A (Not So) Short History of Women Riding Astride

IWWH covers I enjoyed talking about the history of sidesaddle on Countryfile – it was my first experience of TV and everyone was incredibly friendly and easygoing. We did a few takes of different parts of the interview and it was hard to know whether to embellish what I’d said each time or to say the same thing again. There’s so much material to use but you only have seconds in which to say it, and the entire segment on sidesaddle was six minutes long. This slot had to include the presenter, Ellie, having a sidesaddle lesson, a display by the Legover Ladies and interviews with saddler Laura Dempsey and Roger Philpot. The result is that you simplify as colourfully as you can and make a mental note to do a blog post which clarifies a thing or two. I haven’t seen the programme yet as I can’t watch it on iPlayer here in Berlin, but I’ve been told that it stressed the fact that women didn’t begin to ride cross-saddle or astride until after the First World War. This isn’t really true. I’ve written about the role that the women working in WWI remount depots played in making cross-saddle respectable and even patriotic but of course they weren’t the pioneers. The true picture is very different: it’s not that women didn’t ride astride before 1914. In fact, they never gave up the cross-saddle, not least because until the side-saddle made sufficient technological advances in the Renaissance and later in the 1830s, it was very impractical to use. Even princesses and goddesses sometimes rode cross-saddle when they wanted to gallop and jump. It was often rare and considered eccentric or even indecent (as you’ll see from the first-hand accounts below), but it did happen. Here then is my extended and nonexhaustive breakdown of ladies with a leg on each side, some of whom may be familiar from If Wishes Were Horses: A Memoir of Equine Obsession. Feel free to tell me about more rebels and rodeo riders! I may add more as I go along and have time. Giddy up cowgirls!

First up, Amazons! Short-hand for “women from the Eurasian Steppes who rode astride and went into battle.” Depicted throughout Antiquity as trouser-wearing, man-slaying, horse-riding troublemakers. The Gallo-Roman pony goddess Epona rode both side and astride. Eighth century AD: Women polo players in Tang Dynasty China. A hundred years on, Charlemagne’s six daughters hunted astride. Nicetas Choniates, O City of Byzantium, Annals of Nicetas Choniates, trans.Harry J. Magoulias (c.1150–1213)

“Females were numbered among them, riding horseback in the manner of men, not on coverlets sidesaddle but unashamedly astride, and bearing lances and weapons as men do; dressed in masculine garb, they conveyed a wholly martial appearance, more mannish than the Amazons. One stood out from the rest as another Penthesilea and from the embroidered gold which ran around the hem and fringes of her garment was called Goldfoot.”

Chaucer’s Wife of Bath wears two spurs and must, unlike the Prioress, have been riding with a leg on each side. Most illustrators pick up that cue. End of fourteenth century. Fynes Moryson, (early 1600s):

“Also I have seen honourable Women, as well married as Virgines, ride by the high way in Princes traines, apparrelled like Men, in a doublet close to the body, and large breeches open at the knees, after the Spanish fashion, both of carnation silk or satten, and likewise riding astride like men upon Horses and Mules, but their heads were attired like Women, with bare haires knotted, or else covered with gold netted cawles, and a hat with a feather.” [Source, Women and Horses by Gillian Newsum]

Merry Passages and Jeasts by Sir Nicholas L’Estrange (1603-1655) of Hunstanton, Norfolk. article 354

“The Bury Ladyes that usd Hawking and Hunting, were once in a great vaine of wearing Breeches; and some of them being at dinner one day at Sir Edward Lewkenors, there was one Mr Zephory, a very precise and silenc’t Minister … and … he fell upon this and declaimd much against it; Rob: Heighem … undertooke to vindicate the Ladyes, and their fashion, as decent to such as might cover their shame: for sayes he, ‘if an Horse throwes them, or by any mischance they gett a fall, had you not better see them in their Breeches than Naked?’ sayes the over-zealous man, in detestation of Breeches, ‘O no, by no meanes:’ ‘By my Troth Parson,’ sayes Rob: Heighem, ‘and I commend the for’t, for I am of they mind too.’”

A New Method and Extraordinary Invention to dress Horses, And work them according to Nature; As also, to perfect NATURE by the Subtilty of ART; Which was never found out, but by the Thrice Noble, High and puissant PRINCE William Cavendishe (1657):

“I wonder how Men are so Presumptuous to think they can ride as Horse-men, because they can ride forward from Barnet to London, which every Body can do; and I have seen Women ride astride as well as they; They do not think of any Art or Trade, as they do of Horse-manship, where they are all Masters; Which doth not prove so, when they Ride.”

Morning Post, (3rd March 1778):

“a German Lady who dresses, and rides, en cavalier, has for several days past attracted the attenion of the beaux and belles in Hyde-park. She is well mounted, takes her morning rides without any attendant, and leaps over the different bars in the park with all imaginable coolness and resolution.”

Marie Antoinette astride in leopardskin (she switched to a sidesaddle when she became queen of France). Not everyone thought cross-saddle was a dignified pursuit for a lady:

English engraving c. 1800 - 1810 as reproduced in one of the early 20thC Eduard Fuchs Karikatur books. Wikimedia Commons.

English engraving c. 1800 – 1810 as reproduced in one of the early 20thC Eduard Fuchs Karikatur books. Wikimedia Commons.

The Sporting Magazine vol. 18 (April 1801) contains a comment that in 1382 Queen Anne of Bohemia managed “to abolish, even in defiance of France, the safe, commodious, and natural mode of riding hitherto practised by the women of England, and to introduce the sidesaddle.” Lorna Gibb pointed out that adventurer Lady Hesther Stanhope was riding astride on her travels in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Unprotected Females in Norway (1857) by Emily Lowe:

“Two beautiful little ponies with black stripes on their legs like zebras, and two tall farmers in fur caps, came to the door in the course of the morning… only one lady’s saddle secured for my mother… Now the non-talkaboutable [her loose or ‘Zouave’ trousers] proved their usefulness: bagging all my clothes in their ample folds, I at once mounted à la Zouave and can assure every one that for a long journey this attitude has double comforts; whilst mamma sat twisted sideways on a saddle which would not keep its balance, I was easy and independent, with a foot in each stirrup.”

Letters to Mrs Power O’Donoghue, (1880) From “Hersilie”:

“Oh, no woman would ever be twisted and packed onto a sidesaddle again if she could help it, after once enjoying the ease and freedom, as well as complete control of her horse that a man’s seat gives… when shall we cease to prostrate ourselves before the Juggernaut of fashion?… It is a new existence on horseback, and nothing indelicate about it… leaping is, oh, so easy; in fact your power seems doubled in every way. In case of conflict with your horse, you feel a veritable centaur compared with the side seat… I think I could not be thrown.”

Times, (September 10th 1890), report on a meeting of the British Association:

“Wild cats, bears, and wolves exist in the Carpathians, but there were no other obstacles, said Miss Dowie, to a girl travelling alone from London to the Russian frontier. Miss Dowie met with no inconvenience. She wore an easily-detachable skirt over knickerbockers; she carried a knife and a revolver, and when riding she rode cross-saddle and bareback… Miss Dowie said that she had met with several accidents, such as being nearly drowned while bathing in strange rivers, and dislocating her shoulder by a fall, but she regretted that she had never met a bear face to face.”

Punch (1890):

Ride a cock-horse To Banbury Cross To see a young-lady A-straddle o’course!

The Horsewoman, Mrs Hayes (1893)

“A lady who is well known with the Devon and Somerset Staghounds asked my husband’s advice about a suitable saddle, as she desired to ride astride, and he helped her to procure one with large knee pads, made on the principle of Australian buck-jumping saddles, which appears to have answered her purpose very well; but I do not know how she would get on in Leicestershire…”

Times, (November 3rd 1908)

“Perhaps the greatest change that has come over the hunting field in my time is the enormous increase of lady riders … the number of ladies must have doubled, and some of them are taking to ride astride.”

Times, (March 17th 1914)

“The Kaiser’s order expressing his desire that the wives of German Army officers shall immediately discontinue the practice of riding astride is being very widely and keenly discussed by horsewomen all over the country. The fact that it comes so soon after King George’s refusal to witness any exhibition of riding astride at Olympia is regarded as significant.”

S. R. Church, a Remount depot “somewhere in England”, World War One (thank you to Fran Jurga):

“… The remount depot is not a picnic. Now that we have roused the curiosity of a larger public than the small boys who came tumbling out of the cottages and the grinning motorists in passing cars, to whom our string of horses ridden at exercise by ladies on cross saddles was an object of amusement, we are always seeing ourselves in illustrated papers labelled ‘Smiling Dianas’ or something equally foolish. If we are Dianas, we get far hotter, dirtier, and more tired than would be at all dignified in a goddess. Of course it looks very jolly to see us all going out for a pleasant ride in the country. ‘Those girls are having the time of their lives,’ people probably say when they see us. So we are. I cannot deny it. But I think some of our friends who last saw us, say, in a London ball-room would realise the other side of the picture if they could look in one morning at a time when they are generally in bed and see the erstwhile fine lady in her riding breeches and shirt, with the sleeves rolled up over her elbows, busily engaged in cleaning a dirty old carthorse, or a charger back from the front with filthy coat, or raking refuse out of the stalls.”

Click here for a longer blog piece on women, horses and World War One which is a bit of a “missing chapter” from If Wishes Were Horses. Times, (August 5th 1919)

“It must be quite twenty years ago that the wife of a well-known R.A. electrified Exmoor by appearing astride at a meet of the Devon and Somerset, an innovation which furnished the illustrated papers with material for many criticisms and witticisms. Other days, other ways, and after five years of war it would take something very startling in the way of feminine costume to arouse comment even on Exmoor … When we remember that riding astride has been made obligatory in all ladies’ remount depôts during the war we may expect to see a very strong cross-saddle contingent with the Devon and Somerset this winter.”

Olga E Lockley, Nannie Power O’Donoghue’s biographer:

“In 1921 the question of side saddle versus cross saddle arose again. Mrs O’Donoghue , no doubt bowing to the inevitability of it, commented grudgingly that riding astride might be alright for the very young with very good figures.”

Riding Astride for Girls (1923) by Ivy Maddison

“Twenty years ago a girl who rode astride was looked on as a hoydenish creature with a shocking lack of modesty whose only reason for adopting this style must be a desire to ape masculine ways and make herself duly conspicuous.”

Times advertisements (November 30th 1928)

“The Owner of one of the most successful stables for jumpers in Germany requires an English Lady Assistant of good social position, no professional, age between 20 and 24, weight 8-9st., to ride cross-saddle in and help train for the show ring… Apply, with photo, by letter to Graf R. Von Gürtz, Brunkensen, bei Hannover.”

The Young Rider by Golden Gorse (1928)

“I do not propose to discuss side-saddle riding. Girls almost without exception learn to ride astride nowadays.”

Times, Report from Royal International Horse Show at Olympia (June 23rd 1931)

“Yesterday … there were several other competitions, two of them for riding horses, one for ladies’ hunters, and the other for ladies’ riding horses, the ladies in each case to ride side-saddle. How much better it looked, and how much safer, than the astride method which, however it may appeal to some people, can never make a lady on a horse look like a lady on a horse.”

To Whom the Goddess by Lady Diana Shedden and Lady Viola Apsley (1932):

“At present time it is a moot point whether a woman should ride side-saddle or astride.”

Lord Brabazon of Tara, News Review (19th June 1947)

“That the world is out of balance and lop-sided we know without being reminded of it by the side-saddle.”

If Wishes Were Horses: A Memoir of Equine Obsession

17 thoughts on “A (Not So) Short History of Women Riding Astride

  1. This is wonderful. Hey, I have a great little article from the New York Times of July 13, 1913, about the King banning women riders from riding astride, but it only copies and pastes as an image so I can’t put it here. I’ll send it to your email. There’s another about a stir caused at the National Horse Show here in the States by a woman riding astride back in the day, I’ll see if I can scare that up too.

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  5. I came to this page throough a Google search for: astride side-saddle.

    I did this because I read something in the book Theodore Roosevelt’s Letters to His Children (Charle’s Scribner’s Sons, 1919 – reprinted 1929 boook stamped Property of the Brooklyn Ethical Cuilture Society sometime between approximately 1952 and 1962, and rebound, discarded somewhere nd acquired by me for free on Friday, June 19, 2009.)

    On pages 44 to 46 there’s a letter to his daughter Ethel written from Del Monte, Cal on May 10, 1903.

    It says in part:

    “….By the way, tell mother that everywhere out here, from the mississippi to the Pacific, I have seen most of the girls riding astride, and most of the grown-up women. I must say I think it very much better for horses’ backs. I think by the time that you are an old lady the side-saddle will almost have vanished—I am sure I hope so, I have forgotten whether you like the side-saddle or not.”

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  7. I should be grateful to know how ladies rode in Morocco in the late nineteenth century, early twentieth. There is mention of palanquins in some royal progresses, but did Moroccan women ever ride horses or camels? If horses, what kind of saddle? Or did they only ride behind a man? I’d be grateful for guidance, Margaret Devitt.

  8. It is my understanding, (the truth of this needs verification) that in England and other Western European countries, unmarried women of the aristocracy (who were slated to mother the heirs of titles and estates) were expected to ride sidesaddle in order to ensure their virginity remained intact. Some of the onus of riding astride was lifted for married women, particularly if they had already produced a son and heir.

    • I think there’s some doubt about the virginity theory per se. It might also be about simply displaying clothing – Anne of Bohemia’s famous sidesaddle journey through England may actually have been more about showing off the splendour of her dress than making public her virginity.

  9. Susanna do you know if there is a full biography (book) on Esther Stace the well known sidesaddle rider in Australia and died in 1918. She performed at show circuits in New South Wales in Australia. Looking forward to your reply. Regards Madonna Weaver

    • Hello Madonna, I had a poke around via Google a few years ago and I don’t remember finding anything. There was a local history group who I think own or first released the photo, and a novel called Foal’s Bread with characters who compete in these type of jumping competitions. I’ll ask the side-saddle community and see if they know more than me!

      • Dear Madonna,
        The sidesaddle ladies came up with the goods: a book called Equestrienne Australis: The Story of Australia’s Horsewomen by Glenda Couch-Keen. It includes a short chapter on Esther.

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