Dianas of the Chase!

From Riding For Ladies by Nannie Power O'Donoghue

From Riding For Ladies by Nannie Power O’Donoghue

Get ye to Ingarsby Hall, Melton Mowbray on Saturday February 2nd to witness the Dianas of the Chase! Sidesaddle daredevils both male and female are travelling from far and wide to take part in the Bernard Weatherill Sidesaddle Steeplechase  in aid of Forces in Mind, a charity which helps former servicemen and women reintegrate into civilian life. It’s the first of its kind to be held since the Second World War, and although the course has had to be shortened because of the Big Freeze, it’s still a testing mile over big hedges in classic Quorn-hunt territory. Look out for puissance-record-taker Susan Oakes, Becca Holland of the Flying Foxes sidesaddle display team and Martha Sitwell of Sitwell and Whippet.

It seems like a good time to remember the original sidesaddle steeplechaser, Irish poet and journalist Nannie Power O’Donoghue, whose books on equitation and horsecare are still treasured by fans, and a cracking read. In the nineteenth century she was the first person to ride around Ireland’s three most formidable race courses without a single refusal or fall. These quotations come courtesy of Olga E Lockley’s excellent biography of Mrs Power O’D (more here). From a contemporary sporting magazine:

“The only lady who has ever ridden over the three steeplechase courses of Punchestown, Fairyhouse and Baldoyle; and all those who know the double at Punchestown will be more than ready to admit that this is no light feat… It was sad one day that no horse had crossed these three courses without making a mistake and that probably no horse could ever do so, and seeing how many of the best animals come to grief at the great Punchestown double, failure always seems probable, though perhaps Fairyhouse is the severest of the three courses, the jumps including, to use the famous rider’s own words, ‘post and rails and horrors’. Pleader’s mistress, however, eager in defence and praise of her pet, declared that he at any rate would not fail, and accompanied by Major Stone of the 80th, the three journeys were achieved by her without a refusal or a mistake.”

A few years later the famous jockey George Fordham wrote to Nannie asking for an account of the ride and she replied via her column.

“The course (Fairyhouse) is a most trying one, and the feat was one never before attempted by a lady. I did it to show that my horse was capable of accomplishing the task, and the risk was not what you describe it, for he was too clever to put a foot astray. Major Stone of the 80th accompanied me, and gave me a good lead. The only time I passed him was when his horse refused at an ugly post and rail. It is not true that he was thrown. He rode splendidly, managing a difficult horse. There was no ‘crowd’, and in short it is evident you have received an exaggerated account of the affair.”

There now, is modesty in action. Perhaps Mr Fordham’s version had been confused with that of Regency lady jockey, Alicia Thornton. Good luck and the best of British to the Dianas who will be emulating Mrs Power O’D on Saturday 2nd February. May your mounts all be Pleaders and your leaping horns stay firm.

Nanny Power O'Donoghue and Pleader.

Nanny Power O’Donoghue and Pleader.

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!


Isabelle Chinon regularly performed astride in the great Parisian circuses in the 1890s. Here she is in a poster screengrabbed from the Franch national library’s excellent Gallica site:

Screen Shot 2017-07-14 at 10.23.50

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

Riding Philosophically, Riding Culturally

Hello folks,

I haven’t been such a great blogger lately because I’ve been working on The Next Big Thing – actually the Two Next Big Things. They’re books two and three, the first of which will be underway this spring, and the second needs whipping into shape so that it can be rolled out sometime next year. I’ve become more of a Twitterer as a result, but there’s one big, considered blog post that I’ve been mulling for  a while and I’m going to type it up now.

In February and March I spent three weeks in the UK and had two very different and very interesting riding experiences. On my return I got stuck into a book my brother got me for my birthday, and my reflections on the book have been drawn into my thoughts on those riding experiences and the way I learned to ride at a British child in the late twentieth century. When I started riding again after an eleven year break (as documented in If Wishes Were Horses) I thought it would be pretty straightforward – after all, hadn’t I spent countless hours having lessons as a child and teenager? Of course I’d overlooked the fact that I’d lost my nerve aged 14 or so and spent the next five years pootling around inoffensively on a pony called Tav, so I had quite a rude awakening when I found myself riding big old warmbloods and being asked to do things like “shoulder in” (what?).

At the same time I was also reading about the history of riding for the first time, and becoming aware of classical equitation. As a bookish type who’s preoccupied with at least trying to be as benevolent a rider as possible, it was inevitable that I’d be drawn to the equestrian philosophy derived from Xenophon and developed in the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Sylvia Loch’s Dressage, The Art of Classical Riding, flicked a switch and I began to think, “If I had the cash to learn to ride all over again – which I clearly need to do – this is how I’d do it.” I was spellbound by Nuno Oliveira and the écuyères of the nineteenth-century French circus. The artistry and care required to not only make a horse dance, but to do so without coercion, drew me like a magnet. Classical riding is about perfecting what the horse does naturally. Its philosophy is irresistable to the horse lover. Xenophon, quoted by Loch, wrote:

“Now if when his fire is thus kindled, you let him have the bit, the slackness of him makes him think that he is given his head, and in his joy thereat he will bound along with the proud gait and prancing legs, imitating exactly the airs that he puts on before other horses. Everybody sees that such a horse cries out that he is free, willing, fit to ride, high-mettled, brilliant and at once beautiful and fiery in appearance.”

At the same time I’d become fascinated by side-saddle, not just because of those écuyères, but also because of lady riders like Nannie Power O’Donoghue, Mrs Hayes, Lady Salisbury and Catherine de Medici, all of whom were something I’m not, namely brave huntswomen who, like the “Fair Girls on Grey Horses” in Will H Ogilvie’s poem, never went wide of a fence. I asked for a side-saddle lesson at Christmas 2010, and my mother activated the Norfolk horsey network and found me a teacher operating at Pine Lodge School of Classical Equitation, which turned out to be a classical riding academy of the Oliveira/Loch kind only a few miles from home in Costessey. At the end of last June I had my side-saddle lesson, documented here, and found myself legged up on Xis, a beautifully trained and very patient Lusitano. I chatted with the Lodge’s owner and presiding spirit, Sue Barber, about my interest in classical riding and she said I should come back for a lesson. Due to the vagaries of income and travel, it took me a mere nine months to take her up on the offer, but I finally returned in March 2012.

I’d travelled to the UK to launch If Wishes Were Horses and to write a piece about side-saddle and the Flying Foxes Display Team for the Telegraph. On February 19th Mum and I went to Audley End to meet the Foxes, who’d decided that I was going to have not just a lesson, but a bit of a jump, no matter if it was my first leap in 14 years. Becca Holland’s big grey hunter, Henry, was a trooper, loping gently into the fence as I sat back with the reins as loose as I could leave them – I was determined not to snag him in the mouth – and good-naturedly putting up with my inadvertant acrobatics. Becca encouraged me to ride short and although in my first side-saddle lesson at Pine Lodge I’d used my left leg so little that I’d wondered why I bothered bringing it, I now found myself actively gripping with both legs, poised for speed and take off, feeling like a jockey rather than a lay-dee. Bex Hathway White took a series of photos of our efforts for the Flying Foxes Facebook page as a visual aid for others who are experimenting with jumping side-saddle, and you can see them, and my terrified concentrating face here. The crowning moment for me came later as we cantered for the photographer in full rig in front of Audley End, and Henry took wing.

As I wrote in the Telegraph,

Henry …  lengthened his stride and suddenly there we were, bowling along beautifully. I sat back and thought, “This is it. This is how those Victorian amazons felt when they were leading the hunting field. Easy, elegant, smooth and so fast.”

It was a hell of a rush. It was also, I realised, very horse friendly: you sit back and let the horse get on with his business with relatively little interference.

Three weeks later I was back at Pine Lodge, watching as someone warmed up a grey Lusitano called Sasa with a few canter pirouettes before my lesson. He was, I was told, currently ranked eighth in the world in working equitation and worth more than every horse I’d ever ridden combined. No pressure then… Sue warned me before I hopped on, “People pay not to be taught by me. You’re going to wish your parents bought you some shoes rather than a riding lesson for Christmas” and she lived up to her threats, although she wasn’t right about the shoes. I didn’t care if she was scarcastic or strict because I was there to learn, and though an hour of riding without stirrups left me as crippled as dancing on a pair of four-inch stilettoes, I knew which I’d rather have. Sasa and a whole new way of riding.

It was far more intense than I’d anticipated. I had to grip solidly with my upper legs and use not my seat but my calves alone to ask for a transition. Without realising it I’d gotten into the bad habit of holding my reins in my fingers, not the palms of my hands, and of rocking back and forth in the saddle and not, as Sue demanded, rising up and down. “You’ve got to look like you’re doing bugger all,” she stressed. “Effortless. Get that fire,” here Sasa leapt and surged, “and energy, and don’t let him doze off. Watch his ears. He’s not paying attention to you. Get him concentrating.” We walked, trotted and cantered in circles, all without stirrups, as I tried to pull off the confusing new style that seemed like the old puppeteer’s challenge of “rub your head, pat your stomach”. “Turn him with your shoulders,” she called, as I failed again again to get Sasa to canter on the correct leg. I knew that my seat was important (what was that line from Sylvia Loch’s book about Oliveira being able to direct a horse purely with his lower back muscles?) but I could only use it heavily and crudely, and Sasa was both confused and contemptuous.

Sasa – ridden by somebody who knows what they're doing

By the end of my hour I was aching all over and full of questions: the art of doing “bugger all” seemed to be quite a work out. I also wanted more lessons, and to pursue classical riding when I next had the chance. I began to realise what effort must go into the decades-long partnerships that great classical riders forge with their horses as they both work towards perfection, achieving physical communication so swift that it looks like mind reading between rider and mount.  However, I was also beginning to wonder how on earth one could ride like that cross-country, or even on a hack. Which was best? The light seat I was used to (although imperfectly executing) or the “effortless” classical style? How can two styles of riding be so different and both “good”? I emailed my friend Karen, who spent years studying dressage, and she sympathised “Classical equitation really fucked my hunting and my huntseat. But it does feel pure.” I turned to history for clues.

The book I mentioned at the beginning of the post is Noble Brutes: How Eastern Horses Transformed English Culture, by Donna Landry. It’s a cultural history of the way in which the English not only adopted Turkish, Arab and Barb horses and turned them, within a generation,  into the “most English of horses”, the Thoroughbred, but also appropriated Oriental riding styles and repackaged them as the English hunting seat. In contrast to the classical Continental European style with its long stirrup leathers and firm seat, Eastern jockeys rode short and lightly in a manner that favoured galloping over open country on rangey horses rather than cantering in a menage on stouter baroque horses. As hunting evolved in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the English lost their residual interest in classical haute école and focused instead on speed and leaping, riding in a manner that encouraged their mounts to be “forward going” rather than collected, their outline extended and relaxed.

This, I realise, is the tradition in which I learned to ride. Leg contact only when you need it. Light seat. Snaffles and the rein, as eighteenth-century jockey Samuel Chifney put it, “silken… as fine as a hair … that you was afraid of breaking it.” Compare that to a line in K M Peyton’s Fly-by-Night which I’ll always remember, as Ruth Hollis watches Peter McNair handling a brilliant but difficult pony at a hunter trial, “Toadhill Flax, as if held on a thread, trembling with excitement, pivoted on his forehand.” Compare this “natural” style also with a Horse and Hound “thruster of the week” from last year, who said that her horses were “almost feral” because she barely trained them, preferring to let them take hedges as they pleased, with minimal interference. In To Whom the Goddess the authors wrote, “For a woman riding side-saddle there is very little she can do to make a horse take off at the right moment, except give him a kick, and she is very handicapped in this way, and has to rely mostly on how she ‘presents’ her horse at his fences.” This is what I sensed with Henry, too – I could see how the grand hunting dames built up such confidential partnerships with their horses. Trust was essential. You could almost say that the British side-saddle seat for hunting with its long reins and low-positioned hands was the most extreme expression of the English/Oriental style.

Do not lean this far forwards when jumping side-saddle. Because when you land that's how far backwards you will ping.

Of course, as Landry is at pains to point out, this is very much an ideal which plenty of real riders miss by a country mile or flagrantly abuse. But the notion that the English rode “lightly” and “naturally” in opposition to the classical style with its complicated bits, philosophy and heavy collection, is a deep-set one. And the British were suspicious of dressage for a long time. Pat Smythe was criticised when she took the advice of the Swiss three-day event rider (her future husband), Sam Koechlin, and used dressage to train her horses. She won the Prix Caprilli, a competition in which participants both showjumped and performed a dressage test. For decades our three-day eventers excelled at the hunting-like cross country phase while falling behind in dressage – the exact opposite of the German riders. I’m guessing this is why, also, despite a decade’s worth of lessons in the UK, I never learned to “shoulder in”.

But my eleven year break from horses coincided with the culmination of a cultural change in British equitation that was a long time brewing. Dressage has become huge. Horse and Hound devotes as many pages to dressage as to hunting, and the traditional gymkhana faces stiff competition from local dressage events where expensive warmbloods line up against hairy cobs. We have a world-beating dressage team that’s a major contender for Olympic gold, and have begun to breed competition horses that wow even the Germans. There’s also an upsurge of interest in the classical style that goes hand in hand with a preoccupation with both its history and ethics, strictly and exclusively maintained by purists. As Sylvia Loch’s website states,

“Classical Dressage is correct for the horse, correct for you, and correct for that moment in time. The horse hasn’t changed in thousands of years, neither have human beings. We are all ruled by the same physical laws of nature, which is why there is no middle way. Only correct, and incorrect.”

How perfect to find the absolute Right Way to Ride a Horse, you would think, but then my childhood memories of the thrill and companionship of a darn good gallop with a sympathetic, excited pony intervene and I think of Donna Landry’s closing words in Noble Brutes:

“From the seventeenth century onward, utility and beauty were embodied, irresistably combined, in the Eastern blood horse as these equine foreigners embarked on their European sojourns. Inspired by their coming, abandoning the manège, and riding short, ‘after the Turkey fashion,’ horsemen and women in the British Isles would pursue the ideal of equestrian partnership not in dressage movements but in free forward movement over the green turf, where the love of galloping for its own sake, for the joy of liberty rather than collection and discipline, could be most keenly felt.”

So, which is it?

At the end of all these musings I realise I can’t be a partisan like Landry and Loch. Despite the clash between the two seats and the way that they have been played off against one another – especially by the British – to distinguish one nation’s horsemanship from that of others, they have more in common than purists would allow. Both classical and English-styles are performed on a rein that sags and with minimal tugging at the bit. Both involve a close, trusting relationship with the horse. Both are intended to look effortless and to enhance the horse’s natural skill to the best advantage. Both put the horse’s welfare foremost and celebrate its athleticism and intelligence. Why choose? I want to ride two horses: the Lusitano from an Uccello painting, balanced on his hindquarters in a levade that’s an expression of strength and art, and the English Thoroughbred with the loose, long stride and blood-quickening gallop.

Women, Horses and World War One

(Look on this as a kind of missing chapter from If Wishes Were Horses.)

Part two of this post will be available here from 2nd June 2014.

When I wrote If Wishes Were Horses I tried to take the story of girls and ponies from Lascaux to My Little Pony as neatly as I could. I had to cover ground, but I wanted to linger on a few characters too: the teenage girls buried with weapons and riding gear in the Bronze Age Kazakh steppes, a medieval pagan queen who danced with horses in the New Forest, a courtesan who rose from the slums of Liverpool to mingle with the Prince of Wales and the Prime Minister thanks to her beauty and her horse riding skills. I narrowed my focus to the UK, but much was lost on the cutting room floor. I couldn’t squeeze in the spirited Alicia Thornton, who was the only woman to take part in horse races in the nineteenth century (she lost one match over four miles but won another over two, exposing her embroidered stockings to the admiration of all). I had to skip over Celia Fiennes, who rode side-saddle to every county in England in the seventeenth century in order, she wrote, “to regain my health by variety and change of aire and exercise”. These women were eccentrics and outliers all, but there was one group I really regret mentioning so briefly: the women who kept the horses of Britain’s Great War army fighting fit.

They were middle- and upper-class ladies who volunteered to muck in by mucking out at army remount depôts and proved that they could do their bit for the war effort without waving white feathers or knitting comforters. Over two hundred women in total were drafted into the Land Army when it was founded in 1915 and employed as grooms and stable managers for remount centers at repurposed studs and racing stables. They were the real life Lady Maries, Ediths and Sybils, swapping their pampered Downton Abbey lives for hard work that would help change the status of all British women. They were also a key part of the unstoppable momentum of British women’s equestrian advance which would by the mid-twentieth century see lady riders representing their country as equals of men and branching out into every area of horsemanship from farrier work to ploughing and polo.

Under the headlines “Sick Horses” and “Useful Work by Hunting Women”, The Times reported on December 6th, 1915, that “there are three large remount depôts, under the War Office, which are unique in this, that for the first time in the history of the British Army, not one man is on any of the staffs, and that all the work of attending to the horses is being done by gentlewomen.” It went on, “Some of the ladies have been brought up on Australian and Canadian horse ranches, but most of them are hunting women.” They dressed like men in caps and breeches, shedding the corsets and long, heavy skirts of Edwardian Britain. “I have seen a number of them, riding astride, exercising a long string of horses like the trainers of the racing stable,” said the journalist. The press were fascinated by this turn of events. They ran photographs of the young women lugging wicker hampers for fodder or schooling hogged and clipped horses to draw heavy artillery. It was newsworthy that these “gentlewomen” collected the horses from the night train and did everything – including mucking out, “strapping”, grooming and hoofcare – that their grooms had done before the war. “The inspectors of remounts who periodically visit the depôts say they have never known horses to be so well attended to by men,” went on The Times, noting that these previously cosseted ladies were up at 6.3oam and worked solidly till they could fall into a hot evening bath at their digs in a nearby farmhouse. It was a far cry from their pre-war existences (when, as one Nancy Mitford heroine put it, they simply handed their horses to waiting grooms, “had eggs for tea and were made to rest for hours”).

The initial idea of hiring women to do men’s work was coined by the MFH and popular sporting artist, Cecil Aldin (whose work as an illustrator included an edition of Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty). As the war drew more and more able-bodied men away from the farms, it was necessary to replace them with grooms who could competently care for horses that were recuperating after stints in veterinary hospitals or prepare new chargers and draft horses for the front-line. His first thought was to call up girls from the local hunt who had sufficient equine know-how to learn on the job. The War Office paid a set weekly sum for the maintenance of each horse out of which came their fodder, tack expenses, standard veterinary treatment and the cost of their grooms, who received 15/ to 30/ a week, depending on whether they had to find their own accomodation or not. Aldin eventually oversaw three such yards, two in Bradfield and one in Holyport near Maidenhead – all of them superintended by women.

“The horses sent him were mostly convalescents from the large veterinary hospitals in the vicinity of Aldershot, and a very mixed lot they were, but the ladies proved to be excellent nurses, and the equine convalescents quickly regained their health and vigour,” according to a contemporary army document now stored in the Imperial War Museum. When the need for convalescent care for the Aldershot horses dropped away, the stables closed, and the women who had worked there were deployed to other remount establishments around the country. Mrs Rigby, a Cheshire-based Shetland pony breeder in peacetime, transformed her own property into a reception for recuperating horses and also staffed it with the young girls who’d been cutting a dash over the Cheshire hedges before the war. “Mrs Rigby’s devoted and excellent work have earned her the unqualified praise of all who have seen her establishment,” commented the army report.

The largest depôt staffed by women was Russley Park in Wiltshire. It transformed horses fresh off the boat from Ireland into chargers for service on the front line. It was overseen by Lady Mabel Birkbeck, the wife of Major General Sir William Henry Birkbeck, who was Director of Remounts from 1912 to 1920. Another illustrator of Black Beauty, Lucy Kemp-Welch, visited and painted the young women at work. In “The Straw Ride: Russley Park Remount Depôt, Wiltshire,” three young women grooms ride and lead pairs of high spirited horses round a covered exercise ground in a whirl of milling legs and tossed heads. In “The Ladies’ Army Remount Depôt, Russley Park, Wiltshire, 1918,” the “gentlewomen’s” shirtsleeves are rolled up and scarves cover their hair. Their horses step out two-by-two along a farm track in a long file that disappears off the edge of the painting, some obedient, others fighting, all full of animation.

The doughtily-named Mrs Ironside was head groom at Russley Park and each of her girls was responsible for three horses at a time. The only man involved was the vet who visited once a week. The routine was as follows:

“…early morning stables 6 to 7.30, when the boxes are thoroughly washed out and the horses rubbed down, watered and fed. Breakfast follows, and the string then turns out to exercise on the downs. Midday stables on return from exercise and dinner at one o’clock. At two, horses that require special schooling are taken out and clipping and singeing and other odd jobs are taken in hand which occupy all hands till tea at 4.30.

Evening stables 5 to 6, and then the cleaning of saddles. Supper is at eight and the whole establishment is in bed by nine. … Mrs Ironside’s work is that of a responsible and very competent stud groom the care and feeding of some 70 horses is [sic] stables and at grass, the care of foaling mares, the dressing of wounds and contusions, the dressing of ringworm spots, the giving of balls and drenches, taking of temperatures, rasping of teeth, poulticing, bandaging, fomentation etc. etc. are all in her hands and no man ever did it better or with sounder judgment. …

The standard of efficiency of this establishment is that of a first-class hunting stable – attention is paid to every detail, horses clean and bright, stables spotless, windows clean, no cobwebs, brass shining and even pitchforks burnished.”

Special establishments near Chester and at Elsenham Hall Paddocks in Essex catered for horses and mules suspended from service as “incurably vicious“. Here again, the Land Army girls showed “determination and quiet pluck” to “send the animals back to the Army not only cured but fool proof.”

There seems to have been little question that women were up to the job: during the Victorian Era British women had been gradually established as both excellent riders and all-round horsewomen with a working knowledge of stable management, even if few of them had a chance to get their hands dirty before 1915. “Women’s emancipation, it could be argued, to the horror of modern liberators, began in the hunting field,” wrote Raymond Carr in English Fox Hunting. The nineteenth century saw an explosion of feminine interest in riding and riding hard and well. Few women hunted in the Georgian period, but by the 1890s ladies were in hot pursuit of hounds, and the ability to ride elegantly was seen as a social asset like piano playing or conversational Italian. When no less a figure than the glamorous Empress Elisabeth of Austria hunted in Ireland and Leicestershire so boldly that she overran the hounds and needed one of the country’s finest horsemen and jockeys, Bay Middleton, as a pilot, it was impossible to argue that a lady was too delicate to take her place alongside men. By the twentieth century, no chauvinist could feel safe in proclaiming that women could not or should not ride, for the bluffest colonel would bring up the example of his mother, who had once beaten three officers and an Indian prince in a paperchase over mud banks four and a half feet high on the maidan outside Calcutta etc etc, or of a certain Irishwoman who raced clear round the three largest steeplechase courses in Ireland just to prove how good her horse was. Small wonder Cecil Aldin and Major General Birkbeck knew they’d find women who could ride untrained or mettlesome horses in the ranks of the county hunts.

As the nineteenth century wore on, not only did more riding manuals address women’s riding specifically, but they were also increasingly written by women themselves. These books held horsewomen to higher and higher standards: by the 1880s it wasn’t enough for a woman to be a “front-door rider” who received her horse from her groom fully tacked and didn’t know the difference between hay and straw. She also had to know enough about horsecare to keep tabs on that groom and to make knowledgeable comments in the stable. Black Beauty‘s author, Anna Sewell, proved so expert that some critics could not believe the author of “the autobiography of a horse” was a woman: “it is written by a veterinary surgeon, by a coachman, by a groom … How could a lady know so much about horses?” asked equestrian Edward Fordham Flower. Mrs Power O’Donoghue’s 1887 Riding for Ladies included chapters on shoeing, feeding, stabling and “doctoring” as well as correct riding dress and etiquette. Mrs Alice Hayes was the author of The Horsewoman and the wife of army vet Captain Horace Hayes. She was perhaps the pioneer of the land army girls, having acted as a rough rider for the toughest, most difficult Walers and Arabs that her husband procured when his military career took them from India, Ceylon, Egypt and China to South Africa.

However, neither the Empress, Mrs Power O’Donoghue or Mrs Hayes would have condoned the way that the new Land Army recruits rode in their trousers and jaunty caps .The side-saddle was abandoned in a wink in 1915: there was, of course, no point in putting an old fashioned contraption on horses that would be chargers, not ladies’ hacks. A few pioneer British women had begun to ride like men in the 1890s to the horror of Mrs Hayes and Power O’Dononoghue, and pre-war letter columns buzzed with arguments from both sides of the debate. The Times reported on March 17th 1914 that “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,” adding, “The fact that it comes so soon after King George’s refusal to witness any exhibition of riding astride at Olympia [horse show] is regarded as significant.” Kaiser Bill missed a trick: a little feminine help might have nudged the German war effort along. The Land Army girls made cross-saddle socially acceptable for British women by being both uppercrust and patriotic in their desire to help the boys at the front, and after the war few of them returned to riding aside. By 1922 George V was in his box at Olympia once more and had to watch as Mrs Marjorie Bullows (later the impeccably respectable Lady Wright) competed in a leaping competition in breeches and with her boots firmly in two stirrups, rather than one.

“Though Remount Depot life is healthy and interesting, the work is very hard and there is a rough side to it,” wrote the author of Work at a Ladies Remount Depot, “Fortunately there have been few serious accidents or broken bones, but kicks and awkward falls are not unusual.” The hunting girls rose to a new challenge and did so with no fuss or fanfare, perhaps without realising what an impact their pioneering efforts would have. “The ladies are out to do a man’s work and release him to join a fighting unit,” the report’s author explained, before adding with British self-effacement, “It is all in the day’s work … and they ask for no favours.”


For more on the ladies’ remount work, click here for part two.

If Wishes Were Horses: Jeunes Filles Bien Elevées

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I loved this chapter and had far, far to much to write about, some chunks of which may appear here if not used elsewhere. Meanwhile, enjoy the slideshow. The books came largely from Archive.org.

J. Collinson and Sons rocking horses.

A website maintained by Nannie Power O’Donoghue’s biographer, Olga E. Lockley.

The brilliantly titled Unprotected Females in Norway is here, while I have to apologise: Wanderings in Patagonia by Florence Dixie should be Across Patagonia.

I only wish I’d found this snippet when writing the book, but it just cropped up in December 2012, and has to be included:

“In his lecture series on hysteria, F. C. Skey warned his audience that the typical hysteric was not a person of weak mind but ‘a female member of a family exhibiting more than usual force or decision of character, of strong resolution, fearless of danger, bold riders, having plenty of what is termed nerve.'”

Elaine Showalter, “Victorian Women and Insanity” in Madhouses, Mad-doctors and Madmen ed Andrew Scull, 1981.

The Analysis of the Hunting Field, being a Series of Sketches of the principal characters that compose one the whole forming a slight souvenir of the season 1845-6 – R S Surtees:

“Riding for ladies is now become wholly a matter of luxury – there are not journey ridings – even the pillion shave disappeared with recent years, and farmers’ wives drive to market in gigs with ‘Giles Jolter,’ or whatever their husband’s name may be, pointed up behind. When her Majesty took her daily promenades à cheval, as the French call them, in the Park, equestrianism was all the rage, and we had nothing but habits and slate-coloured veils. Indeed, each season shows a good master of fair equestrians still, though, perhaps, not so many as there used to be. We never go into the Park without thinking how much better it must be for them than the enervating, listless motion of a carriage. Even park riding is slow work compared to the free gallop of the country, but to be sure park riding is generally pursued at a season of the year when it is too hot for hard exercise.”

Here’s Mrs Hayes (1893) on the perils of learning to ride later in life:

‘The same remark applies to older ladies, who, with the usual angelic resignation of my set, try their best to obey the command of their lords and masters by learning to ride. I fear that success in this art is seldom obtained by ladies over thirty years of age, for by that time they have generally lost the dashing pluck of their youth; their figures have become set and matronly; and, as a rule, they find great difficulty in mastering the subtleties of balance and grip. Also, a state of nervous anxiety is apt to add to the general stiffness of their appearance, and to suggest discomfort and irritability.’

Vieille Moustache on the superiority of the Engish equestrienne in the 1870s:

“The daughter of a peer, or other great grandee of the country, may be almost said to be a horsewoman to the manner born. Riding comes as naturally to her as it does to her brothers. Both clamber up on their ponies, or are lifted on, almost as soon as they can walk, and consequently ‘grow’ into their riding, and become at fifteen or sixteen years of age as much at home in the saddle as they are on the sofa. In the hunting field they see the best types of riding extant, both male and female, and learn to copy their style and mode of handling their horses, while oral instructions of the highest order is always at hand to supplement daily practice. To the great ladies of England, then, all hints on the subject would be superfluous, Most of them justly take great pride in their riding, spare no pains to excel in it, and are thoroughly successful.
In fact, it is the one accomplishment in which they as far surpass the women of all other countries in the world as they outvie them in personal beauty.
A German or French woman possibly may hold her own with an Englishwoman in a ball room or a box at the opera; but put her on horseback, and take her to the covert side, she is ‘not in it’ with her English rivals.”

And on scandal in the hunting field (one suspects he’s referring to Skittles and others of her ilk):

“I feel bound to observe that from time to time a vast amount of ‘twaddle’ is ventilated on the question of the propriety of ladies riding with hounds. All sorts of absurd objections  have been brought forward against the practice; as, for instance, that hunting as regards ladies is a mere excuse for display and flirtation, and that it is both unfeminine and dangerous. I believe that these objections, made by people who never knew the glorious exhilaration of hunting, may be briefly disposed of. I reside where the very cream of midland hunting is carried on, and I perceive that year after year the number of ladies of high rank and social position who grace the field with their presence is on the increase; while to the best of my belief no female equestrians who are not ladies have been seen with hounds in Leicestershire or its vicinity for some years. So much for the stamp of woman that hunts nowadays.”

Elizabeth Carr, writing in the 1880s, agrees:

“There is still another false idea prevalent among a certain class of people, which is that a love for horses, and for horseback riding necessarily makes one coarse, and detracts from the refinement of a woman’s nature. It must be acknowledged that the coarseness of a vulgar spirit can be nowhere more conspicuously displayed than in the saddle, and yet in no place is the delicacy and decorum of woman more observable. A person on horseback is placed in a position where every motion is subject to critical observation and comment. The quiet, simple costume, the easy movements, the absence of ostentatious display, will always proclaim the refined, well-bred rider. Rudeness in the saddle is as much out of place as in the parlor or the salon, and greatly more annoying to spectators, besides being disrespectful and dangerous to other riders. Abrupt movements, awkward and rapid paces, frequently cause neighboring horses to become rest-less, and even to run away. Because a lady loves her horse, and enjoys riding him, it is by no means necessary that she should become a Lady Gay Spanker, indulge in stable talk, make familiars of the grooms and stable boys, or follow the hounds in the hunting field.”

And the last word to Lady Greville, editor of Ladies in the Field (1894):

“Riding improves the temper, the spirits and the appetite; black shadows and morbid fancies disappear from the mental horizon, and wretched indeed must he be who can preserve a gloomy or discontented frame of mind during a fine run in a grass country, or even in a sharp brisk gallop over turfy downs.”

This post relates to a chapter of the book If Wishes Were Horses: A Memoir of an Equine Obsession. If you have any questions to ask about the content, please fire away in the comments. The main online index for the book is here.

First Sidesaddle Lesson: Not Quite “Posed Audaciously Like a Wing”

My Christmas present this year was an hour’s sidesaddle lesson at the Pine Lodge School of Classical Education in Norfolk, with top teacher and judge Sarah Walker. Aside from actually buying me a pony, this was probably The Best Gift Ever. Not only did I get to try a style of riding I’ve been curious about for years, BUT I got to ride a classically trained Lusitano. It was like having a driving lesson in an E-type Jag.

When I was researching If Wishes Were Horses (a history of girls and horses) I ended up flipping through a large number of old sidesaddle manuals – in fact, my chapter on the nineteenth century threatened to get altogether out of hand, and I’m still swimming in a surfeit of material. Why was I so intrigued?

Sidesaddle is pure patriarchy: it was introduced to prevent women getting imagined sexual pleasure from riding astride (as if), from compromising their virginity and therefore their value, and from a belief that the female body was too weak too ride “properly” (and yet it was quite up to childbirth and working a twelve-hour day cleaning rich peoples’ houses – but I digress). What becomes abundantly clear from the literature of sidesaddle’s heyday, is that lady riders thoroughly subverted this notion of frailty.

They hunted pell-mell across the most challenging country. They leapt six-foot six-inch fences. They cleared steeplechase courses. They toured nations. They performed haute école dressage – Jenny de Rhaden would coax her horse to a full rear and lie back on his quarters with her hair trailing on the stage floor of the Moulin Rouge. It’s Fred and Ginger: everything the man does the lady does too, but backwards and on high heels.

So, without further ado, here’s my lesson. This is the lovely Xis, an eight-year-old Lusitano from Portugal (all photos in this post taken by my mum, Rosemary, who nearly took Xis home with us):

Sarah started the lesson on the ground by showing me the saddle and explaining its various parts. This is a 1930s model, and the deep notch at the withers tells you it’s post-1920s. Each sidesaddle was custom-made for both the rider and the horse, and the lady’s name, thigh-length measurement and her horse’s vital statistics were written inside the frame. I just about fit onto this one, but if I had a longer saddle, I wouldn’t have fitted onto Xis. There aren’t many downsides to being this tall, but I’m obviously going to have to have my own handmade sidesaddle and a long-backed Luso if I win the lottery.

The “leaping head” is padded out with what’s called a “queen”, in this case an old sock and some tail bandages. There was an extra pad for Xis’ shoulder wedged between the numnah and the saddle. Having read a lot of accounts of hideous sidesaddle accidents, I was pleased to see that the stirrup was attached by an open clasp and would slip out easily if I toppled off, and that the stirrup itself was nice and big. Sarah promised me she’d only fallen off twice in all the years she’d been aside. I believed her.

When you’re used to a normal cross-saddle, a sidesaddle is a strange beast indeed. Aside from the forked pommel, there’s the doeskin-covered seat which is flat as a tea tray and shaped like a pilcrow. Once I got on board the patient Xis, I had to chuck almost everything I knew about my seat straight out of the window.

You can’t “sit deep” on a tea tray. You can’t squeeze with your legs – not even the lower, left leg – without unbalancing yourself, so you have to make do with waggling your left ankle as an aid. Strictly speaking I should have been carrying a long whip on the righthand side to make up for the missing leg, but Sarah didn’t want to fry my brain and goodness knows, I had enough to think about. I look pretty grim in most of these photos, but there was actually a lot of laughter (I had a small audience including Mum and the stables’ owner, Sue Barber, who knows a thing or two). I was just trying to be in that Zen state when you’re concentrating but not thinking.

So how do you stay on? It’s all in the right leg, says Sarah. You actually have a larger “seat” than you have astride because you place much of your weight on that right thigh. It grips the top pommel of the leaping head while your right calf lies flat against the horse’s shoulder and your toe points down (didn’t quite achieve this one). The left leg, waggling aside, feels oddly passive by comparison. In faster paces, jumping or dire emergencies your left thigh grips the underside of the lower pommel. Your torso is just as it would be astride, but you sit far back and your hands are held to either side of your right knee.

Having spent years riding a pony with no mouth and a thick neck and also having a general desire to be nice to horses’ mouths, this slightly laidback style suited me just fine. I just kept minimal contact with Xis’ mouth and moved with his movement as closely as possible. The cliff face on my righthand side, uninterrupted by any pommels or stirrups, kept me focussed on using my right leg as Sarah instructed.

Sarah always keeps the actual riding in a first lesson to a minimum because there’s a lot to absorb and the skills required of both horse and rider are so different. I would walk a few circuits then turn into the centre to switch to sitting astride for a break and instruction, then swing my leg back over and start again. Once I turned Xis in a tight “U” without thinking and found myself clinging on for dear life because he was so responsive and my seat was far from secure. At another point I shifted around a lot to try to get square and he reacted instantly with a little serpentine. This is what’s known as a push-button horse!

Eventually Sarah persuaded me to try a short trot. It was like being five again. I bounced, I joggled, my right leg flapped. The seat was so flat that it didn’t help me one jot – I thought I was going to somersault backwards off Xis’ right side. The books I’d read had led me to believe that sidesaddle provided a very secure seat – there are disparaging remarks about lady riders who just lump along on their horses, safely attached by the pommel, and claims that it’s far harder to be dislodged aside than astride. I couldn’t believe this at all once we started trotting, even on a horse with gaits as smooth at Xis’. It’s not like mastering sitting trot astride – as I said earlier, you cannot sit deep in the same way, and you are unbalanced from the first.

At my fourth or fifth go, it suddenly clicked and there I was, making a creditable go of sitting neatly in the saddle rather than jouncing around like a full potato sack in the back of a flat-bed truck. Xis pricked his ears and got a well-deserved pat, and we called it a day.

The damage? Well, despite doing very little actual riding, I was a little tender in the right, er, “glute” and along the underside of my thigh a day or two later,  which makes me wonder if Victorian lady riders stumped around with massively overdeveloped right legs. Mum developed sympathy pains just from watching. One thing lasted longer than the muscle soreness though, and that was the desire to get back on and try again. I hope to have another lesson when I’m back in the UK, and am saving my pennies towards that Luso and the tailored sidesaddle. Oh, and the top hat and veil.

Upstairs, Downstairs

Sidesaddle doyenne Nannie Power O'Donoghue

“I once caught an abigail in an English house pirouetting before the cheval-glass, dressed in my riding-breeches, and grinning delightedly with a hand on either side of her waist. By way of punishment, I made her divest herself of the trifles in my presence, and by doing so found that she had augmented the evil by making an entirely wrong use of one of my silk vests – while, as an end to all bitterness, she had actually fitted on my stockings and boots.”

Mrs Power O’Donoghue
, 1880s.