Riding Sidesaddle: Why Not Face the World Head-on?
Updated: May 4
In Dear Maude, Emily Stanton’s training involves the popular pursuits of a 1910 lady of society, including riding sidesaddle. For those who aren’t familiar with this style of riding, it involves the use of a special saddle to sit aside rather than astride a horse. In other words, the rider's legs stay on one side of the horse. Wait, what?
Yes, it's true. Instead of riding the horse as one would a bicycle, the rider keeps her legs to one side. It sounds both uncomfortable and nerve-racking, as controlling the horse would be very difficult without the proper saddle and training. Believe it or not, however, riding sidesaddle was actually popular for centuries.
The history of this practice dates back to ancient times even before a saddle was created for the purpose. Women would sit sideways on the horse, facing out instead of forward, with their feet on a footrest. Sitting in such a way didn’t allow women to control the horse but to ride as passengers or to be led. It also allowed them to display their gowns and maintain their modesty while wearing a dress. (So, rather than have a woman straddle the horse and be perceived as immodest, she was forced to face sideways and risk slipping off. Hmm...) Although not all women bought into this practice, many did, and it continued to evolve as new saddle designs were introduced that offered forward facing positions with more control.
In the 1830s, the two pommel saddle came on the scene. In this design, while facing forward, the rider places her right leg around an upright pommel, which supports the right thigh, and the lower part of the right leg rests along the horse’s left side, up against the second pommel. The second pommel curves over the top of the rider’s left leg at the thigh, and the rider places her left foot in a single stirrup below. A cane or whip is held in the off (right) hand in place of the right leg to offer assistance in cueing rather than punishing the horse. The saddle must be fitted for both horse and rider and offers a second strap beneath the horse to hold it in place. This design offers added stability and is still in use today. In fact, women are able to use this saddle to not only ride more securely but to jump as well.
In addition to the saddle, women’s riding habits evolved over time from a fitted jacket, blouse, and a long skirt, which could get caught if the woman fell from the horse, to a safety skirt or sidesaddle apron that wrapped around a pair of breeches. These skirts would become detached if the woman fell from the horse and spare her from being dragged to her death. Eventually, the skirt was replaced by the split-skirt and eventually breeches. Women also wore hats, such as top hats with veils; gloves; and low-heeled boots.
Since Emily doesn’t have prior equestrian experience, she has her work cut out for her. Not only does she have to learn how to control a horse, but she must learn to do it aside while wearing a bulky riding habit and riding corset. Regardless, this is something Emily masters. Without this skill, she might not be a convincing match for her future husband, Dell, in Dear Maude nor would she be able to escape her lot in life—if only for a few hours—by riding astride through the desert in Forever Maude.
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Sources: Although this post is based on my opinion and/or experience, I consulted this article for some of the historical dates and details.
Also, here’s a great video.
Next time, I’ll explore the Spencerian Script—a style of writing Emily uses in her Dear Maude journal.