Throughout history, images of women riding aside have been portrayed in art. On Greek vases and Celtic stones women are shown seated sideways on horses. Paintings show women seated aside being led by a man, or seated on a pillion (a small padded seat) behind a man on a horse. The women did not face forward toward the horse’s head, but rather sat at a right angle…basically sitting sideways. By the 9th century a small footrest, or “planchette” was added to the pillion.
Two examples of early side saddles from Spain, dated approximately 14-15th century.
Anne of Bohemia, wife of Richard II, brought a sidesaddle to England around 1392. Her saddle was constructed much like a chair with a planchette and a handhold for her right hand. By the 15th century, this saddle had evolved to include a central horn in the front and a slight cantle behind. However, it maintained the planchette. Saddles at this time also had a side rail. The side rail was a curved bar on the right side of the saddle that ran from the front to the back. It served as a safety feature.
In the 16th century, Catherine De Medici made some improvements to the sidesaddle. She moved the handhold to the left of the center of the saddle. As an avid rider and hunter, this enabled her to wrap her right leg around the horn for better security and to sit shoulders-forward toward the head of the horse. This change allowed Catherine to ride until she was in her 60′s. Catherine’s saddle still maintained the side rail.
It is thought that around this time what is called the “slipper stirrup” replaced the planchette. It looked much like a leather covered ballet slipper with a closed toe and was open from the instep back. The left foot was placed in the slipper which rested inside a regular stirrup iron.
The saddle styles changed little through the 1700′s. Although the side rail did eventually disappear. In the 1800′s however, some major changes occurred which made the sidesaddle more safe and secure. The first was a strap which ran from the back of the to the girth on the off side. Eventually this strap would reach diagonally from the left front to the right rear and become known as the balance girth or balance strap. The balance strap helped keep the back of the saddle from shifting and causing a sore back, especially on trotting and jumping horses.
The next invention was the leaping head. The leaping head is the lower pommel which curves over the lady’s left thigh and gives the rider a secure seat. Two different men claimed to have invented the leaping head. Thomas Oldaker broke his leg while trying to hunt in a sidesaddle without a leaping head. However, in 1830 another man, Jules Charles Pellier took the credit for inventing the leaping head, which he displayed at the Paris Exposition in 1855. He named his saddle the Atelier Pellier. His saddle had three pommels: the upright pommel that the lady wrapped her leg around, the pommel which still served as the handhold and the leaping head. The offside pommel was originally used to support the right leg. The leg was actually wedged between the two horns for security. Some saddles had an offside pommel that curved outward and doubled as a handhold. Eventually the handhold diminished in size before finally disappearing.
Shirley and Karen during Side Saddle Weekend at the Kentucky Horse Park explaining the use of the leaping head. The leaping head is the lower pommel that curves around the left leg.
About 1850, safety stirrups replaced the slipper stirrup. These were made to “break open” releasing the foot in the event of a fall.
Top left & bottom right: Another example of a sidesaddle safety stirrup.
Top right: Scott sidesaddle safety stirrup closed.
Bottom left: Scott sidesaddle safety stirrup opened to release the foot in a fall.
Around 1875 another change occurred…the cutback head to the tree was invented. This allowed the saddle to sit much lower on the horse and gave the rider a more level seat. The cutback tree eliminated the need for the higher pommel. Before this change, sidesaddles were not level and had quite a dip in the seat. The dipped seat was necessary to keep the rider in the saddle while jumping.
Around 1880, Mr. H.S. Wilton of Champion and Wilton Saddlers and Harness Makers in London, invented the safety bar that allowed the stirrup leather to release from the saddle in case of an emergency. Other English saddle makers soon devised their own versions of the safety bar.
The safety bar on a Champion and Wilton Sidesaddle
Left, safety bar engaged. Right, safety bar releasing
The safety bar on an Owen Sidesaddle
Left, safety bar engaged. Right, safety bar releasing
Left:The safety bar engaged on a Mayhew side saddle.
Right: Safety bar releasing on a Mayhew side saddle.
Not all older or newer English sidesaddles have the safety bar. If the saddle does not have this feature, it is best to ride with a safety stirrup. There are sidesaddle safety stirrups or one can use a peacock or similar astride safety stirrup.
So now we are a bit more familiar with the history of the sidesaddle. But who rides aside today?Sidesaddle riding has been on the rise since the 1970′s. There are sidesaddle organizations in the United States on national, regional and state levels as well as organizations in other countries. Georgia Ladies Aside is a member organization of the American Sidesaddle Association. www.americansidesaddleassociation.org.
Why ride aside? Ladies ride aside for various reasons. Many are drawn to the sidesaddle as a way of trying something new and different with their horse. Some are attracted to it because of the elegance, style and grace it conjures, reminding one of the beautiful habits and hats women have worn through the ages. Physical handicaps, injuries and various religious beliefs are other reasons people choose to ride aside.
What can you do while riding aside? Almost anything you can while riding astride! Sidesaddle riders ride in many disciplines and events for pleasure and competition including: jumping, dressage, saddle seat, western, reining, eventing, trail riding, parades, hunter paces, costume classes and more!
So you think you want to try the lovely art of riding aside? For more information, see our web page on side saddle buying tips and attire or contact us.