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What is Sidesaddle?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 06, 2024
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The term sidesaddle is an equestrian term used to refer both to a riding style and to a particular type of saddle. When riding sidesaddle, the rider sits aside rather than astride the horse, meaning that both legs are tucked to the same side of the horse's body, rather than positioned so that they straddle the saddle. In order to ride aside safely, a specially designed saddle called a sidesaddle is used.

The roots of sidesaddle riding are hundreds of years old, although the riding technique is restricted primarily to women riders. In European tradition, although women rode horses, it was considered improper for them to ride astride. As early at the 11th century, women rode in specially designed sidesaddles which resembled armchairs, with a wooden plank to rest their feet on. These saddles were probably lacking in safety, and the design was refined in the 15th century to make riding both more comfortable and more safe. The design has changed little since then, although most modern equestriennes prefer to ride astride, because of the safety issue.

A sidesaddle has two pommels, one oriented slightly off center, and another below it. Traditionally, a sidesaddle is designed to for riders to sit on the left hand side of the horse, although either side is technically correct. The top pommel is also known as the horn, and the rider swings his or her top leg over the horn, while the lower leg is tucked under the leaping horn, or second pommel, which is curved to enclose the top of the leg. The lower leg is placed into a stirrup, and the rider is ready to ride.

Learning to ride sidesaddle takes some training in riding technique. The rider must carry a whip to use on the off side of the horse for cues, and must also learn to hold a balanced, even seat. The horse must also be trained to carry a sidesaddle rider, as the off centered weight can be a strange sensation for a horse accustomed to more conventional riding. The fit of the saddle to horse and rider is also very important, as an improperly fitted sidesaddle can resort in saddle sores and other discomfort for both parties.

Although women are no longer expected to ride sidesaddle, some riding organizations exist to promote sidesaddle riding, and many horse shows offer a sidesaddle class or allow sidesaddle riders to compete in regular classes. A skilled sidesaddle rider can hunt, jump, and practice dressage with ease, often to the amazement of conventionally trained riders. Sidesaddle riders also tend to wear a traditional riding habit, which consists of a full apron to cover the riding jodhpurs worn underneath. The apron is not actually a full skirt, but it is designed to look like one until the rider dismounts, at which point the open back will become apparent.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Sports&Hobbies researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon69270 — On Mar 07, 2010

The oldest formal side-saddle group is actually the Side Saddle Association, started in the UK in 1974 when Janet Macdonald and Valerie Francis wrote a letter to “Horse & Hound” asking for other side-saddle riders to band together to revive the art.

As for the safety issue, according to Doreen Archer-Houblon, the side saddle is much safer in minor stumbles, trips, bucks, shies and nervous jumping around and it is much easier to maintain control of even a very big horse in such circumstances, when one is on a side saddle.

However, the big problem with a side saddle is that the rider is *so* secure that if the horse goes head over heels in a disastrous rolling fall, the rider tends not to be thrown clear as quickly as if she were astride and she is therefore more likely to end up under the horse. It is, as with most things riding, a choice of dangers.

One has to decide whether there is more of a chance of your horse throwing a few wobblies or stumbling over a hillock, or whether it is statistically more likely to do cartwheels.

In my experience, the wobblies are far more common and I feel much safer on a side saddle than I do astride.

By anon45441 — On Sep 16, 2009

The International Side Saddle Organization, the world's oldest formal side saddle group, is dedicated to education about riding side saddle. Their store, The Side Saddlery, carries a wide selection of modern and older books, side saddle-related tack, and one of North America's widest selections of side saddles. They also have pictures of various side saddles with descriptions of why they are built that way, what they were used for, etc. One of the more recent books they carry is very well done - Jane Pryor's Side-Saddle. Another excellent book is Side Saddle Riding for Beginners by Kneeland. They also have a video on side saddle basics for Hunt seat, Saddle Seat and Western in a side saddle!

By anon22452 — On Dec 04, 2008

Actually, during the Dark and Early Middle Ages, many women rode astride, just as men. It's easy to find paintings, especially of Italian women, riding cross-saddle (astride) but also of other European women as well. A notable illustration of the Wife of Bath from the Canterbury Tales shows her riding astride. It seems that early sidesaddles were most often used for ceremonial occasions or by members of the nobility/royalty. A good reference for early sidesaddles is Le Costume du Moyen Age Apres Les Sceaux and Lida Bloodgood's classic, The Saddle of Queens. The first of these features early French royal seals, a few showing noblewomen/royalty riding aside and astride. (My spelling may be a little off), while the second gives a general history (unfortunately not always well documented) of sidesaddles.

The true hey-day of the sidesaddle began in the 18th century and continued into the early 20th. During this time, several important Queens and Empresses were noted riders, and made aside horseback riding popular for women. During the latter half of the 19th century, inexpensive sidesaddles were available, making it possible for women of lower social status to afford them. During this time the quality of sidesaddles ranged from very poor to very, very high, and there were several styles and trees (the wooden foundation of a saddle) to choose from.

The safety of aside riding has been much debated by a number of authors. My general impression from a variety of late 19th century and early 20th century sources is that the sidesaddle is a very safe way to ride in terms of the security of the seat....especially when compared to an English saddle. Most 19th/20th century riding instructors claimed that a woman was much less likely to fall when correctly seated on a sidesaddle than when riding astride, and many modern enthusiasts agree.

That being said, the sidesaddle presents some safety issues that differ from astride riding:

1) The rider is perhaps more dependent on the safety of the saddle itself. If the saddle turns or the girth(s) breaks, then the rider is going off the horse.

2) Riders before the early 20th century were often put in danger by their long, flowing skirts. These skirts could catch on the horns of the saddle, causing the rider to be drug if the horse ran away. The modern backless "apron" prevents this. There was also some danger of the extremely long skirts of the mid-19th century being caught by the horse's feet when he cantered.

3) The danger in aside riding is not so much the danger of falling from the saddle as it is in the potential for being trapped in the saddle if the horse falls onto one side. A rearing horse should never be used for aside riding for this reason: the rider cannot quickly and safely dismount, and she may pull the horse over on her.

4) At least one early author claimed that aside riding was more dangerous on mountain paths because any sidesaddle might turn. While the saddle "turning" problem should not be as much of a problem for a properly girthed, modern sidesaddle perhaps even with breast-collar and crupper, mountain riding such as this is not easy riding for anyone.

5)It must be remembered that even into the early 20th century many inexpensive sidesaddles, such as were sold by Sears or Montgomery Wards, did not have the leaping horn or a balance girth or even a safety stirrup. These are usually considered necessary safety features today. Without the leaping horn, the rider could easily be trotted or bounced off the horse. Of course, many of the ladies' horses then were either well-trained, very old, or not as well-fed as our fat and sassy steeds today! Without the balance girth, the back portion of the saddle could turn, and of course the safety stirrup prevents the rider's foot from being caught in the stirrup.

For a discussion of sidesaddle technique (and the changes in technique) there are a number of antique and vintage books, many of which have now been reprinted for the convenience of the modern aside rider. There are also some modern books on aside riding. These include such works as The Habit and the Horse, Riding and Driving for Women, Sidesaddle, For Whom the Goddess, The Fair Lady Aside and many more. Organizations such as the American Sidesaddle Association often sell these works, or have links to where they can be purchased, and there are at least two free ebooks on aside riding available from Project Gutenberg.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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