Side Saddle: A Lady's Saddle in the 18th Century
How comfortable might that lady's side saddle really be?
Our heroine, Lady Mary Mowbrah, in The Colonel and The Enchantress is quite the horsewoman. She prefers being on the back of a horse to dancing at a ball. Because of her hobbies and interests with horses, I've done more research on horse riding, horse breeding, horse training, riding habits, etc. than I ever dreamed possible! As we'll explore in future newsletters, our hero, Colonel Duncan Starrett, is a cavalry officer with the Light Dragoons, so his interests spurred additional research. I'd like to revisit some of this research in future newsletters. For now, let's talk side saddles and riding habits!
The side saddle was what women used, as I'm sure we all know. Riding side saddle still a popular hobby with equine enthusiasts, and there are even side saddle competitions, though I think it's safe to say the majority of women now ride astride. This article offers a lovely overview of saddles, mounting techniques, and habit designs.
The side saddle construction is fascinating! There is only one stirrup for the left leg. The top of the saddle has a fixed head or top pommel, typically padded for comfort, which is where the right leg loops over and grips for stability. Just beneath the top pommel is the leaping head or lower pommel, also typically padded, where the top of the left leg nestles. In this way, you have a good grip for both legs and as much comfort as such a position can afford. Since not all legs are made the same length, there are adjustment holes for moving the lower pommel closer or farther from the top pommel. Google "side saddle parts" and you'll spot quite a few great images.
Since the right leg was not on the right side of the horse to help give direction and cues to the horse, the woman rider always carried a crop to act as a substitute in communication. However much it might be rumored that women could not jump while riding side saddle, that is not the case. Even in modern competitions, jumping is common. The difficulty with the side saddle is mounting and dismounting the horse.
Dismounting is easier, as the woman need only put her weight in the left stirrup, swing her right leg over the pummel, and hop down (though having a hand in the descent, as well as someone to hold the horse is helpful). Mounting is the tricky task. One could not simply slip the left foot in the stirrup, give a push, and swing the right leg around. Oh my! In the time of our heroine, a man's help was a necessity. A groom would cup his hands for the woman's foot to help hoist her sideways onto the saddle where she could then hook the right leg over. This video is a must see. This one is fantastic, as well. Both of these videos offer a great visual of our many hist rom heroines sitting, riding, and mounting, not to mention what the saddle looks like and how the riding habit is designed.
The riding habits caused quite the stir when they first gained popularity, for they resembled the very male military uniform, which caused some confusion when one would see a woman riding around in, essentially, men's clothing. While the designs changed over the years, they have always maintained a masculine look. This article looks at Georgian riding habits, and this one Regency riding habits.
What I find especially interesting is the skirt of a riding habit. The skirt has a short train, similar to the contemporary wedding dress. When walking to the horse, the woman would drape the train over her arm or, if it were an especially short train, hold it in her hand for walking ease. The train was essential. Once a woman mounted and hooked the right leg over the pommel, you can imagine what would happen to the skirt: it would raise to show the left leg's ankle. Oh no! This is the brilliance of the train. With the extra bit of fabric, the rider could adjust the train to cover the left leg for decency. The next time you're reading a hist rom and find a heroine twirling in a meadow in her riding habit as though it were a typical dress, have a hearty laugh because in reality, she would have not only soiled the hem abominably but also tripped over the train. Nothing says sexy like a heroine face-planting in the mud.
If you're ever curious, check out the equestrian center nearest you to see if they have side saddle lessons. A surprising number do, though you'll likely be required to purchase the appropriate uniform. It could be a fun thing to do between reading novels!