History for the fantasy buff: Riding sidesaddle

Are you writing a fantasy novel with a strong heroine? Does she ride horses? Depending on the time period you’ve chosen and the details of your world, your heroine may be riding sidesaddle. So what exactly can a sidesaddle rider do compared to someone riding astride?

It depends on the time period.

In the Middle Ages, sidesaddles were little more than primitive seats, sometimes with a footrest, that allowed a woman to sit on a horse but not to control it or be able to handle bumpy gaits like the trot. Usually someone else had to lead the horse. Because sidesaddle riding was so precarious, Palfreys became popular with noble women–these were smaller horses with ambling gaits instead of trots (think today’s Paso Fino or Peruvian Paso).

In the 16th century (end of the Middle Ages), the sidesaddle began to evolve to a more practical design, and by the 18th century we had this.

This is a far more functional design. The rider’s right leg hooks over the horn, and the left leg is in the stirrup and wedged beneath that little hook below the horn. This is stable, and the rider can gallop and even take jumps in this saddle.

That said, sidesaddle riding is still more precarious and requires more talent from the rider than astride riding. Think of the sidesaddle rider like Ginger Rogers, who did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels.

The sidesaddle rider has no leg on the right side of the horse, and therefore cannot cue the horse with that leg. A riding crop is normally used as a substitute for the missing leg, or in western riding, sometimes the long end of the reins are used.

Riding the trot is more difficult sidesaddle than astride, because posting is very challenging. Most sidesaddle riders sit the trot rather than post it.

Horse enthusiasts have preserved many old styles of riding, including sidesaddle, and here is a video demonstrating both English and Western sidesaddle riding. There’s some loud music accompanying it which you can mute or turn down if you don’t want to listen to it.

There is sidesaddle riding from 0:48 through 1:05, 1:44 through 2:00, and 2:15 to 2:25.

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8 Responses to History for the fantasy buff: Riding sidesaddle

  1. Jessi Gage says:

    Perfect for the lady with scoliosis. This looks really difficult. i’m glad we live in an era where women can ride with as much advantage as men:)

    • Amy Raby says:

      Yeah, no kidding! I’ve actually ridden sidesaddle myself, and it’s fun as a novelty, but I sure wouldn’t want to be limited to riding that way. Yay for modern society, and jeans!

  2. To be honest, the sidesaddle scares the heck out of me. LOL. But one thing I wonder is if it’s harder on the horse than a regular saddle. Even with a perfectly fitting sidesaddle, it looks like most of the person’s weight is on one side of the horse’s spine. Or is the sidesaddle counter-balanced in some way? Just curious.

    • Amy Raby says:

      It’s less off-kilter than it looks, because the right leg is actually balanced between both sides, and the rider’s torso/body is balanced too, so only the left leg is weight that’s on only one side of the horse. The rider could compensate by leaning just slightly to the right, although that’s not good form. I doubt the horse prefers a sidesaddle rider, though, especially since she probably bounces around more in the trot, and horses like riders who are gentle in the saddle.

  3. Oh, I had not even thought of attempting to post in sidesaddle. That would be awful. Thanks, Amy, this was super informative.

    • Amy Raby says:

      Glad you liked! Yeah, I didn’t actually know it was possible, but I did a little research and apparently it is. It is done in a similar manner to posting bareback, apparently, except that is done by squeezing one’s knees and thighs (hello strong upper leg muscles), and I don’t how exactly one would do that in the sidesaddle. But apparently it can be done.

  4. John Hardman says:

    I’m a male rider,currently inactive:I’ve always had a passing interest in the asymmetry of side-saddle riding and the limitations placed by it on the rider’s handling of the horse.Someone mentioned the late actress Ginger Rogers: did she ever ride side-saddle ‘for real’ (i.e.,off the movie set)? I’d like to know more.

  5. John Hardman says:

    I’ve long had an interest in the ‘technical’ side of side-saddle riding and the challenges of riding ‘one-sided’. Someone mentioned the late Ginger Rogers,one of whose screen characters was seen as a side-saddle rider: did/could the actress ever bother to master the side-saddle off-screen?

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