Ladies Ride Aside! History of Side Saddle

Downton Abbey has revived an interest in riding aside – which is the correct term for riding Side Saddle. I ride (and compete and jump) aside.

Yes, that is what I said: jump

Contrary to misguided belief riding side saddle – at least with a modern saddle – is safer than riding astride. By modern I mean from mid-Victorian. One of my saddles is marked by the makers as 'suppliers to the King' so this is either King Edward VII or VIII or  George V or VI – the probability is George VI the present Queen Elizabeth II’s father and made some time between the two wars.

As someone passionate about history I find it thrilling to know that I use something that was made in the past,  belonging to history. My preferred competitions are those of the costume classes, which are fun and challenging regarding any accuracy required – although I tend to go for the fun side more than the correctness.

Early History to the Tudor (1500's) and Stuarts (1600's)

The 'saddle of Queens' by Tudor times was considered the proper way for a lady to ride - astride was considered to be base. Early side saddles were - literally side saddles - a bit like a chair with a footplate, where the woman would sit as if in a chair. These were padded and highly decorated, and built upon a man's astride saddle. 
The lady could ride independently, but because she had little control of her mount was more usually led – however  a few old paintings  may contradict this:
artist: Mencia de Mendoza
J. Hoefnagel, 1574
Mencia de Mendoza, detail of tapestry cartoon
Bernart van Orley, 1530
In Greek and Roman art women were rarely portrayed on horseback unless they were Goddesses and most of them are riding  aside.

Epona, Celtic Goddess of horses
Wife of Bath
However, women with determined characters and a mind of their own seem to have chosen either aside or astride. In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Prioress rides aside while the Wife of Bath is astride. Which begs the question, was one a revered lady with a sense of decorum and the other somewhat headstrong?

The sideways facing "chair" was then turned to face the front - think of a typical western (cowboy) saddle with a tall front pommel, but with the saddle itself looking like a chair, with a high back. The lady would face front, her back supported by the 'chair' with her right leg hooked round the pommel. This is possibly the sort of saddle Elizabeth I and Anne Boleyn would have used when riding.

It is unknown when the upright horn, the one the rider hooks her right leg around, came into use. The second horn, an appendage that comes from the right side of the saddle, is commonly attributed to Catherine de Medici (1519-1589). This horn cradled the right leg between the two horns and therefore faced the rider forward, but Albert Durer's etchings of 1497 and 1504 show ladies facing the front long before Catherine's second horn came into being. 

The horn, however, gave women a more secure seat, an independent control of their horses, and enabled a faster gaits.

A later version of the 2nd horn,
earlier ones were smaller
a modern saddle showing the position of the legs
Fashion must have dictated whether a lady rode astride or aside – farthingales were not designed for riding (nor were the later Victorian crinolines and  bustles!)

These pictures  show the women clearly riding side saddle, for even where a long skirt is worn, the right toe is visible, and in the other picture the lady is wearing trousers and her leg position is shown.

Family Hunting Party 1755/6)
It is interesting to note that we now ride aside with the legs on the near (left) side of the horse – which is also the traditional side to mount and lead from, but in early images (including Greek and Roman) the women are often the opposite way round. There seems to be evidence that women in England/Britain rode to the left side, whereas the Spanish ladies who came with Catherine of Aragon (initially to marry Henry VIII’s elder brother, Arthur, then Henry himself) rode on the right.

It seems that ladies did ride astride, particularly when hunting (too fast a pace for the literally sitting sideways saddles.)  However, a big problem would be what to wear underneath. Bloomers were not in use then, so either women donned men's apparel, or they had very chafed thighs. How did they ride astride with those voluminous skirts? Were they split in the middle like modern culottes?

Queen Elizabeth I rode side saddle on ceremonial occasions and, as depicted in woodcuts, also while hawking. Whether this was the forward chair or the 'Medici' two horns, we don't know. 

Queen Elizabeth I's saddle
from the Booke of Venerie 1572
The images below show that women were riding in almost the same position as ‘modern’ riders – the ladies’ position is remarkably similar.

'An Elegant Equestrienne on a Grey Horse '
Alfred de Dreux 1810-1860
Albert Durer circa 1495
Kathy 2013

Apart from Good Queen Bess, there were a few dashing ladies before the TV drama series of Downton Abbey who rode aside; Downton's Lady Grantham – the character, actress or her stunt double – was not the only woman to hunt riding side saddle!

The Eighteenth Century

The Marchioness of Salisbury was a renowned British political hostess and sportswomen. Born as Lady Emily Mary Hill in 1750 and married James Cecil of Salisbury in December 1773, becoming a rival to Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and renowned as being  active from dawn to dusk. Probably by today’s standards she would have been labelled as ADHD or hyperactive. She rose early to go hunting and would then socialised before attending balls and parties in the evening. In 1775 the earliest pack of hounds was recorded in Hertfordshire, with the Marquis of Salisbury recorded as Master. When ill health forced him to retire from hunting in 1793, Lady Salisbury took over the responsibility of the hunt, a position which she maintained for thirty-five years. Moving the hounds to the family residence of Hatfield House, Lady Salisbury absorbed herself with running the hunt. Despite her slight build she was renowned as a fearless rider.

This was before the modern security of the leaping head had been invented. The side saddle of this period  had two horns, both curving around the right leg but offering no real purchase on the saddle for galloping or jumping. Hunting, then, was at a much slower pace, but  disregarding the pro or anti-hunting element this woman’s riding ability is something to applaud as the Marchioness was always at the front of the field, looking most striking in her habit of sky blue with black cuffs and collar. There is a contemporary description of her: ‘The only one who mounted her horse like an arrow from the hand of her groom’.

Lady Salisbury is at the front in her sky blue habit

By 1819, in her seventies, the Marchioness  handed the hounds over to the newly formed Hertfordshire Hunt Club, but she continued to hunt until 1828. Even with failing eyesight and becoming frail, she would spend an entire day in the hunting field, insisting that her grooms tie her to her hunter so she could not fall off. Another groom would act as her guide with her horse on a leading rein. ‘Damn you, my lady, jump!’ he would  shout whenever they came to a fence. Lady Salisbury died on the 22nd November 1835. It is believed that she was writing at her desk when the feathers in her hair caught alight on a candle. A horrible end to such an amazing life.

Celia Fiennes was born in 1662 at Newton Toney, near Salisbury. She is remembered for her diary account of a series of journeys which she made between 1684 and 1703 riding side saddle through every County in England, accompanied by only two servants. At this time travel was still quite novel, England was largely an unmapped wilderness with tracks, not roads, no road signs, no motorway Service Stations or conveniently placed motels. Not surprisingly, she encountered numerous mishaps: twice she was thrown from her mount but these accidents failed to upset or discourage her, indicating that her nerves were just as strong as her body.

Her diaries provides and invaluable insight into the social and domestic attitudes of 17th-century England. Her descriptions of Bath, Epsom, Hampstead, Tunbridge and Dulwich to sample their waters, shed a light on the medical beliefs of the period. Her lavish interest in touring the great houses provides detailed descriptions of the gardens, ground and number and arrangement of rooms as well as their portraits and furnishings.
Apart from various ‘feminine’ details, Celia took an unladylike interest in new manufacturing processes and drainage projects, devoting her most detailed descriptions to various mines and quarries that she visited. She Celia was fascinated by the innovations of her age and highly impressed by the new-fangled water closet that Queen Mary had installed at Hampton Court.
Never marrying, Celia wrote out her notes in 1702 turning them into a travel memoir, which was never published as she intended them for family reading only. She  died in 1741.

The first complete edition of her travel memoirs ‘Through England on a Side Saddle’ was published in 1888 after the discovery of her journals in 1885 – and could be an invaluable source of information to historical fiction writers of this period.

The Victorian Era

The Victorian era in the late 1800s is typically how we think of  side saddle riding. Early in the 1800’s the leaping horn or head was invented and the balance strap (another girth) was created. This is attached to the right rear of the saddle, passes under the belly of the horse, and fastens to the left front. It serves to stabilise the saddle and offset the extra weight from both legs being on the left side of the horse.

the balance strap is the rear on

The hunting field was a great place to meet a future husband; unmarried Victorian ladies wore a navy habit with a bowler hat, while married ladies wore a black habit with silk hat if they were a subscriber, or a black habit and black bowler for less significant meets or while visiting another pack. As a widow, Queen Victoria wore black for much of her life and  ladies of the day emulated her. It is possible that this could this be the reason behind the traditional black habit seen in the hunt field (and showing arena) today. A side saddle  horse was trained to walk and do a collected canter as it was thought unseemly for a lady to be bouncing about (especially a particular part of her anatomy!) at the trot. Victorian riders were quite often sewn into their habits in order to show off their figure to best advantage.
Brown gloves should be worn with a bowler hat, well fitted and clean. Black gloves are a major faux pas because traditionally, black gloves signified that you were in mourning and therefore should not be riding!

By the mid to late 1800's the riding habit changed to a more sober appearance, especially in the hunting field. This 1858-1859 photograph of young Mary Toogood, shows her wearing a hat with ostrich feather at the front, and a fitted bodice instead of a jacket with a long basque and peplum. Although there is no hoop under her skirt  she is wearing a small bustle to support the peplum of her bodice.

photo from the collection of L. Hidic

In this photograph below, a young English woman has a habit which is transitional in style between the 1850 and 1860 fashions. The bodice remains cut slightly longer in length than the fashion of the 1860's but retains a long 1850's style basque and peplum. The coat -tyle sleeves of the bodice would have been a common feature. She has a small ostrich-feather trimmed pork-pie hat which were popular during the 1860's and were considered "saucy" when most women continued to wear bonnets.

photo from the collection of L. Hidic

American ladies were still sporting a slightly "behind the times" fashion. Circa 1860- 1862 pre Civil War era -  a curved flat hat, full-sided hairstyle - which is slightly out of date, even for America, being more common during the 1840's. The bodice of her habit retains a small basque, visible on her left hip.

Early Victorian
photographer, Charles Reutlinger of Paris

The 'leg o' mutton' sleeve circa 1885-1895

Catherine “Skittles” Walters.
She was stitched into her
 riding habits for the tightest fit possible!

The popular 'leg o' mutton' sleeve, circa 1885

And finally a note about the men.

Writer Rita Mae Brown once stated, ‘If the world were a logical place, men would ride side saddle.
There are occasional examples of men riding side saddle other than for humorous, drag, or satirical purposes. During World War II  riders rode aside as they  laid field telephone cable from a cable-drum on the back of a galloping horse. Some farm workmen riding wide-backed draft horses bareback to or from the fields found it easier to sit sideways than astride and a few modern male riders with certain types of back injuries or lower limb injuries and amputations  find riding side saddle to be  helpful. Male grooms would also have ridden side saddle in the hey-day of aside riding – primarily to school a lady’s horse or to ensure it was exercised before she mounted.

men can ride aside!

What a pity more men cannot pluck up courage to ride aside nowadays!

Further information
A Side Saddle Ilaria Veltri degli Ansari    
Sidesaddle - Wikipedia
Corsets and Crinolines


  1. This is absolutely fascinating and so helpful for my research. Thank you, Helen and Kathy.

  2. Hi Helen,
    Thank you so much for gathering together so much information and fun facts! This was extremely useful! I have a couple of questions if you don't mind, regarding riding as a fun pastime. If ladies were to ride around for leisure, would their outfit be more decorative, and "for display" rather than the usual hunting/sports outfit? (plain, minimal or no decor)Would there be decorative trim of any sort on the skirt itself?
    Towards the middle/end of the 1890's how much did the cut of the apron change compared to the years before that regarding safety?
    Thank you <3

    1. Hello! Thanks for getting in touch. In answer to your question - yes! I think the more 'sober' habits came in with the Victorians, and were mainly for the hunting field. Kathy's blue velvet habit shows that lovely colours and materials were used for travel, and her French costume indicts the more 'elegant' habits. (I have added a new page above - see 'Costumes' on the menu bar for all Kathy's costumes, although I don't have good photos of all of them) In fact, horse dealers parading horses for sale in Rotten Row, London, during the Victorian era wanted'nicely dressed' (i.e. bright colours & habits that showed off the figure!) ladies to ride the horses. This would attract a gentleman's eye and encourage him to buy the horse. A bit like scantily-clad models draped over car bonnets today!
      I don't think the apron changed much until circa WWI (1914) when dress lengths started getting shorter (although I'm not totally certain of that - seems logical though)
      Feel free to email me if you want to chat more:
      author [AT] helenhollick [DOT] net


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