Friday, July 23, 2010

Aside or Astride?

A gnawing question to be sure. Unless of course you live in the 19th century (or are a nice normal person with no interest in antiquated styles of horse riding whatsoever). We can't help you in the latter case, but for the former the answer is fairly simple. With the exception of unusual circumstances and emergencies (remember Melanie Wilkes galloping away astride when the Yankees came to Tara?), Victorian ladies rode aside on their horses, with the aid of a sidesaddle.  Were there women who chose to ride astride? Sure, but the majority continued to use the sidesaddle until the feminist movements at the onset of the 20th century started to vocally oppose the practice.

In some ways, we could say sidesaddles shared the fate of hoop skirts. They would both be ridiculed and demonized by later movements as instruments that kept women in a perpetual state of helplessness, but, at the time they were introduced, they actually represented a step forward to women gaining autonomy. Just like the metallic hoop skirts greatly diminished the weight of the undergarments a woman was supposed to wear and made walking easier, the 19th century sidesaddle made riding and even jumping safe(r) for women.

You see, the first medieval sidesaddles were simply modified seats fastened on a horse, with the passenger facing sideways and having little or no control over the animal's movements. The horses were usually led by someone else. This system solved the issue of modesty quite well, but it offered no middle ground. A woman wanting to ride would have to do it astride, a woman wanting to be ladylike would have to move at a snail's pace or be led.

The modern sidesaddle probably evolved from a regular cross-saddle, on which two pommels were strategically placed to hold into position the rider's right leg while allowing her to face forward. We can actually get a pretty good idea on how the modern position was born from Gone with the Wind itself. Here's Scarlett, having only a man's saddle at her disposal but still wanting to ride in the proper way--with her legs not showing from under her skirts:
"So on the first day when her foot had healed enough to stand a slipper, she mounted the Yankee's horse. One foot in the shortened stirrup and the other leg crooked about the pommel in an approximation of a side saddle, she set out across the fields toward Mimosa, steeling herself to find it burned."
-- Gone with the Wind, Chapter XXVI
But even with the sidesaddles progressing and women being able to actually control the horse, the question of safety remained. The double-pommeled saddle that Scarlett is trying to approximate in our quote above only offered support for the rider's right leg, so it was very easy to be thrown off a horse when riding aside. Because of that, women  were rare participants in hunts. Around 1830, a third pommel or a "leaping head" was finally added to give riders  support for their left thigh and women became involved with hunting, as shown in the lithograph above, featured in an 1857 book, The habit and the horse : a treatise on female equitation by Mrs. J. Stirling Clarke.

You can see a sidesaddle with a leaping head in the image below, taken from Alice Hayes' 1903 The horsewoman : a practical guide to side-saddle riding. You will notice that the initial double pommel  into which the equestrienne was supposed to slip her right leg is reduced to one pommel to which she presses her inner thigh. By contrast, in the painting at the end of our post, the old-fashioned off-pommel is still present. 

With this addition, the sidesaddle was considered in some respects to be even safer than a normal saddle. Especially diminished were the odds of flying over the horse's shoulder, for while a person riding astride would have been thrown forward with nothing to stop them, the legs of a woman in a sidesaddle would only press deeper into the supporting pommels, keeping her in her seat. Women (and indeed, little girls too) were taught to jump fences without the aid of reins. The downside to all this? If the horse fell, it was much more difficult for the rider to extricate herself from a sidesaddle in time, as to not be caught under the animal.

The development of the three-pommeled sidesaddle had a huge impact on both the riding etiquette and the riding habits. We expect to tackle quite a few aspects related to equestriennes in the future, especially since we have the lovely Beatrice Tarleton as our muse, but for now we hope you enjoyed this Aside Riding 101:  The Sidesaddle. We leave you with this pretty image from Alfred de Dreux, who specialized in painting horses and riding scenes.

An Elegant Equestrienne on a Grey Horse


  1. Ok, being a 'normal person with no interest in antiquated styles of horse riding whatsoever', I found this post surprisingly interesting. Shook my head a few times at the idiocy of the whole sidesaddle imprisonment thing and attained new admiration for Melly who knew, unlike Scarlett here, when to leave her ladylike attitudes behind (reminded me of other times in the book when she knew honesty and virtue had to take a backburner to bigger issues).

    If I ever gain the courage to reread the book all the little details here at this blog will make the reading that much more interesting.

  2. This was really interesting. I never thought about the medieval type sidesaddle and the huge evolution the side saddle (much like a normal English saddle) has undergone.

    This comming from someone who has actually tried to jump "aside" both bareback (not successful) and in an ordinary english saddle (a bit easier but not recommendable for higher jumps)

    Btw do you know if the hard hat was also introudced in some form at that point in time or was that a much later invention?

  3. Very glad you enjoyed it. I have a lot of material about the riding attire, but since it's not the most compelling of reads I keep procrastinating on it. At some point, we must have a post about that. I suspected though that the hard hat was a later invention. All the hats I've seen so far looked decorative. Will check!

  4. Well... You know the rules of procrastination. You just need to finde something more less important to procrastinate with.

    I'll look forward to the response regarding hard hats.

  5. Who says it wouldn't be a compelling read?! Bring on the riding habits I say!

  6. Scarlett was quite a fan of horse riding before the war, she often went riding with Ashley - they raced each other home from the Tarleton's place. However, after she rides to the Fontaine's upon her return to Tara in 1864, basically nothing is said of whether or not she continues to horse ride. Does anyone have any thought on the matter?
    And what do we think Gerald means by the following comment directed at Scarlett? She doesn't actually give him a chance to finish.

    "'Tis the Tarleton ladies," he announced to his daughters, his florid face abeam, for excepting Ellen there was no lady in the County he liked more than the red-haired Mrs.Tarleton.
    "And 'tis herself at the reins. Ah, there's a woman with fine hands for a horse! Feather light and strong as rawhide, and pretty enough to
    kiss for all that. More's the pity none of you have such hands," he added, casting fond but reproving glances at his girls.
    "With Carreen afraid of the poor beasts and Sue with hands like sadirons when it comes to reins and you, Puss--"

    "Well, at any rate I've never been thrown," cried Scarlett indignantly.
    "And Mrs. Tarleton takes a toss at every hunt."

  7. Hmmm. it is an intriguing comment, you are right. I can't imagine what's wrong with Scarlett's riding abilities. Perhaps it's just a matter of degree? She's good, but Beatrice Tarleton is better? Or, somehow, I can't see Scarlett so attached to her horses and treating them as humans, like Beatrice does. Perhaps that made a difference? (On a different note, I was always amused by Gerald's next comment that you didn't quote, about how Beatrice breaks a collar bone like a man.)

    As for riding, we know for sure she didn't take pleasure rides while she was at Tara since she prevents Suellen from using the horse to go visit the neighbors, and I doubt she, Scarlett, would take the horse on pleasure rides. Prior to her marriage with Rhett, I don't think she had time for such things, and somehow I don't see her doing that again after the marriage.

  8. I found one more reference in the novel about Scarlett going riding with soldiers when she resumed her social life after the bazaar.
    Yes, I doubt she had time to go riding while married to Frank. The novel never mentions Scarlett joining Bonnie and Rhett on their rides. Perhaps she associated riding with her youth and life before the war, even with Ashley, and avoided it for this reason - too many bittersweet memories.


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