History of the sidesaddle


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Texts from Catherine Tourre-Malen

Rosine Lagier Collections

The Ladies’ Riding or the Importance of Propriety

Because of the prominence of the horse for transport in Europe before the industrial age, women, especially those of higher social strata, have always had access to horseback riding. To go on horseback, they could either straddle like men, or let both their legs down on one side of the horse. The latter position was spreading gradually, until it became the only supposable position for a woman to sit on a horse. Originally rudimentary, the ladies’ riding was brought to perfection until the sidesaddle was acknowledged as an equestrian technique requiring specific material, training and clothing.

This development took more than a millennium. In ancient times, women placed themselves on horseback as on a chair, both legs drooping on one flank of the animal. They were limited to walking pace and rode preferably mules or donkeys. In the Middle Ages, the women – still with both legs on one side of the horse – were placed behind a rider they were holding around the waist, or they sat on a kind of packsaddle that was more or less padded, the “sambue”, with a board to put their feet on. A man on foot or horseback then conducted their mount. It’s from the sixteenth century on that something begins to emerge that later on turns into sidesaddle riding.

Clothing has undoubtedly played a role in the choice of riding with both legs on the same side. Indeed, the wearing of trousers has long been forbidden to women apart from cases with special permission, and their dresses, long and often very large, made the overlap ​​difficult and uncomfortable. But it is mainly because riding astride was considered a masculine practice that women could not do it without violating the proprieties. It was only in 1930 that the use of riding astride became commonplace among female riders.

History of the sidesaddle

In the fifteenth century the ancestor of the side saddle appeared in France and Italy, with an additional so-called “saddle horn” (butt-end or side. The story has it that Queen Catherine de’ Medici is the cause of this invention: rather than keeping both feet placed side by side on the footrest, she placed her right leg over the pommel of the saddle to reveal her ankle or her calf that she knew was very beautiful. This saddle allowed the rider both to stay on and to control her own horse as she was no longer sliding to the left and thus able to even trot and canter. In the early eighteenth century, other refinements were made ​​to improve the balance of women on their mounts.

Thus, some models had a handle that could be seized in case of loss of balance, a stirrup was substituted for the board to be later replaced by a stirrup that was closed at the front, called stirrup-slipper. However, the comfort of the riders stayed limited: despite improvements, the saddle still tended to turn and the stability of women on horseback remained precarious.

The most important invention was that of the third pommel in 1830. Giving support to the left thigh of the rider, this addition to the sidesaddle procured a strength that allowed to accept not only the shaking of fast paces, but also side leaps, refusals and jumps. The lighter saddles were further ameliorated with mobile pommels, safety stirrups (to prevent tilting over), billets to obviate the slide of the saddle…

At the end of the nineteenth century, the posture of a woman sitting in the sidesaddle (called “Amazones” in French) corresponded to a rider sitting astride, not too far forward, the right hip moved back in order to place the shoulders in the same line, the right leg fell naturally on the front of the saddle while the foot did not project beyond the horse’s left shoulder, the left leg was bent and resting on the saddle. A whip in the right hand replaced the action of the right leg. This is the position of a woman in a sidesaddle today.

Horseback Riding in the 19th Century

By the mid-nineteenth century, under English influence, the equestrian sport underwent a significant change: it turned away from the academic equitation practiced in the arena and more towards the pleasures of an outdoor riding based on risk-taking and speed. Walks, galloping, jumping sparked an infatuation in women as in men, although the Englishwomen were reproached to thus appropriate the male role and to expose themselves to rolling on the ground like steeplechase jockeys. The Bois de Boulogne became an obligatory meeting place: in good weather, crowds of horsemen and Equestriennesgathered there. The first horse shows were held, some contained courses reserved for sidesaddle riders (women). Even though the height of obstacles remained generally modest, this did not prevent exploits such as that of the Australian Esther Stace, who in 1915 jumped a height of 1.98 m in a sidesaddle.


This contrast between outdoor riding and horsemanship is reflected in the academic words "amazone" and "écuyère" (equestrienne): "Amazone" described a woman who rode a horse with sporting taste, who was walking in woods, followed the hunts, while "écuyère" meant rather a fan of high-school work. The distinction between the two terms was not limited to equestrian specialization: the Amazones belonged mainly to the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, the equestriennes, they belonged rather to the "demi-monde" (illusory world) of actresses, dancers and circus performers.

The nineteenth century also saw an increase in female equestrian practice. Until the 1850s, riding - together with dance - was the only physical activity tolerated, if not encouraged, for girls and women of the elite. Subsequently many other practices were added: lawn tennis, golf, fencing, canoeing, sailing, cycling ... still considered exceptional, the “sports women” competed for elegance on the grounds, not without coverage of the worldly newspaper topics.

Texts from Catherine Tourre-Malen

Maître de conférences (HDR) Anthropologie

Université Paris Est Créteil

Chercheur à l'IDEMEC (Aix en Provence)