Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Side Saddle Found *Updated

by Anita Mae Draper

I can't imagine anyone riding a sidesaddle with ease, and yet when I watch the fox hunt on Downton Abbey, I see Lady Mary doing just that and keeping up with the men with an aura of grace.

Two types of side saddle riding habits

My riding has always been done in a western saddle with heeled boots and a wide-brimmed hat. Likewise, my saddle contains one central horn..

And yet, when I attended a museum auction in the spring of 2014, I was the only bidder on an old decrepit side saddle and therefore became the proud owner after dishing out twenty-five dollars. 

Old broken side saddle auction find in Saskatchewan

As you can see from the above photo, the leather has been ripped and sewn, then ripped again. Who knows how many times it has been repaired. On the horns, the leather is so dry it is scaly to the point of white shiny patches. I couldn't even fathom what the maroon velveteen is supposed to be.

It is just as bad underneath where parts of dried leather have broken off and perhaps even mice had nested inside. The nails look old, but are more round-headed than square, which puts the saddle no earlier than the late 1800's. Overall, the saddle seems irreparable. 

Old broken side saddle auction find in Saskatchewan

A friend who owns horses took the saddle to a friend of his who repairs saddles and leatherwork. Months later, I got the side back with the confirmation that it wasn't worth repairing. It also seemed to be missing something as it didn't look like the side saddles the man was familiar with. 

Indeed. The following image shows two side saddles built in Brisbane Australia in the 1900-1910 period.

Ladies' side-saddle made by L. Uhl & Sons Ltd, Brisbane, 1900-1910. Courtesy of the State Library of Queensland and Wikipedia

If you look at the difference between these two and mine above, you see that where my two horns basically curve inward, the 2 Aussie ones curve away from each other. It's because in these ones, instead of the right leg going between the horns, it curves around to the outside of the upper horn, and then the left leg is held beneath the lower horn.

Invented in 1830, the lower horn, known as the Leaping Horn (or Leaping Head) revolutionized women's riding. It held the leg secure and enabled women to stay seated while jumping hedges or leaping whatever was in their way. 

Not only didn't my side saddle have a leaping horn, but it appeared that one had never been part of it either. 

My research took hours to complete, and I'm still not exactly sure, but here is what I finally found at the Side Saddle Lady Museum...

Like I said, the above photos are not proof that my saddle is almost 200 yrs old, because there are too many discrepancies for that, but it shows that it was made in the style of a Welsh one which could have been the style in the whole of the British Isles. 

One aspect that points to it being an antique side saddle is that modern ones don't have the 3rd horn on the far left side which was originally used as a handhold for balance. According to the Side Saddle Lady Museum, "...gradually the offside pommel diminished in size, and by the 1870s/'80s it had often disappeared."

But what is the purpose of the maroon fabric? If it's to pretty-up the piece, it's not doing a very good job. And if it's to provide a practical pocket like the one on the right, there should at least be an opening, don't you think? 

I sure hope someone sees this post and lets me know more details.

In case you're wondering, I bought the saddle as an educational piece for when I do my readings at libraries and book clubs since it fits in with the historic Austin setting.

As a final note, my research led me to news that Lady Mary and the Downton Abbey TV show have made riding side saddle quite trendy again. In fact, there seems to be a shortage of side saddles as people of all ages are exploring this venue of physical activity.

It reminds me of the movement from skiing to snow boarding - with less pressure on the knees, and the ability to ride as long as you can balance yourself. It seems that people with certain injuries who couldn't ride astride are now able to ride again using a side saddle.

So I'll take this moment to send a bouquet out to all the organizations who teach and encourage the art of riding side saddle.

The Devon Horse Show in Philadelphia is one such show and deserves mention here for the numerous classes and opportunities for young and old riders to test their skills. If you'd like more information on their upcoming show, check their website

I'll leave you with this adorable image from the photo gallery of the Devon Horse Show which proves you're never too young to learn how to ride side saddle. 

3 yr old Junior competitor, Heather Lee O'Rourke, competing in the side saddle division of the Devon Horse Show

*UPDATE - I discovered an excellent video of Angelina Jolie learning how to ride side saddle while firing a weapon on the set of Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life

And in case you were watching the action and missed how she sat on the side saddle, here's a still image of the scene...

What do you think about riding side saddle? Have you ever done it? Interested in finding out? Care to share?


Anita Mae Draper's stories are written under the western skies where she lives on the prairie of southeast Saskatchewan with her hubby of 30 plus years and the youngest of their four kids. When she's not writing, Anita enjoys photography, research, and travel, and is especially happy when she can combine the three in one trip. Anita's current release is Romantic Refinements, a novella in Austen in Austin Volume 1, WhiteFire Publishing, January 2016.  Anita is represented by Mary Keeley of Books & Such Literary Management. You can find Anita Mae at


  1. I let my character Harmon from Alarmingly Charming voice my thoughts on side-saddles. But I can see how they were made to work as safely as possible (with the right fit and the strength of the woman's legs...). It is rather amazing to see Lady Mary jump fences that way, and to see that there's a comeback of interest in them. Thanks so much, Anita. Another amazing look into history!

    1. Thanks, Deb. I was hoping you'd pop up and talk about your novella in Austen in Austin Volume 1. :)

      There's another aspect to the side saddle... in 1930, a woman (have to confirm that) changed the position of the leaping horn so that extreme jumping could be done safely. Quite signifcant, and one that I'll cover on March 5th as I go into side saddle history over at

  2. We certainly discussed this aspect a lot. My character buys a 'riding skirt' in anticipation of riding astride. We decided side saddles were impractical for women on working ranches. I'm not surprised they lasted much longer in England than in the U.S. #Revolutionary !!

    1. Of course, it helped that our setting was Texas where gauchos and the like were accepted a lot earlier than northern states.

  3. This is fascinating as always, Anita. I'm still not quite sure how a sidesaddle works or how it could possibly be comfortable, but I think it's cool that you have a really old one.

    1. DeAnna, I've just updated a photo of Angelina Jolie riding side saddle and a video of her learning how to do it.

      Check it out and then come back and tell me what you think.

  4. Oh, Anita, thanks for the research! I saw a side saddle demonstration years ago when I went on the Hunt Country Stable Tour in Northern Virginia. (The owners of those places are the mega-rich, so their horses live better than we do.)

    Anyway, the woman hosting the demonstration said the side saddle was actually safer over fences than regular saddles. However, I didn't know that was due to an 1830 innovation -- a very important detail for someone who writes books set in the early 1800's to know.

    This is really useful.

    1. Thanks, CJ. Just remember to keep in mind the height factor, like I mentioned in my comment to Deb. Your character will probably be unseated if she jumps 6 ft or over before 1930.

  5. Ahhhh . . . okay, NOW I get it. I'm still not sure how comfy that would be, but at least it makes sense.

    Thank you, Anita!

    1. It seems there are 2 types of riders... those who like riding astride as they feel they are in absolute control. These woman are more likely to wear pants instead of skirts in their daily life.

      And there are those women who enjoy being 'lady-like' who would rather wear a skirt, and don't mind needing assistance.

      From comments I've read on both sides of the equation, the women who enjoy side-saddle are more comfortable sitting on a saddle in the same manner as they would on a chair.


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