Horses & Heels

Thursday, August 17, 2017 - 12:15pm
Tatum Holdener
Horses & Heels

For women, sitting aside on a horse dates back to antiquity. For the main part, men rode horses; women were just passengers, sitting behind the men, either holding the man around the waist or sitting on a small padded seat or pillion. This had to do with their long, heavy skirts and basically made it impractical to ride astride. Also riding side-saddle was seen to preserve the ladies’ modesty.

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The idea of it being improper for a lady to ride astride can be traced back to 1382. Riding sidesaddle was seen as a way to protect her purity. Soon it was considered vulgar for any woman to ride astride.

By the late Middle Ages, it had become obvious that for ladies to ride a horse, a saddle would have to be specially designed to allow the woman to control the horse but still maintain a proper level of decency. 

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The earliest functional sidesaddle was credited to Anne of Bohemia in the late 14th century. It was a chair-like seat, where the woman sat sideways on the horse with her feet on a footrest. 

Catherine de Medici is said to have developed a more practical design in the 16th century. Rather than keeping both feet placed side by side on the footrest, she placed her right leg over the pommel of the saddle, so as to show off her shapely ankle and calf to their best advantage.

Riding this way allowed the rider much more control of the horse and even allowed the rider to trot and canter safely.

Over time further adjustments were made ​​to the saddle, but it was the introduction of a second pommel in the 1830s that was revolutionary. This additional pommel gave women both increased security and additional freedom of movement when riding sidesaddle. This allowed them to stay on at a gallop and even to jump fences while hunting and show jumping, while still showing proper etiquette and modesty.

Photo credit: Pinterest

Photo credit: Pinterest

At this time it was only ladies of the higher social classes who rode.  Until the 1850s, riding and dance were the only socially acceptable physical activities for girls and women of the aristocracy and upper classes.

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By the Victorian era, the posture of a woman riding sidesaddle was very much as it is today. The rider sat astride, with the right hip back to allow the shoulders to fall into line. The right leg was placed on the front of the saddle, with the left leg bent and resting on the saddle and the foot in the slipper stirrup.

As for riding attire, it wasn’t until the late 16th century that a new style was specifically designed for riding sidesaddle. Before this time, women's day-to-day outfits were worn for riding.

The first ‘safety skirt’ was invented in 1875, to help prevent terrible accidents where women were caught by their skirts and dragged by their horses if they fell. These safety skirts buttoned along the seams and later developed into an apron skirt buttoned around the waist, just covering the legs (which were encased in breeches).

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In the early 20th century it became socially acceptable for women to ride astride while wearing split skirts or breeches, and the sidesaddle began to fall out of fashion. The rise of women’s suffrage also played a role; to the Suffragettes, riding side-saddle was a symbol of male domination. And so by 1930, riding astride had become totally acceptable and the preferred method of riding for women.

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