Sidesaddle is a style of riding that began as a necessity for female riders wearing skirts and has carried on throughout the years as a competitive class. In the sidesaddle seat, both of the rider’s legs are on one side of the horse, thus maintaining balance is not as easy and requires a specific skill that has become the basis for sidesaddle today.
The roots of riding sidesaddle can be traced back to early depiction of women on horseback in Greek and Celtic depictions. In the early illustrations, the women riding sidesaddle were generally led by a man who either sat astride in the front of the saddle or was walking in front of the horse, leading it.
In more modern societies, the women of high social ranking would often ride horses, but it was considered improper for them to ride astride as it was immodest. The style of dress for these women was always skirts or dresses, so the women sat in such a way that they did not have to hike up their garments to ride.
Early saddle designs were very insecure for the rider. As women were considered delicate in these days, the poor design was not though much of, and the women did not ride independently, but rather were led by a man who controlled the reins of the horse.
The current model for riding sidesaddle is called the two pommel design. The two pommel design was named according to the addition of a second pommel, which is a leg rest. Jules Pellier invented the sidesaddle in the early 19th century. The inside leg, which is the right leg, hooks around the top pommel. The left leg then is able to rest up against the lower pommel. This second pommel is also referred to as a leaping horn. There is a stirrup on the left side to secure the left foot. In this position, the woman is able to hold her body in a forward facing position.
In a sidesaddle, the rider’s back should be in line with the back of the horse. This allows for even distribution of weight, despite both legs resting on one side. The rider’s shoulders and hips should be positions parallel to each other so the entire body position is square.
The outside heel of the rider rests in the stirrup. The lowered heel helps to maintain balance in the saddle. The right leg should either have the toe pointed upwards or the heel. There are differences in opinion for either method, but whichever helps the rider maintain balance is the best for each rider.
The reins should be split, with one piece held in each hand. It is best for the rider to keep one hand on either side of the horse, thus shifting weight back to the center of the horse. In terms of bits, the Pelham bit and double bridle are more effective than the snaffle bit because curb bits will still allow the horse to hold its head in the lower, proper position, rather than the raised position that a pressure bit might force.
Because many women choose to ride sidesaddle competitively, as well as for pleasure, the horse’s comfort is essential. The horse must be able to arc its body over the jumps in the bascule form. If the reins pull too far back, the horse is likely to jump flat and will not be able to clear as high of a jump. Additionally, the horse must have even weight distribution and the saddle must fit comfortably. Shifting weight to the center of the horse is the challenge of riding sidesaddle and failure to do so will not only result in bad form, but it could cause injury to the horse.
The attire for sidesaddle has its origins in the normal clothing worn by women historically. The outfit is called a riding habit. The riding habit worn featured a long skirt characteristic of sidesaddle riding. The skirt is also called a petticoat. The rider also wears a matching jacket that is fitted for a woman. The jacket and skirt are typically made of the same material and are the same color.
Women also wear a shirt underneath, usually white with a collar. Top hats are typically worn, although other historical hats with wide brims are used. Boots generally have a low heel, which is typical for English-style equestrian sports. The low heel helps maintain grip in the stirrup without being so large as to hinder riding.
Today, sidesaddle riding is generally used for historical, traditional and competitive purposes. In some places, like England, sidesaddle riding remains as traditional. Female members of the royal family are scarcely seen riding astride or appearing masculine at all, so sidesaddle riding is still observed for parades or other traditional events in which riding horseback might be required.
Sidesaddle riding is also still used in historical reenactments. Many reenactment locations meant to depict traditional life during eras when sidesaddle was used as a way of life commonly still practice the technique. Typically, these women will also observe the traditional dress and mannerisms of the time period they represent. Oftentimes, at horse shows, there will be a section for sidesaddle meant to represent the tradition.
A more recent trend in sidesaddle riding is sidesaddle competition. Sidesaddle competition was popular when women’s fashion dictated the style of riding in the 19th century because women wanted to compete in equestrian sports despite the necessity to stay modest. Today, the English sidesaddle class is judged upon the style, horse, jumps and attire.
In competitive sidesaddle jumps classes, women wear an apron rather than a skirt. The traditional English breeches or jodhpurs are worn with an apron that released in the back for safety. During the jumps portion, the top hat is exchanged for a safety helmet.
There are also western divisions of sidesaddle. The western class style of riding is nearly the same as the English style, except for the saddle and attire. The western attire incorporates chaps or belted aprons, a jacket more fashioned in the bolero style and traditional western décor and accents.