Perhaps not exactly a death-trap, but the side-saddles in use during the Regency were nowhere near as safe as the side-saddles now ridden by modern-day equestriennes. All of those intrepid heroines of Regency romance novels who have ridden their horses astride may have been flaunting convention, but they were also much safer riding in that style than they would have been on a Regency-era side-saddle.
A brief account of the development of the side-saddle and how it was used during the Regency …
Images of women riding with both legs on one side of a horse date back to Classical Greece. The women in these images are balanced on a small padded seat, facing to the side, while their feet dangle free, often with one hand clutching the mane of the horse for balance. The woman did not hold the reins, and her small seat, called a pillion, was often placed behind the man who was actually riding the horse. If the woman was alone on the horse, it was typically led by a servant, usually male, who might be walking or riding another horse. The woman aboard the side-saddle had no control of her steed, she was simply a passenger. By the ninth century, a small footrest, called a planchette, was added to the pillion, improving balance and adding some comfort, but still no control of the horse upon which it rested.
The pillion seat with the attached planchette was the first type of side-saddle introduced into England in 1382, by Anne of Bohemia, after she married King Richard II. Side-saddles of this design continued in use across Europe for several centuries with only a raised cantle and the introduction of a horn at the center front, until the sixteenth century. It was then that Catherine de Medici demanded changes made to her side-saddle after she had suffered a number of falls while out hunting. Catherine discovered that by facing forward and hooking one knee around the central horn or pommel at the front of the saddle, she could achieve better balance and greater control over her horse. She then had a second horn, or crutch, added to the left of the central horn, further improving her balance and control. The cantle at the back of the saddle was raised higher, thus deepening the seat. In addition, Catherine had the planchette removed and replaced with the single slipper stirrup, a stirrup made literally in the shape of a slipper. These stirrups might be made of engraved metal, or they might be of wood or plain iron covered with velvet or other rich fabrics, as befitted the lady who occupied the side-saddle to which they were attached. For images of side-saddles through time, visit the Side Saddle Lady Museum page.
After the changes introduced by Catherine de Medici, it was to be another two centuries before any further changes were made to the design of the side-saddle, improving both its safety and its comfort. The ladies of the Regency were not to benefit from any of those design improvements, as they were all introduced after the death of King George IV, the erstwhile Prince Regent. Regency ladies would ride side-saddle much as Catherine had done, by placing their right thigh between the two horns or crutches of the saddle. They would bend the right knee so that their right foot was in front of their left leg, about twelve inches above their left foot, which rested in the single slipper stirrup. By the end of the eighteenth century the seat of the side-saddle was designed to be wider and to slope at an angle down from the front to the back, to accommodate the supposed greater fleshiness of the feminine derriere. The higher cantle at the back helped to keep the lady from slipping off the saddle when riding a rough-gaited horse or when going over a jump. But only a horsewoman with superb balance would be able to maintain her seat and keep control of her horse while riding on such a saddle at any speed, over rough ground or taking a jump. For that reason, many women did not choose to hunt or even routinely gallop their horses, at least while riding aside, that is, on a side-saddle.
There were other design deficiencies of the Regency-era side-saddle which endangered the women who rode on them. In particular, most of these saddles had a deep leather skirt which dropped down over the left side of the horse. Often, this skirt was so long and deep that it interfered with any cues the rider might try to give her horse. Most serious equestriennes wore a single spur on their left riding boot, which was important in cueing their mount. These spurs were very similar to the spurs worn today for dressage, having a short, straight shank. However, if the leather skirt was too deep, the horse would not be able to feel the spur pressed to its flank, reducing the rider’s control. The continued use of the slipper stirrup was also dangerous, as, should the lady be thrown, it would be difficult to get her foot free of the stirrup, increasing the risk that she might be dragged by her frightened horse. In addition, the Regency side-saddle had only a single girth holding the saddle on the horse’s back. Since many ladies put more weight on the left side of a side-saddle, it tended to drift to the left as they rode, in some cases slipping off the horse’s back and under his belly, completely unseating the rider.
Into the later half of the eighteenth century, there were many women who chose to ride astride, including Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, and the young French Dauphine, Marie Antoinette. It was not until she became Queen of France, in 1774, that Marie Antoinette finally gave up riding astride. In 1805, a Milanese riding master, Federigo Mazzuchelli, published a book, Scuola Equestre, "Riding School," in which he asserts that women have great difficulty riding astride because they have more rounded thighs than men. Though this was, and is, patently untrue, the book was taken as gospel, translated into several languages and circulated throughout the Continent. By the Regency, Mazzuchelli’s book had significantly furthered the expectation that women, particularly ladies, should only ride aside on a side-saddle, never astride on a cross saddle.
However, it was not only ladies who rode side-saddle during the Regency, there were many men who rode aside as well. Those men were the grooms and other stable hands who had to train the horses which would be ridden by ladies to tolerate the side-saddle. Many very well-mannered horses who carried a cross-saddle without qualm might strenuously object to the much larger and unwieldy side-saddle. They had to become accustomed to the unfamiliar shape, weight and size of the side-saddle cinched onto their backs before it was safe for a lady to mount them. Many of these men found this task rather embarrassing and whenever possible they preferred to do their side-saddle training early in the morning or in remote locations, far from spectators.
Another limitation of the side-saddle was that it was nearly impossible to mount one unaided, particularly if the lady was wearing a habit with a long, heavy skirt. A lady could mount on her own if a mounting block was at hand, though mounting blocks were seldom found outside the stable-yard. If a lady should try to mount a side-saddle from the ground, by putting her foot in the single stirrup, there was every chance the excessive pressure would pull the saddle off-center on the horse’s back. On a cross-saddle, this would be corrected when the rider’s foot was placed in the right stirrup, but that did not happen with a side-saddle. In most cases, the lady had to be "put up" by a man, either her gentleman companion, or by her faithful groom. She would place her foot in his joined hands and he would boost her up into the saddle. It was customary for ladies to ride with a groom, if they were not accompanied by a gentleman, not only for propriety’s sake, but also so that if they should be unhorsed, they would have someone at hand to assist them to mount.
Most cross-saddles were lined with leather on the underside, as it was very durable, but it did have a tendancy to slip on a horse’s back. This was not an issue for those who rode astride, since they could shift their weight in the saddle to keep it balanced on the horse. This was nearly impossible with a side-saddle, which is why they were lined with a heavy-weight linen canvas, as it was less likely to slip. The underside of a side-saddle had to be padded to correctly fit the back of the horse which carried it. If the underside of the saddle was ill-fitting, there was a high risk of saddle galls, painful sores on the horse’s back, caused by constant abrasion. The upper, leather portion of the saddle was made to fit the lady who rode upon it. During the Regency, nearly all side-saddles were custom-made, to fit both the rider and the horse. Ladies who regularly rode more than one horse might have an under-saddle pad made to fit each of her horses, attaching the leather upper saddle to the padded canvas under-saddle made for the horse she was riding that day. In that way, she could ensure the greatest possible comfort for each of her horses.
The side-saddle also required a lady have specific equipment when she went riding. Some avid horsewomen had their saddler reduce the length of the long leather skirt on the left side of their side-saddle so that the spur they wore could come in contact with the horse’s flank. But the spur would only cue the horse on the left. Many ladies carried a short whip or a thin leather-covered cane which they could use to cue the horse on the right flank. An accomplished equestrienne never used her spur or her whip to hurt her horse, she used it only to communicate her commands to her mount. The skirt of a lady’s riding habit, regardless of the weight of the fabric, had a tendency to blow up, at a gallop or in a high breeze, revealing parts of her anatomy meant to remain covered in public. Therefore, most ladies had firm ribbons or woven cloth tapes sewn into the hems of their skirts. Sensible riders would tie these ribbons or tapes around their boot, or to the strap which attached their spur. But there were some ladies who chose to tie these ribbons to the stirrup of their side-saddle. This practice posed a serious threat to these ladies, should they be thrown. With the skirt of their riding habit tied to their stirrup, there was a good chance they would be dragged by their horse, unable to free their skirt from the stirrup. Or, the skirt might be torn away from the lady’s person as the horse galloped away, revealing significantly more to those in the vicinity than she ever intended.
The side-saddle became significantly safer in 1830, when the French riding master, Jules Charles Pellier, invented the leaping head, or horn, in Paris. The leaping head was a third pommel, added below the second pommel which Catherine the Great had added to her side-saddle. This leaping head curved downward, the rider placing her left knee under it. This significantly improved the security of her seat, particularly when taking jumps. Gradually, the initial center pommel was eliminated and the long skirt on the left side was greatly reduced. At the same time, the seat of the side-saddle was made nearly flat, again significantly improving the rider’s balance. In 1850, the safety stirrup was introduced, replacing the slipper stirrup. In the 1880s, the balance or Sefton girth appeared. This second girth attached to the back of the right side of the saddle, helping to keep it balanced on the horse’s back. But the horsewomen of the Regency did not have the benefit of any of these improvements, since they were introduced long after the Regency had ended.
Most ladies who rode side-saddle during the Regency generally rode at a very sedate pace, over even ground, often along bridle paths such as Rotten Row in Hyde Park. In most cases, these ladies would be accompanied by their groom, or they would ride in the company of a gentleman. Those intrepid few who chose to regularly gallop their horses in the country, over rough ground, or to participate in fox hunting, while riding aside, had to be exceptional horsewomen in order to maintain their seat and control of their horse. And they did all of this on a saddle which was sadly lacking in all of the later design features which have since made the side-saddle just as safe to ride as a cross-saddle. Any of those horsewomen riding astride would have been the equal of just about any horseman of the time. Is it any wonder that some of those women decided to flaunt convention and ride astride when the opportunity presented itself?