Andrea here, My current work-in-progress—a fictional biography of Lady Hester Stanhope—has called for me to think about riding a horse—or more specifically, about how ladies of the Regency era rode a horse. Lady Hester was a “neck and leather” rider, which in Regency cant means she was a superb horsewoman who loved galloping at a devil-may-care pace across the countryside.
And that was no easy feat, considering that it was considered scandalous for a lady to ride astride. Lady Hester, who broke most every rule in the book regarding feminine deportment, didn’t pay much attention to that limitation. And the fact that she had a special skill for breaking ornery horses to saddle made the neighboring gentlemen very willing to turn a blind eye on her wearing breeches and boots because she helped them with their difficult mounts.
But most ladies of the era didn’t possess such skills, or such practical neighbors, and so were consigned to perching themselves on a side-saddle. So I thought I would do a quick dive down the research rabbit hole to look at the history of this contraption.
According to historic-uk.com, the taboo against women riding astride stems from 1382, when Princess Anne of Bohemia journeyed from her homeland to England for her marriage to King Richard II. She rode side-saddle in order to preserve her “virginity.” (Cough, cough.) From that time on, it was deemed horribly unfeminine for any proper lady to sit astride a horse. (This, of course, applied mostly to aristocratic ladies. Women of the working classes were not subjected to such impractical rules!)
The earliest side-saddles, created in the late 14th century, were basically chairs that allowed a lady to sit sideways on a horse, with her legs supported by a footrest. But by the 16th century, the first iteration of the side-saddle as we know it today came into being. Yet another apocryphal story holds that Catherine de Medici wanted to show off her shapely ankle and calf, so hitched a leg up around a regular saddle’s pommel. As it became clear that such a maneuver allowed ladies to exercise some control over their horse, as well as have stability, the side-saddle began to evolve.
A large pommel on the side of the saddle was designed so that lady could lock her leg around it and have have far more control of her body and her horse. By the 1830s, a second pommel was added for additional stability, allowing ladies to jump stone walls and fences without the constant fear of falling to their death.
It was in Victorian times that the design was refined to pretty much what we have now, including a “slipper stirrup.” However at the beginning of the 20th century, ladies began to rebel against the centuries-old restriction on their freedom to ride astride. The Suffragettes denounced the side-saddle as a symbol of male domination, and by the 1930s it was considered perfectly proper for a lady don snug-fitting breeches and to ride astride. (Lady Hester would approve!)
A lady’s riding clothes went through similar refinements over the years. In Regency times, riding habits were made with less voluminous skirts than normal fashions in order to prevent dangerous accidents. Later in the century, the first “safety skirt” was invented in 1875. It had a series of buttons on the seam that allowed the masses of fabric to be further shortened.
I took riding lessons as a kid and loved wearing my jodhpur pants and boots. As I was a tomboy and disliked skirts in general, I would have been appalled at the idea of trying to gallop with trail of fabric flapping in the wind.
It’s good to see that the rules for ladies on horseback have come full circle back to a practical and sensible way of riding—though even in our modern times, I did hear those nervous whispers about girls needing to be “careful” about bouncing in a saddle.
Are you a rider? Have you ever ridden side-saddle? If so, what did you think? I’ve never tried it, but I’m pretty sure that I would agree with Lady Hester and prefer boots and breeches!