrist, and two others sit behind a man on a pillow, known as a pillion. Hunting was a popular pastime for the well-to-do and included women riders. Now mind you, during this time, hunting for the nobility was riding on manicured paths through the woods behind professional hunters with their hounds. Sometimes they chased after their falcons or hawks but let’s be honest, the birds are doing all the work here. Hunting was a social occasion rather than a subsistence activity.
The Canterbury Tales gives us another look at women riding during this time. Both the Prioress and the Wife of Bath ride but not in the same way. The Wife of Bath is clearly “an independent woman who don’t need no man.” She’s astride and wears a durable overskirt along with expensive scarlet stockings and fine leather shoes and spurs. She’s not only an experienced traveler, but someone who has experience in the world … ahem cough five marriages cough.
The Prioress, on the other hand, is described as dainty and well-bred but also wearing fine clothes and jewelry. The illustration of her in the Ellesmere Manuscript from 1410 shows her riding sideways, contrasting with the Wife of Bath. We can’t really tell on what type of saddle or padding. It’s probably on a regular saddle or padded up regular saddle as her horse has the same breeching (straps on the back of the horse) as the Wife of Bath. The Prioress is making a show of being humble and demure, as a nun should be, but she’s a raging anti-semite and all around horrible human being.
Elenor of Aquitaine in the upcoming Glow and Darkness, would probably be period acceptable riding astride if it wasn’t for all of the WTF with everything about her. I’m going to stop there before I get side-tracked and rant.
Verdict on sidesaddle the Middle Ages: Both, it depends. But there’s not a lot of evidence that true sidesaddles did not exist during this time period.
Riding in the Renaissance and Early Baroque Period
Here is where you start seeing saddles meant to be ridden aside. Catherine de Medici, wife of Henry II, is thought to have inspired the first true sidesaddle in the early 1500s. Early sidesaddles were like a chair built on top of a regular saddle tree with a foot rest hung from the saddle. Ladies would sit sideways on the horse and have to twist to use the reins or have someone lead the horse. After the sidesaddle improved to allow ladies to face forward while riding, the chair type sidesaddle continued to be used through the 1800s by some ladies.
The sidesaddle pictured here was identified on an auction site as an early 19th-century Spanish sidesaddle and it is basically the same type of saddle from the Renaissance. Note that the “seat belt” isn’t to keep the lady in the saddle but to keep her skirts from blowing around.
Queen Elizabeth I was an avid rider who loved hunting. She rode both astride and aside. An illustration of the Queen hunting in G. Tuberville’s The Book of Hunting from 1592, shows the queen’s horse behind her. I’m pretty sure that is a sidesaddle because she’s wearing a farthingale and straddling a horse in that would be awkward. I also think she’s standing in front of the foot rest.
In 1588, Queen Elizabeth addressed her troops at Tilbury before they fought the Spanish Armada. Several biographers noted that she wore white velvet with a silver cuirass and was riding a white horse. Historian Susan Frye points out that no reliable eyewitness accounts exist of that speech. Furthermore, the painting, Elizabeth at Tilbury in St Faith’s Church, Gaywood, which has a copy of her speech written underneath it, is now thought to have been painted in the early 17th century and not in 1588. Regardless, Cate Blanchett is channeling way too much Joan of Arc in The Golden Age, wearing a full suit of armor. I really want her to tie back her hair because no one with long hair who is the least bit sensible is going to let it blow around in the wind like that. So. Many. Tangles.
This scene also touches upon another pet peeve of mine — horses that don’t stand still. Any horse that Queen Elizabeth (past or present) rides is going to be the most obedient, well-trained horse in all existence. It’s also obvious from the scene that Blanchett is making the horse move around for dramatic effect. I don’t understand this. Who wants to give a speech and have to deal with their horse dancing around? Just stand there and speak. Yeesh.
Moving on through the 1600s, sidesaddles gained a set of “horns” or “pommels” at the front of the saddle. These saddles are still essentially an astride saddle with the extra pommels but it allowed a lady to hook her right leg over one of the pommels and face forward. This was a much more secure seat, while still accommodating voluminous skirts. This style of saddle, with its distinctive slipper stirrup, was used well into the 1800s.
An Aside on Women’s Riding Habits
The late 1600s is when specialized riding attire developed. Hunting started to venture out from the carefully manicured pathways and fields of noble estates and spread out to the countryside. Riders needed sturdy clothing that resisted mud, dirt, horse sweat, brushes, and brambles. Women modeled their habits after men’s clothing with carefully tailored jackets and wool skirts. They also lost a few layers of underskirts and sometimes wore trousers under their skirts. Tailor’s took commissions for women’s habits, though women would make their own as well. Summer habits could be of linen or cotton, while melton wool was the fabric of choice for the rest of the year. Women still use melton wool for their formal sidesaddle habits and let me tell you, they are freaking HOT! One of the big sidesaddle shows is the first weekend in June in Upperville, VA, and it’s never cool enough to be comfortable in a wool habit. Maybe that’s why it is called “melt-ton,” because you’re melting when you wear it. Get it? MELT-ton. I crack myself up.
Back to the topic at hand, using military styles in riding habits was popular in the 1700s and 1800s, especially if the lady had a relative in the military. A well-known portrait from Georgian-era is Lady Seymour Worsley. Her habit is modeled after the uniform of her husband’s regiment.
Riding habits were also used as traveling clothing as they were sturdy, comfortable outfits that would resist the dust from the road. The Aunts from Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006) are dressed in riding habits for their journey to France. And do I spy some Friesians in the back? Imagine that.
I’m pretty impressed with the aunts’ habits. It’s obvious that they were modeled off of original habits of the time. For more about riding habits, see Frock Flick’s Top 5 Riding Habits.
Verdict: From here on out it’s all sidesaddle.
Women Riding from 1700 Through the Regency
Back in the saddle — from the late 1600s is when you see women exclusively riding aside. There are caricatures of women riding astride and the odd portrait of a noblewoman in men’s clothing on a horse as with Marie Antoinette, but those aren’t reflective of the real world. (And yes, there are a few, let me repeat few historical accounts of women riding astride like a midwife who had to get out to a birth, didn’t have a sidesaddle horse and rode astride. But these are again, exceptions, not the rule.)
American Girl, Felicity, apparently didn’t get the memo about riding aside. The first scene of her movie, she is galloping off on her father’s horse for fun. This is the “tomboy girl rides horses” trope at its finest. Felicity’s hair is all wispy under her cap and she’s riding astride in her yellow day dress. Apparently she rides a lot in this movie but this scene was so cringey that I noped out after 10 minutes into it. The ironic thing is that the Felicity doll apparently has a sidesaddle outfit but it’s never used in the movie.
Moving into the Regency, in the 1995 Sense and Sensibility, Emma Thompson confidently rides aside so all she has to worry about is why she’s in that outfit. It’s not period and I have many questions about her hat. Like “why?” And “what was the costume designer thinking?” And “why do the rest of the outfits in the movie look pretty decent and then you go rogue?”
Something that was common but you almost never see on the screen is ladies riding donkeys. One of the reasons why it’s hard to find a usable sidesaddle before the 1900s is that many of the existing ones were made for donkeys and are too small and narrow for a horse. In Mrs. Hurst Dancing and Other Scenes from Regency Life: 1812-1823, artist Lady Diana Sperling painted several pictures of herself and her sisters riding on donkeys and horses. Her sister, Isabella, is usually seen tumbling off her donkey. Mrs. Hurst Dancing is a delightful book full of whimsical “slice of life” watercolors such as getting stuck in the mud while walking to the neighbors, tripping on the dance floor, and eating a big family dinner complete with the dog and the bird at the table.
Donkeys are going to donkey. Di and her sister Harriet are thwarted and have to turn back. You can see the forked pommels on the saddle and the little slipper stirrup.
Golf clap to Sanditon for putting the hypochondriac sister on a donkey while she “exercises” on the beach, but she would never straddle a donkey. Even more so if there was no saddle.
Pardon me while I sit on my fainting couch for a moment to recover from the horrors of the very idea. You see, women who ride astride are, how shall we put it, “loose women.” You get the idea in this cartoon from Punch magazine. ahem
Women Riding From the Mid-1800s to the Modern Era
In the 1830s, a French riding instructor, Jules Pellier, added a second pommel to the sidesaddle to add security for jumping. One story goes that he broke his leg jumping sidesaddle, which is how he came up with the idea. Oh, did I not mention that men also rode sidesaddle? They did and still do. War vets who lost limbs or had bad arthritis would often ride sidesaddle and, of course, male riding instructors who taught ladies would also ride sidesaddle.
During the mid-1800s to the late-1800s, you see a whole variety of sidesaddle designs from a three-pommel sidesaddle, one pommel sidesaddles, Western-style sidesaddles with one pommel, and two-pommel sidesaddles that start to resemble the modern sidesaddles of the 1900s.
Bonnie Blue, being a proper young lady, rides sidesaddle in her fancy blue habit. She’s adorable but, like adults, would not be riding in a velvet habit because all that nice velvet pile would get crushed from riding.
Near the turn of the 20th century, sidesaddles start using a second girth called a “balance girth.” This is a strap that goes from the back of the saddle on the right, diagonally under the horse and attaches to the left right in front of the regular girth. This extra strap helps keep the saddle balanced, especially while galloping and jumping.
Other safety features are developed as well such as a “safety skirt,” which has less fabric than a full skirt and a pocket for the right knee to make it hang straight. The safety skirt would eventually become a “safety apron,” which is still used today. On the ground, the apron wraps around the legs and buttons to look like a skirt. In the saddle, the apron drapes over the rider’s lap and over the right knee to look like a full skirt. The rider wears riding trousers underneath.
Downton Abbey helped revive sidesaddle riding with its hunting scenes. Fun fact: riders, both aside and astride, from the local hunt came out as extras for those shoots. Lady Mary rides sidesaddle in both formal hunt attire with her black habit and top hat, and informal riding attire with a tweed habit and derby. At the point-to-point race, she wears an informal habit with a man’s tie instead of a white stock tie. Lady Mary’s formal habit includes a veil over her face and top hat, which is hard to see in the pictures. Veils help keep your hat firmly on your head. For the race, she doesn’t have a veil so I’m assuming she is using a hat cord, especially since she is wearing a man’s tie, which is appropriate for that activity. Hat cords attach the hat to a button right inside the back of the collar to keep your hat from flying away if it gets knocked off of your head.
Downton Abbey did a great job with these scenes and showed the ladies keeping up over large brush jumps and slogging through the mud. Sidesaddles don’t slow anyone down. You can see why heavy melton fabrics are used for hunting attire to protect the riders from brambles and brush and repel mud and dirt.
In the final series of Downton Abbey, Mary loses a lot of her fucks and bobs her hair. She also rides astride like a liberated woman. Tally-ho Mary! We can thank the suffragists and their stick-it-to-the-patriarchy attitudes for the eventual decline of sidesaddle riding. As women bobbed their hair, got out to vote, joined the workforce, and started wearing trousers, they also started riding exclusively astride. Some ladies kept up the sidesaddle tradition, such as Queen Elizabeth and Princess Anne at the Trooping of the Colour, but the classic sidesaddle makers closed shop in the 1950s. cries
Today, sidesaddle is regaining popularity and can be found in practically every riding discipline. Women (and a few men) hunt, jump, do dressage, reining, barrel racing, eventing, endurance riding, and all sorts of other activities aside. You can also see sidesaddle demos at reenactments and living history museums, though like the movies, ymmv.
If this article has inspired you to get into sidesaddle riding, find a decent instructor who knows their stuff and will help you look for a saddle that fits you and your horse or has decent sidesaddle mounts to take lessons on. There are also many regional and sidesaddle groups that give clinics and lessons, have loaner saddles, and also deal in sidesaddles.
Hope you’ve enjoyed this look at historical horse stuff. Thanks to our several guest writers for their expertise, we’re done on that topic!