Flying Sidesaddle

In my post on my first sidesaddle lesson I mentioned that, in the nineteenth century, women might have been confined to sitting aside (apart from a few eccentrics who rode cross-saddle) but it didn’t stop them from matching male riders on the Fred and Ginger principle. Everything you do but backwards and on high heels, or, in the case of sidesaddle, with a leaping head and a corset. I found a little feminine oneupwomanship: the circus haute école rider or écuyère Blanche Allarty-Molier performing a capriole and a cabrade on her horse d’Artagnan.

I originally included photos scanned from Hilda Nelson’s The Ecuyère of the Nineteenth Century Circus, published by Xenophon Press. I couldn’t find any further photo credits or original sources for the pictures in the book, and have since been asked to remove them by the publisher, who owns copyright in their own scans of these old images. If you want to see the photos you’ll have to buy the book (well worth the price), or alternatively look at the V&A’s image library, which owns an image of the photo of Blanche performing a capriole. You can view it here. You could also look out for a copy of Baron de Vaux’s 1893 book, Ecuyers et Ecuyères: Histoire des Cirques d’Europe (1680–1891) on which Nelson draws, as I have a feeling that that’s where the photos were first printed.

Blanche began her training as an écuyère at the age of 13, and was famous for pulling off the “Voltige à la Richard,” in which she stood on the back of an unsaddled, unbridled horse as it leapt over hurdles. The horse in both these photos is d’Artagnan, whom she trained herself.

If you’re curious about some of the other great écuyères of the nineteenth century, there’s a post on Emilie Loisset here, and Jenny de Rhaden here.

Whole Heap of Little Horse Links

Thank you to Susan for sending me a link to this piece on horse prints in fashion at Style Bubble.

Roo shared this, er, fascinating set of what you might call outsider art portraits of horses smoking cigarettes, for sale now on Craigslist New Orleans. Click now before they’re sold.

Ed Ward let me know that Marianne Faithfull’s new album is called ‘Horses and High Heels’, and also directed my attention to this New York Times travel feature on horses and music in Louisiana:

I HAD never noticed how closely the syncopated rhythm of zydeco music echoes the rollicking stumble of horses on rough terrain. But on a September afternoon in the piney woods of Evangeline Parish, in Louisiana’s Cajun country, with hundreds of dusty horseback riders moving down a narrow trail, the kinship was impossible to miss. As the horses followed a tractor towing a D.J. and a zydeco-blaring sound system, they bucked and swayed in a cadence fit for the barroom floors of Lafayette, 70 miles away.

HBO’s new blockbuster/DVD box set of the future is Luck, about hosses and gamblers. There’s a trailer here at Television Blend. Directed by Michael Mann, starring Nick Nolte and Dustin Hoffman. Looks fantastic.

Teenage hearthrob Robert Pattinson shoots a horse in his new film, Water for Elephants, in which he plays a ‘circus veterinarian’ opposite Reese Witherspoon. Reese’s character performs with horses in the circus as a liberty trainer, and a big part of me is fondly hoping that she was inspired by Jenny de Rhaden or Emilie Loisset, though I doubt it. The trailer looks like a big, cheesy waste of Christopher Waltz. Thank you to Patrick (who is always fascinated by horse disposal) for this one.

April brings out equine finery. The president of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov, showcased the Akhal Teke horse, complete with traditional dress and jewellery (fancy), while in the town of St Augustine in Florida, the 53rd annual Parada de los Caballos y Coches took place. Carriage horses parade through the streets in Easter bonnets contributed by worthy American ladies. Past bonnet-donations came from Mary Pickford, Nancy Reagan, Mrs Billy Graham and Mrs Jimmy Carter. No word on whether Michelle Obama has been asked to help out.

Mark Todd won Badminton, and there’s a fantastic slide show of the cross country day here (see if you can spot the little girl in the crowd who’s brought along her hobbyhorse).


“… it is thanks to her that I already experienced as a child the revelation of the troubling beauty of a woman on a horse, this plastic coupling of two curvilinears that are the most perfect creation: the stallion, aggrandizing woman in all her majesty; woman on the creature she rides, posed audaciously like a wing.”

Circus historian Hughes le Roux salutes the nineteenth-century haute école rider, Emilie Loisset, in Les Jeux du Cirque et la Vie Foraine (1889), translated and cited by Hilda Nelson in The Ecuyère of the Nineteenth Century in the Circus (Xenophon Press).

Emilie naturally rode sidesaddle – hence that beautiful simile about the wing – and was one of several female dressage riders who caused a sensation in the circus ring and in society. They performed classical dressage with the addition of a few “tricks” that perturbed the purists, like the Spanish Walk, the “révérence” (the horse takes a bow) and the lançade (a great leap which I think was somewhere between courbette and capriole), and, on special jumping horses, would clear a dining table topped with burning candelabras.

The écuyère were considered the most respectable of performers – a far cry from ballet girls and actresses, who always teetered on the edge of the demimonde (if they didn’t plunge in head first).

Emilie Loisset was more popular than Sarah Bern-
hardt had ever been in Paris. Her less successful
rivals in the circus were brought by her exceeding
amiability to pardon her public triumphs. She did
not seem ever to excite jealousy. On the days and
nights on which she performed the circus was crowded
with fashionable people. There was no amount of
wealth that she might not have possessed had she not
been a proud, strong-willed, self-respecting girl. She
had no carriage and used to walk from the hippodrome
to the Rue Oberkampf, where she had a small lodging
on the fifth floor. A number of aristocratic and plu-
tocratic admirers used to escort her to the door,
through which none of them were allowed by her to
pass. She aspired to create for herself a happy home
and to marry somebody whom she could love and
esteem. Her sister, Clotilde, is the morganatic wife
of the Prince de Reuss, brother of the German ambas-
sador at Constantinople, and is looked up to in her
family circle. The admiration of the Empress Eliza-
for Emilie was increased by the fact that the
charming circus rider spurned the address of the crown
prince of Austria.

He was very much in love with her when she was in
Germany, a couple of years ago, and would have for-
sworn marriage if she would have consented to be his
Dubarry. She did not like the young man, and told
him so. The empress, when she was here, used to
make appointments to ride in the Bois with Emilie.**

From Theatrical and Circus Life; or, Secrets of the Stage, Green-room and Sawdust Arena by John Joseph Jennings (1886).

Known as much for her “melancholy” expression and her beauty as for her riding skills, she died at the age of twenty-six at the very end of what would have been her final performing season at the Cirque d’Eté before her marriage to Le Prinz de Hatzfeld*, when her difficult Irish horse, Pour-Toujours, bolted, skidded into the closed iron door between the ring and the stables and fell back onto her. She was impaled on the pommel of her saddle, and, according to one (dubious) source walked to the infirmiary and even up five flights of stairs at her home afterwards, but died in agony two days later.

The trade sheet, The New York Clipper, says she was buried with three generations of her circus riding family in the cemetery at Maison Lafitte.

Extracts in French from Le Roux and from Baron Le Vaux can be found here.

* a contemporary New York Times report says she married  a “Hungarian magnate” called Count Elemer Batthyani. I’m unclear about Austro-Hungarian nobility, but could they have been the same person? The New York Times also says that she was actually injured in rehearsal at the Cirque d’Hiver, on the front of which can still be seen a statue of another “écuyère, Antoinette Cuzent-LeJars, posing as the Amazon and riding (as I understand from Nelson) a horse called Thisbe. Cuzent-LeJars was an écuyère de panneau like Emilie’s sister Clotilde (who married a Hungarian Prince Reuss): a horseback acrobat like a vaulter, who leapt through floral hoops while balanced on their rosinback, and leaned down to snatch scarves from the ground at the gallop (the NYT seems to have confused the two disciplines). The “panneau” was a flat pad which lay on the back of the horse and on which the artiste stood.

** the more sources I find, the more inconsistencies emerge in details of Emilie’s life. I’m not sure that either the NYT or Jennings are  reliable, and Jennings certainly both might be guilty of romanticising her saintedness in the light of her death – her story of tragic, doomed virtue was catnip to a Victorian.