In Europe, the side saddle developed as it was seen as unbecoming for a woman to straddle a horse while riding, there was also a fear that the lady’s reproductive organs could be damaged! Long skirts were the usual fashion and riding astride in such attire was also impractical and awkward. The earliest functional side saddle was a chair like affair where the woman sat sideways on the horse with her feet on a small footrest. She would have had no control seated like this, so the horse would have to have been led by another rider, usually a man astride his own horse. This type of saddle was used merely for transport, certainly not for the pleasure of riding.
A more practical design was developed in the 16th century where the rider sat facing forward and hooked her right leg around a pommel, while the footrest was replaced with a slipper stirrup for the left foot. This saddle allowed the rider to be able to control and steer her own horse, at least at lesser speeds. Sometimes they had a rail around the rider too
Another type of pommel was then added on to the right of the rider’s thigh, while the rail fell out of use- these saddles are known as ‘cowhorn’ side saddles. The rider now had a pommel curved around her thigh from each side.
In the 1830s, a side saddle was invented with a second, lower pommel called the leaping head. In this design, one pommel (the upright ‘fixed head’) is nearly vertical and curved gently to the right. The rider’s right leg hooks around this pommel. The left leg hangs normally with the foot in the stirrup, while the leaping head curves gently down over the left thigh. The impact of the second pommel was revolutionary, woman could now stay on at a gallop and even while jumping! The balance strap was also invented around this time, helping to keep the saddle firmly centered on the horse’s back. The saddle below has three pommels- the ‘cow horns’ and the lower, leaping head.
Horse riding for ladies however, was still considered unseemly behaviour. In the latter half of the 19th century, Elizabeth, Empress of Austria rented a house in Co. Meath in Ireland and hunted side saddle here for two seasons, out riding all around her and finally making horse riding fashionable for ladies. She was a real trend setter and woman all across the British Isles took to the hunting field in their thousands to emulate her.
Portrait of Elizabeth riding side-saddle on the horse ‘Merry Andrew’, which still hangs in the Royal Dublin Society. (Gerard Whelan, RDS)
(note the diagonal ‘balance’ strap)
Eventually then, the pommel to the far right fell out of use and the seat became a bit flatter…
And by the time the ‘golden age of side saddle riding’ and fox hunting came about in the 1920s, hunting saddles looked like this:
The saddle above is my pride and joy (and life savings!) It is a fully rebuilt ‘Owen’ , known as the Rolls Royce of side saddles. It has a very flat seat, a cut back head (to allow for the horse’s withers) and is an absolute dream to ride in. Modern (and by modern I mean no later than 1940s!) English side saddles have three girths- a wide ‘three fold’ girth, which girths normally and can be tightened on the off side, over which goes the balance girth (which comes diagonally over the horses belly from the balance strap on the offside of the saddle, loops through a central keeper and then lies on top of the main three fold girth back up towards the girth straps on the near side of the saddle- the balance strap should be snug and should not be able to slip backwards), then on top of this goes the ‘over girth’ which stops the off side saddle flap from flapping!