Many years ago, the fashion for long skirts caused problems for ladies who wanted to ride. Sitting astride a horse while wearing a skirt showed far more leg than was considered polite. It wasn’t very comfortable either, as you’ll know yourself if you’ve ever tried it.
Some women made life easier by wearing divided skirts (culottes). Others ignored fashion completely and wore trousers, regardless of how much this shocked their neighbours. But the socially accepted solution was for ladies to ride side-saddle.
How safe is side-saddle?
A woman riding side-saddle looks very elegant. You may also think she looks slightly unsafe, but she’s not. The side-saddle hidden under her skirt (or apron as it’s officially called) is carefully designed to keep her safely on top.
In fact, you’re less likely to fall off when you’re riding side-saddle than you are when you’re riding astride. The downside of this is that you sit so securely on a side-saddle that it can be difficult to get off quickly in an emergency. A more minor problem arises because a side-saddle is deeper than an ordinary saddle. As a result, you sit about 20cm above the level of the horse’s back so you are more likely to bump your head on low branches than you would be if you were riding astride.What is a side-saddle?
A side-saddle is flatter than a normal saddle and only has one stirrup. As well as the ordinary girth, there’s an extra strap (called the balance strap) to hold down the back of the saddle. There are also two pommels sticking out of the left hand side of the saddle, quite near the top. The higher of the two is called the fixed head. The lower pommel is called the leaping head because it helps you when the horse is leaping.
You sit on the saddle with your right leg over the fixed head and your left thigh under the leaping head. This rider in the photo below is tightening her girth without her apron in place so you can clearly see how her legs fit around the pommels.
When you’re riding normally, your legs are relaxed But if you need some extra security, you grip the fixed head with your right leg and push your left knee up unto the leaping head. That makes you so firmly attached to the saddle that you should manage to stay on board.
Do you sit sideways on a side-sadddle?
Although your legs are over to one side, your body should face forwards. It’s tempting to swing your right shoulder forwards so you are facing sideways, but you shouldn’t do it. It looks wrong, is uncomfortable for your horse and makes it harder to balance.
Can you ride any horse side-saddle?
Most well-schooled horses and ponies quickly get used to being ridden side-saddle. Some of them even seem to prefer it. But a side-saddle is longer from front to back than an ordinary saddle so a horse with a short back will be uncomfortable carrying one.
But you should never ride side-saddle on a horse that rears. If he falls over backwards, he may land on top of you because you’ll find it difficult to throw yourself clear.
How do you tell the horse what to do?
When you’re riding astride, you use your hands, legs and seat to tell the horse what to do. You can still use your hands and seat when you’re riding side-saddle, but you can only use your left leg. You’ll need to use a long whip to tap the horse’s right-hand side.
Can you do all types of riding side-saddle?
Today you are most likely to see people riding side-saddle in shows. There are special side-saddle riding classes which judge the riders’ ability, and some people choose to ride side-saddle in showing classes where only the horse or pony is being judged. But side-saddle riding isn’t restricted to the showing ring. Some people prefer to ride this way all the time – they even jump and ride cross country. And they're not all women. Some men ride side-saddle because they have disabilities that make riding astride too difficult.
(Both the photos in this article are by Fountains of Bryn Mawr at en.wikipedia from Wikimedia Commons)