From its humble beginnings as little more than a pad for pillion riding in medieval times, the side-saddle has endured many changes of style and construction during the centuries, some decorative more than functional, but all of them part of the rich heritage of aside riding, and which has contributed to making the art still popular today, albeit on a saddle more suited to safety and practicality in all equestrian disciplines, and the shape of the modern horse and rider.
L to R: 15th century with planchette, and c. 1799 with slipper stirrup
When women first rode horses independently, rather than just sitting behind a man on his horse, they sat facing sideways in a saddle (initially merely a stuffed platform, later a more chair-like creation) with a footrest called a planchette - first introduced into England in the fourteenth century by Anne of Bohemia - but this gave little control over their horses and generally necessitated them being led along, travelling no faster than a walk. These saddles possessed a single pommel or horn in front. In the sixteenth century, Catherine de Medici is credited (currently being debated) with being the inventor of a second horn, between which a lady placed her right leg, and so faced forward for the first time, thereby having independent control of her horse and able to ride at faster gaits.
L to R: 1860, and the 1880s
The two-horned side-saddle remained, in various forms - such as with a side rail, slipper stirrup and ornate stitching, and with the addition in the 1820s of the invention of the balance strap - until the 1830s when the third pommel, the leaping head, was devised, arguably by Frenchman Jules Pellier, which gave a far more secure seat than any previous design and so allowed women to enter the hunting field; by the 1850s the three-pommelled side-saddle was fashionable everywhere, often with an offside handkerchief pocket.
Modern English side-saddle
But gradually the offside pommel diminished in size, and by the 1870s/'80s it had often disappeared. The dipped seat of the nineteenth century also eventually gave way to the level-seated side-saddle of the early twentieth century, and the doeskin-lined seat and pommels made by the well-known saddlers of the 1930s-'50s are regarded as the classic styles, and still in use. Other countries often have their own particular styles, such as the western side-saddle of America, and the Charra side-saddle of Mexico. Regrettably, the older side-saddles are not suited to modern side-saddle riding: the designs are not safe to ride in, nor do they fit the well-fed horses of today. Of limited monetary value unless in exceptional condition or unusual decoration or design (older ones can still be bought for less than £100), their importance remains the province mainly of those with a particular interest in the evolution of the side-saddle, and a concern for their preservation as part of the colourful tradition of ladies who have ridden aside over the centuries.
Penelope Housman works as a costumed guide at the National Trust House, Killerton House where they are currently showing an exhibit on Regency Fashion. Her boutique, Side Saddle Lady, provides information, patterns, period saddles and more. Visit her Website for a world of Equestrienne history.