When I researched the history of sidesaddles I believed I’d be writing about the mechanical changes to women’s “saddles” or so called saddles…a tweak here, a foot board there, an extra horn tacked someplace else…simple stuff! Well, my eyes were opened wide.
The history of the sidesaddle unearths a load of social and political issues with the sidesaddle itself becoming a much disliked symbol of the social, political and equestrian domination of the fairer sex that women were ready to fight and ride against. These ladies of the late 19th and early 20th century, and indeed some famous ones centuries before, refused to bend to the wishes of men and the emancipation of women, the suffragette movement, and the right to vote were key issues.
Before the 14th century, the first “sidesaddle” was a pillow strapped to the back of a man’s saddle. This was called a pillion, and the woman had to sit sideways on the horse and was led by a man or boy. Later a saddle with a foot rest and back rest were developed called a “planchette” and this too had my fair lady sitting sideways. Later a horn was added and the famous Catherine de Medici is credited with adding a second horn for stability also offering the rider the ability to face forwards. The leaping horn was added in the 1800s by Frenchman Jules Pellier and this allowed ladies to enter the hunting field and jump.
When Central Asian women wanted to ride for fun, sport or for war, they rode astride like their comrades and brothers while the Mongolians, Hawaiians and the Comanches viewed their ladies riding astride with pride. Greek toga attired men were stunned at the daring exploits and riding abilities of “amazon” lady riders who wore pants and rode astride!
The free thinking Wife of Bath from Canterbury Tales made lengthy journeys astride in Chaucer’s time with whip and spurs around the 1200s and Joan of Arc rode astride in armour. Yet while clothes became more elaborate and therefore restricted movement, they were not the reason behind the invention of sidesaddle riding. That can be credited to a Royal Princess.
For the Royal European households, delivering a virgin bride to her future husband was of the ultimate importance and riding sideways was one way of keeping a certain part of the royal female anatomy intact. When Princess Anne of Bohemia traveled to England to wed King Richard II in 1382 she was transported in a chair-like affair that was based on a packsaddle design. There was a wooden plank to support her feet and she could grip the mane if needed. As author CuChullaine O’Reilly FRGS noted in her article Sidesaddles and suffragettes – the fight to ride and vote, “The reins, both of personal power and individual equestrian control, had been taken away by men who now restricted a woman’s political and equestrian destinies.”
Over the next two centuries the sidesaddle became the accepted and proper method of equestrian travel for women; riding astride was not something a lady would do. In fact, it would have been considered a punishable offence. However, not everybody subscribed to sidesaddle riding and Catherine the Great of Russia (1729 – 1796) who didn’t care two hoots what people thought about her rode astride and ordered her court to do the same.
In Part II we look at how the sidesaddle was phased out but years later saw a come back that is the epitome of elegance!