The debate goes on – Did women in period ride astride? Or did they ride aside? The answer, unequivocally, is yes. Sort of. Here’s why:
In some illustrations, such as Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath, the woman is shown riding astride. For practicality’s sake, this was likely the most common way for a woman to ride. Her skirts, long and full as they were, would drape gracefully down to cover her legs, thereby protecting her modesty. She was seated firmly in the saddle, facing forward, and fully capable of controlling her mount. It is also likely that women rode astride for centuries, although it may not have been considered entirely proper or genteel.
Many other period illustrations show women sitting aside, or sideways on the horse, with both legs to one side. This is, of course, technically, riding sidesaddle, since you are sitting sideways on the saddle. But the period definition of sidesaddle does not match today’s definition of sidesaddle. Here is where the “sort of”, above, comes into play.
Anne of Bohemia is generally thought to be the person who brought the period version of sidesaddle to England. This meant that instead of sitting the horse with a leg on each side, women sat sideways, on a pad, or in a man’s saddle, or, more usually, on the horse’s croup (rump) behind a man, with both feet hanging to one side. Sitting sideways behind a man is known as riding pillion. Somewhere along the way, a woman who was riding by herself, sideways in the saddle, may have realized that it would be a bit more comfortable if she put her foot in the stirrup.
Thus came the invention of the planchette (plank). The planchette was a board, suspended from straps, on which a lady sitting sidesaddle could rest her feet.
The period sidesaddle also began to be fitted with a side rail, running along the off side of the saddle seat to give a bit of security. There is also evidence of a “seat belt” type of strap, fastening over the thighs to help keep her in the saddle.
A woman using this type of saddle was more or less sitting in a moving chair, facing to the side of her horse. If she was not being led by a groom, she had to twist her upper body around to face forward so that she could control her horse properly. There was also a very real danger of the rider toppling over backwards if the horse acted up or took a misstep.
Catherine de Medici, (1519-1589), being an avid rider, and, apparently, none too happy with the restrictions that the period sidesaddle placed on her, is popularly credited with being the first woman to drape one of her legs over the pommel (or horn) of a man’s saddle, thereby giving herself something to grip for balance, as well as the ability to face forward and control her own horse properly – the early beginning of what we think of today as a sidesaddle rider.
Unfortunately, de Medici’s concept does not appear to have caught on with the ladies for quite some time, as the “chair” saddle with planchette and back rail seems to have endured until well into the 1700’s. It was, in fact, used in certain areas much later than that.
The sidesaddle continued to evolve, with the center pommel of the man’s saddle eventually migrating to one side of the saddle, usually, though not always, the left side, and a second pommel being added to the other side of the saddle – apparently to give the thigh something to rest against.
A woman in this type of saddle could walk, trot, and canter a well-trained horse safely, and ride long distances in relative comfort and security.
In the late 18th century, there was a third pommel or horn added – the leaping head (or leaping horn). This was below the primary horn, and gave much better “purchase” or grip, since the leg which was crossed in front of the rider could grip around the main horn, and the thigh of the other leg could be pressed up into the leaping head. The pommel on the off side of the saddle, never particularly useful in the first place, began to disappear sometime around the early 1900’s. And the true sidesaddle rider was born – a woman who could ride a less than manageable horse, could gallop and leap fences with her gentleman companions and be safe, stylish, and modest doing so.
Sidesaddles continued to evolve up into the mid 20th century, with the seat becoming flat, rather than dipped, and the pommels becoming wider and flatter than the older saddles.
The pictures below are of a sidesaddle that I built several years ago, using a purchased, 1930’s tree.
Riding a modern sidesaddle is every bit as safe as riding an astride saddle, and, in some instances, even safer. If the saddle fits the rider and the horse properly, it is also quite comfortable, and very elegant.
So, to say that a woman in period was riding sidesaddle would be somewhat inaccurate. She was riding sideways in the saddle, but the true sidesaddle seat, wherein the rider is facing forward, with one leg hooked over a pommel or horn in front of her, did not really evolve until much later.
— THL Meadhbh inghean ui Bhaoighill