The horse was a vital part of everyday Regency life, but few of us today have such an intimate acquaintance with that lovely animal. We all know how to describe someone getting in and out of a car, but what about getting on and off a horse? What does it actually feel like to ride side saddle? How can two people ride a single horse?
The English saddle has changed little in its appearance over the past two hundred years. The major change came at the end of the 19th century when the modern “Forward Seat: was invented and the saddle flap began to be cut “forward” so that it lay over a horse’s shoulder (allowing a shorter stirrup). Prior to this, riders sat very straight in the saddle, leaning back when jumping fences, as seen in hunting prints of the era.
The Side Saddle
Prior to 1835, a side saddle had one or two pommels; one turned up to support the right leg, some with a second pommel which turned down over the left leg.
The riding habit had to be cut so that it draped down over the horse’s side, covering ankle and boot in a lovely flow. This drape required that a loop also be attached to the hem, so that, when dismounted, a lady could gather up the extra length of skirt.
The modern Thoroughbred, on the other hand, has changed a good deal. The Eastern breeds (Arabian, Turk, Barb) were introduced to England in the mid 1700’s. Cross-breeding to English mares produced the Thoroughbred’s ancestors. Horses in racing and hunting prints of the era reveal characteristic Arabian features– dished face, large eyes, dainty, clean legs. More important is the size of these horses: rarely did a Thoroughbred of that era stand over 16 hands (64 inches). Most Blood horse of the ear resembled their Arabian fathers and stood around 15 hands (60 inches) at the wither. This makes a big difference when mounting.
A lady’s side saddle requires a slight alteration in the standard mounting and dismounting method. Again, the reins are held in the left hand. The lady stands facing the horse, or even slightly forward. She also holds the reins and whip in her left hand. Taking the stirrup iron in her right hand to hold it steady, she places her left foot in the iron. With her foot in the iron, she can reach up to hold the saddle. As she hops up, her weight goes to the left foot in the iron and she leverages her weight up. However, instead of swinging her leg over the horse, she pulls her right leg up in front of her and seats herself sideways in the saddle. She then can settle herself with the right leg over the top pommel, the left under the left pommel and in the stirrup.
To dismount, a lady unhooks her right leg, takes her left foot out of the stirrup and slips off. (If she has any sense, she only does this if she’s certain she can get back on again.)
Modern views make it seem as if riding side saddle must be awkward and uncomfortable. In fact, it is neither.
The skirt has always been designed to facilitate both mounting and riding. It is either a full skirt, usually cut with a drape on the left; or a wrapped skirt is worn over pantaloons (which came into fashion around the early 1800’s). Because of its cut, as you mount, the skirt falls into its natural position, covering the legs to the ankle. In the saddle, the skirt is forgotten. On the ground, a loop over the wrist keeps the draping skirt out of mud and dust.
These skirts are neither difficult to wear, nor are they heavy and cumbersome. The fabric is usually a heavy cotton or twill. A habit provides any woman with a long stride as much freedom as breeches (and more than a fashionable round dress of the era would offer). Having worn both, I should always prefer a habit and can well understand the country ladies who wore little else.
The important factor in riding side saddle is the horse: a comfortable stride and good manners are essential. In other words, a lady’s mount is preferred. This does not have to be a placid horse, but a horse with a rough or bumpy stride is not any fun under a side saddle.
The side saddle requires the rider to sit with a straight back and with hips and shoulders absolutely even. Slightly more weight should be carried on the right hip to compensate for the weight of both legs on the left. Any tilting to one side, leaning or twisting eventually results in a horse with a sore back.
Side saddles have a broad, flat and comfortably padded seat. The right leg goes over a padded leather branch which turns up (the top pommel). The left leg is in a stirrup that is short enough to bring it firmly up against a second pommel which turns down. If the horse plays up at all, you clamp both legs together, gripping these horns to stay up. It is not as secure as being able to wrap your legs around a horse that’s bucking, but only the worst riders would fall from a mild mishap.
On a comfortable horse, riding side saddle soon begins to feel a bit like riding a padded rocking chair. It’s far less tiring than riding astride for the only effort is to sit straight and still. It is also amazingly comfortable to let the right leg rest on the horse’s shoulder (the right foot actually rests a bit forward of the horse’s left shoulder).
While it is possible to rise to the trot (post) side saddle, some claim that this is the real cause of giving a side saddle horse a sore back as it requires too much weight to be put into the left stirrup.
Betty Skelton, author of Side saddle Riding, found that….”As a teenager in the 1920’s, side saddle riding was second nature to me. I found it comfortable and I did not fall off as often as I had done from a cross saddle.” In teaching side saddle, Ms. Skelton has found that a beginner rider can often be comfortably cantering during her first lesson– not likely when riding astride!
A Gentlemen’s Mount & Dismount
For a gentleman’s saddle, mounting requires the reins (and any whip) to be held in the left hand. A rider traditionally mounts from the left. The rider stands at the horse’s shoulder, facing the horse’s hind quarters (or haunch). With the right hand, the rider turns the stirrup iron sideways. The left foot goes into the stirrup. The rider may grasp the cantle or back of the saddle with the right hand. He then pushes himself off the ground with the right foot, transferring his weight to the left foot in the stirrup and pushing himself into the saddle. Swinging the right leg over the horse’s back, the rider lands lightly in the seat.
By natural inclination, a horse will move out of the way of any rider attempting to leap onto its back with a vault from the rear or a jump from a high point. However, horse may be trained to put up with this behavior– as movie horses are.
To dismount, the gentleman kicks his feet out of both stirrups and swings off to the left, the right leg coming over the horse’s back.
Horses seem to have a sixth sense for when the rider is off balance with one foot in the stirrup. At that moment, the animal steps forward, making the rider hop along with all the grace of a one-legged duck. Some horses have this timing so exact that it is impossible to mount without assistance.
A groom who leads a horse out, for a gentleman or lady, will stay and hold the horse’s head. If the gentleman is portly, the groom may also hold the stirrup on the opposite side from the rider to keep the saddle from ending up under the horse’s belly. (This can happen no matter how much the girth is tightened.)
In giving a “leg up” to a lady, a groom would not dare to be so bold as to take a lady by the waist (as a rather forward gentleman might). Instead, the groom makes a stirrup from his hands. He then holds his hands low enough to allow the lady to easily step into them with her left foot. Then the groom boosts her lightly into the saddle. (I’ve seen riders tossed over a horse by too strong a boost, to the smothered laughter of everyone except the rider.)
When a groom is unavailable, a mounting block can help (and is particularly recommended to help keep a side saddle even on the horse’s back). This can be a block about two feet in height, or a fallen tree or bank can serve the same purpose of giving the rider a little extra elevation to easily step into the stirrup and swing up.
In a man’s saddle, it is quite easy to manage two on a horse. If the lady stands with her back to the horse, a gentleman can boost her into the saddle by picking her up around the waist and lifting her up so that she sits facing sideways. This is “tossing” a lady into the saddle (best done by tall heroes with short heroines).
With the lady up, the gentleman can mount up behind her so that he sits in the saddle and actually holds her somewhat on his lap. This is a nice arrangement if the two intend to amble home at a gentle walk on a placid horse. The gentleman can use his arms to steady his lady (and to other purposes, if he’s less than a gentleman). The lady can hold onto the horse’s mane for security (hopefully, she won’t grab the reins and frighten the horse).
The disadvantage is that the lady is sitting on the pommel (the round front part of the saddle). At the least, a gallop in this position will be painful on the posterior. At the worst, the gentleman may lose control of his mount.
For fast flight, a different arrangement is necessary.
The gentleman should mount first. (If he’s thin and athletic, he can swing himself up without using the stirrups– a most impressive feat when done right, and a ridiculous scramble up otherwise.) Then he reaches down to the lady. Grasping her hand, he can instruct her to put her left foot on his toe, then he swings her up behind him. Alternately, if he’s strong enough, he might be able to haul her up behind without her help (if he doesn’t mind half-pulling her arm out of the socket).
For a really spectacular mount, it’s quite easy for a rider to gallop up to someone on the ground, reach down and grab that person by the arm, relying on the horse’s momentum to swing the second rider up. The only critical elements are timing, good aim and a brave enough soul on the ground who won’t run from a galloping horse. (This maneuver makes up the modern “Rescue Race” held at some Rodeos.)
A lady, if she’s wearing a habit, she can sit astride or sideways. If she’s grown up riding side saddle, she will probably prefer to sit sideways behind the gentleman. Either way, she should wrap her arms around him to manage any pace faster than a walk. She does not sit in the saddle, but sits behind on the horse’s back. She’ll feel the heat of the horse and her skirts will end up covered in horse sweat and hair.
A side saddle is an added problem when fitting two astride. If both ride well, the best option is to strip off the saddle and have the lady up behind or in front of the gentleman.
Riding without a saddle requires excellent balance– fortunately, most Arabian horses (or part Arabs) have small withers and are therefore fairly comfortable. The horse’s skin slides under you like a silk rag on polished wood, but there’s a pleasant sensation of muscles moving. You feel every twitch, and it can sometimes feel as if you will slip off (which you won’t as long as you don’t lean to the right or left).
If the side saddle must stay on, the next best choice is for the gentleman to mount up behind the lady (swinging himself up, or using the stirrup to mount). Because of the positions of the horns in a side saddle, no gentleman is going to find any comfort in trying to ride a lady’s side saddle. If he has any sense at all, he’ll either strip off the saddle or stay up behind a lady. This requires a good rider on the gentleman’s part to carry it off (and a patient horse).
When two riders dismount, there are several options. The person behind can dismount first by swinging a leg off over the back of the horse. Or, if sitting astride, the person in front can dismount first by swinging the right leg over the horse’s neck. Most horses do not object to this. With a lady up front and sitting sideways, she can easily slip off to dismount, however, the gentleman would most likely dismount first out of courtesy and then help her dismount.
Riding Harness Horses
As a general rule, horses broken to harness are not necessarily broken for riding (the exception being post horses). Being creatures of habit, a horse who is accustomed to pulling a carriage will object strenuously to any attempts to mount it. You will end up spinning in circles trying to mount. The opposite also holds true– attempting to attach a hunter to a carriage is a good way to see the carriage kicked to splinters. It takes months of training for a horse to accept harness and will pull any weight.
Finally, some useful “English” riding terms that you may want to know:
Cantle – the back of a saddle.
Pommel – the front of a saddle.
Girth – the strap that goes under the horse’s belly to hold the saddle.
Horn – an extension to the pommel (as in side saddles and western saddles).
Post– to rise up & down in the stirrups to the two-beat trot of a horse
Reins – the part of the bridle held by a rider, connecting the rider’s hand with the bit in the horse’s mouth.
Stirrup Iron – the metal iron used as a stirrup on an English saddle (which is attached with a stirrup leather– a leather strap that buckles to itself).
Trot – a two-beat gait, faster than a walk, slower than a canter (legs move in diagonal pairs).
Canter – a three-beat gate, faster than a trot, slower than a gallop.
To learn more, the Horse Sense for Your Characters workshop begins in February 2014.