As the word itself suggests, people who originally rode side saddle, rode sideways. Even today in Southern countries people are carried sideways on donkeys. (see also Kinds)
There has not however, always been side saddles. In the 12th Century the “saddle” was a saddle pad. The ladies of that time sat laterally on the horse with their feet being supported by a small platform and were led by a cavalier. .
In the Middle Ages, the woman was considered to be a helpless creature,
that was passive and domineered and protected by her Knight. To enable
the Knights to prove their chivalry, battles and tournaments were organised
and the popularity of hunting grew. Woman wanted to see their
menfolk in action, and therefore had to be transported to various locations. Now women too, increased their interest in riding, some took up the sport of hunting, helping to advance the development of the side saddle as it is known today.
Lady Conways – her Spanish riding-horse by Wootton
By turning forward the torso, for the ladies it became possible to lead the horse beside the man equally. Anne of Bohemia, wife of Richard II, brought the fashion to England (1382), who set only the left foot on a platform called a planchette and she turned around the torso. But this seat was far away from being safe and so the saddles soon acquired a pommel in front, over which the rider could hook one knee, which enabled her to face the way she was going.
In France at the time of Catherine de Medici – an enthusiastic horsewoman, invented a second pommel in about 1580. Like the first, it was positioned on the top of the saddle. The rider wedging her knee between them to gain a little more security. It revolutionised the side-saddle.
Riding side-saddle became the leisure pleasure of the ladies of the
upper classes. Francois de Garsault in 1770 and Federigo Mazzuchelli in
1803 wrote the first books concerning riding in side-saddle.
Over two centuries the side-saddle remained unchanged, until the French riding master Charles Pellier invented the “leaping head” – a pommel screwed into the saddle and curving over the rider’s left thigh. (1830). (see also Description)
It was this invention which gave the side-saddle its reputation for safety and security, and from this point on the ladies of the upper class rode exclusively in side-saddle.
Theoretically the women could also canter on these new saddles with the three pommels, by the mid 1870’s the one pommel had almost disappeared and the side-saddle rider was equipped to enter the hunting field. Before then, while ladies might ride to the meet to see their menfolk off, it was not considered respectable to actually follow hounds.
Empress Elisabeth of Austria
It was the Empress Elisabeth of Austria that made riding with hounds
popular and fashionable ladies followed her lead. However, it was through
this activity that they saw that the new saddles were not as
safe as first thought. It was only with the development of the balance strap (a strap that runs from the front, new side to the offside rear of the saddle or is sometimes sewn on to the girth), plus the invention of safety stirrups with quick-release devices at the top of the stirrup leather or saddle bar, that the side saddle became safe.
Mid 1900 saw the “liberation of equality for all” and the growth
of a “middle class” of people that could afford their own horses. Promenade
riding became fashionable and as more people entered into the sport, riding
centres, tournaments and displays developed.
The Riding School by Edmond Grandjean
Still the women continued to push for equality and started to ride astride
in order not to be inferior to their cavaliers. Riding today is one of
the few sports where ladies and gentlemen can be measured
In England today, riding side-saddle is on the increase, possibly due
to the influence of Queen Elisabeth II or because of the fact that the
roots of side saddle are in England where tradition is held high. Besides
England, the Netherlands, France, Sweden and Germany have their own associations.
(see also Associations...)