In an age when many women take their political freedoms for granted, they would do well to recall that for nearly a thousand years their mounted ancestors enjoyed neither political nor equestrian equality.
One piece of equipment, the sidesaddle, represented this social, political and equestrian domination.
And while it is common knowledge that the American suffragettes achieved the right to vote in 1920, what has gone undetected is that these brave women rode into the voting booth as second-class citizens on a sidesaddle, then galloped out astride.
Thus, an equestrian revolution came about due to a second, undeclared and hitherto forgotten, civil war that tore the American nation into conflicting camps. This deeply divisive social conflict, which was waged from ocean to ocean, wasn’t between the men of the North and South. It was conducted between the two opposing female equestrian cultures of East versus West. Yet we can’t look for answers “out West,” without first recalling how women swung into the saddle.
Origins of riding
Like their brothers, the original Central Asian women riders mounted up in order to participate in travel, sport, war and pleasure.
The most famous early example was the Amazons, whose daring exploits in the saddle upset generations of Greek men, as those toga-wearing pedestrians quailed at the idea of meeting hard-riding, trouser-wearing women.
Nor was the idea of mounted women geographically restricted, for equestrian cultures including the Mongols, Comanche and Hawaiians later took justifiable pride in the equestrian skills of their women.
The reason these sisters of the saddle rode was explained by the Danish equestrian philosopher/author, Bjarke Rink, who pointed out in his book, The Centaur Legacy, that the horse turned “man”-kind into a race of risk-takers. History, Bjarke says, is about how mounted humans changed the face of the globe.
But if men like Oscar Wilde, Lord Byron and Charles Darwin became Long Riders and risk-takers, did women mounted astride become social reformers?
Not without a fight.
Transition in the Age of Chivalry
We can’t appreciate what was lost, without understanding what women once enjoyed.
During the 1200s authors such as Chaucer wrote about women who routinely made lengthy journeys riding astride. The rowdy and earthy “Wife of Bath,” depicted in The Canterbury Tales, was one such notable character. She rode a pacer astride, carried a whip and wore spurs. Other women also adapted split skirts, or if riding to war like Joan of Arc, donned armour.
Thus, before the dawning of the 14th century, women rode astride, or they rode pillion — sitting sideways on a cushion behind the male rider’s saddle. The pillion had become more common as European female fashions developed into increasingly elaborate court dress which restricted a woman’s movements.
Though it may be true to say that the clothes a woman wore influenced the future of equestrian history, that isn’t why the sidesaddle was invented.
Protecting the Royal Hymen
The dictionary defines a “Bohemian” as being a nonconformist who lives an unconventional life.
Yet in an incredible historical irony, it was a woman from Bohemia who caused nearly a thousand years of equestrian repression to transpire.
With the rise of feudalism, and its off-shoot, patriarchal politics, the need to secure a male heir was an affair of state and protecting the virginity of a potential royal bride became increasingly vital. One way to protect the royal hymen, and off-set the accidental loss of virginity, was to prohibit aristocratic girls from riding astride.
Thus sidesaddle riding was introduced into England in 1382 when Princess Anne of Bohemia travelled across Europe via this new mode of equine transport in order to wed King Richard II.
For those unfamiliar with the history of coaches and carriages, it is important to note that due to the lack of passable roads, driving a coach as a common form of transport would not take place until the dawning of the 19th century.
That is why, lacking a road, the virtuous virgin was transported to England in a chair-like affair that was based upon a packsaddle design. In addition to a padded seat, this new contraption provided a pommel in the front which could be used as a rudimentary handgrip. A wooden plank, wide enough to accommodate both feet, hung along the left side of the placid beast of burden. It was customary for the sideways facing woman to sit on the near side of the horse, enabling her to use the right hand to hang onto the horse’s mane.
From routing Greek foot soldiers, once bold women had thus been reduced to the status of packages being delivered to the highest political bidder. The reins, both of personal power and individual equestrian control, had been taken away by men who now restricted a woman’s political and equestrian destinies.
Thus the advent of the sidesaddle can be traced back to the English court and this Bohemian queen. For the next two centuries the sidesaddle became increasingly associated with “proper” behaviour, until by 1600 riding astride was no longer something a “lady” would do, as that ancient practice had taken on the aura of indecency.
Fashion not Function
Not all women bought the idea of riding sidesaddle, though the longer the sidesaddle was around and the more it was used by royals, the more society believed it was the proper way for a woman to ride. For example, public opinion was of no particular consequence to Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia (1729-1796), so she rode astride and demanded that all women in her court follow suit.
However, a strong implication now dominated the European horse world. An unwritten law stated that only a woman as masculine as an Amazon, as libertine as the Wife of Bath, or as heretical as Joan of Arc, would have dared to ride astride.
In this way, by the end of the 19th century, a philosophy of equestrian protection had become an entrenched social institution, one whose original purpose wasn’t discussed in public, yet which nevertheless exerted an immense influence across polite European and American society.
The sidesaddle began as a flat, padded platform but it soon underwent several mechanical transitions, which, although designed to provide the female rider with more control, ended up entrapping her.
The first great change was the addition of a horn which enabled the rider to wrap her right leg around this projection in order to obtain stability. The addition of a second horn was attributed to Catherine de’ Medici. This improvement allowed the rider to face forward and gain a further sense of security. By this time the footrest had been replaced with a leather-covered slipper stirrup that housed the left foot. This interim system permitted the rider some stability, at least at slower speeds.
In the 19th century a third horn, called the leaping head, was added to the sidesaddle.
According to James Fillis, a famous French riding master, this new style sidesaddle gave women “security at all movements of the horse, no matter how brusque or violent.”
He went on to exclaim that, “Nothing evokes such elegance as riding sidesaddle.”
While it was true that certain daring women used this improved sidesaddle to jump their horses more than six feet, and ride to hounds across England and Ireland, what the riding master neglected to mention was this combination of horns also locked these women into place on top of a notoriously dangerous animal capable of immense speed and lightning-fast evasive maneuvers.
The Perils of Repression
Although today it is often described as a “romantic” way to ride, modern equestrians are reluctant to discuss the deadly side effects associated with locking a human body into place alongside the left side of a galloping horse.
The drawbacks included these dangerous disadvantages to horse and rider.
Concessions to fashion ensured that the immense riding skirts, as well as special corsets, kept the rider erect, rigid and uncomfortable. Additionally, the sidesaddle was labour intensive. A man could mount alone. Yet it took two men to help one lady get onto her sidesaddle.
It also handicapped the rider in another way, communications, as unlike male riders a sidesaddle rider could not apply the pressure of her leg to the right side of the horse, nor give her mount any signals with her thighs, knees, or heels.
Even worse, she could not drop her hands in order to turn or stop a runaway horse.
Sadly, if she was involved in an accident, a girl was more likely to suffer serious injuries in a sidesaddle. When fox hunting men had riding accidents, the small English saddle was designed to throw them free of the massive horse. But when the horse of a female fox hunter fell, the heavy sidesaddle trapped the women underneath the 1200 pound animal because she could not fall clear of the saddle. The result was that these women often had their backs broken and were invalids for the rest of their lives.
In addition, the sidesaddle was notoriously expensive to create and because it placed the majority of the weight on one side, it routinely injured the horse’s back. Plus, because of the long flapping riding dress hanging along his left flank, a “lady’s horse” had to be exceptionally well-trained, which translated into “expensive.” Finally, because of its bad fit, grooms were known to girth a sidesaddle up so tightly that the horse had trouble breathing.
The result was that women, and horses, suffered devastating physical abuse.
Nevertheless, a noted British riding master, Colonel Hitchcock, urged women to continue with the method because, “the sidesaddle is the most decorative, dignified, and graceful method, and pleases the male eye, which prefers the ultra-feminine woman to the type which emulates the male in attire or atmosphere.”
An Emerging Social Debate
What the fans, and foes, of the sidesaddle could not have foreseen was that as the 19th century drew to a close, this revered icon was about to become involved in a global equestrian debate which raged through the press and across the world of the Long Riders.
After Long Rider Daisy Bates migrated from Ireland to Australia in the 1880s, she rode 3000 miles in her sidesaddle across the Outback. Likewise, when Ella Sykes, the unconquerable English Long Rider, set out to canter across the deserts of Persia, it wasn’t the local Muslims who almost slew her, it was the sidesaddle which nearly took her life on several occasions.
It was during this time period that Alice Hayes, a British author and strong advocate of the sidesaddle, warned the English-speaking world that the only people advocating ladies to resume riding astride were “journalists short of copy and women anxious for notoriety.” Hayes went on to denounce “feminine desperados” who, being either “mad or wholly ignorant,” had forgotten how “ungraceful” riding astride made a woman look.
Yet while Hayes and Hitchcock worked hard at protecting the equestrian status quo, lady Long Riders were quietly breaking down social and equestrian restrictions on both sides of the Atlantic.
Lady Long Riders Defy the Rules
When she ventured to Hawaii in the late 19th century, English Long Rider Isabella Bird learned to ride astride thanks to her Hawaiian hosts. In addition to rounding up the wild cattle imported by the King of that island, the Mexican vaqueros had also taught the local women to ride astride. Bird not only adopted this technique, but she also used her vaquero saddle when she later explored the Rocky Mountains, Japan, Persia and Tibet on horseback.
Similarly, when Ethel Tweedie left London, she had not planned to forsake the sidesaddle. Yet like Isabella, upon her arrival in Iceland, Ethel discovered that the local women rode astride like their male relations.
“Necessity gives courage in emergencies, so I determined to throw aside conventionality, and do in ‘Iceland as the Icelanders do.’ The amusement of our party when I overtook them, and boldly trotted past, was intense; but I felt so comfortable in my altered seat that their derisive and chaffing remarks failed to disturb me. Riding man-fashion is less tiring than on a side-saddle, and I soon found it far more agreeable, especially when traversing rough ground. My success soon inspired Miss T. to summon up courage and follow my lead. Society is a hard task-master, yet for comfort and safety, I say ride like a man,” Tweedie recalled.
East versus West – An Undeclared Civil War
As the 20th century dawned, despite the brave attempts of role models like Isabella Bird, the majority of “nice” girls in America and England were still doomed to ride perched on the side of a horse and not, as one western wag put it, astride “like a clothes pin.” How was it then that the sidesaddle, which had enjoyed such a run of success, was about to disappear from use without a whisper, or regret, in less than a generation?
The signs were there for those who understood them. Moreover, these omens carried geographic clues indicating that a host of defiant Western women were no longer willing to acquiesce to New York and London.
Such social battle lines could be seen on either side of the United States, where, for example, the New York Times reported that riding as a social past time in Washington DC had reached an all-time high, with an estimated “200 maidens out riding every week.” In this city, proper ladies, such as Mrs Senator Davis, whose “cheeks have so much colour in them that people charge her with painting, but this is a slander,” were noted for their “perfectly fitted custom-made riding habit.”
Meanwhile, on the other coast, the Los Angeles Times reported that 25 women had been elected to the prestigious Vaquero Riding Club, whose members were all expert horsemen and descendants of Spanish grandees. The paper also noted that all of these Californian equestriennes preferred to ride astride. “Not one of us would tolerate the old-fashioned sidesaddle,” a liberated Angelino rider reported.
Nor was this new generation of Western women willing to quietly withhold their political and equestrian views any longer.
In September 1910, Two-Gun Nan Aspinwall set off to prove that a woman could ride “ocean to ocean” alone. The Long Rider’s journey took her from San Francisco to New York, during which time she wore a split skirt, shod her own horse, and rode astride.
Yet if the equestrian powder keg needed a fuse, it was the tiny Alberta Claire, known as “the girl from Wyoming,” who proved that women were no longer willing to follow the rules.
In 1912 this diminutive pistol-packing Long Rider made an 8000-mile solo equestrian journey across America that took her from Wyoming to Oregon, south to California, across the deserts of Arizona, and on to a triumphant arrival in New York City. Throughout the course of her long journey, Claire publicly stated that she associated her desire to vote with her right to ride astride. Upon her arrival in New York, Alberta was greeted by Teddy Roosevelt, who praised Claire’s courage and urged that women be granted the right to vote.
Yet these were individual acts of courage. What was needed was a mounted champion who could turn the tide of equestrian history. And that woman, and her horse, were ready to lead the charge towards political and equestrian equality.
A Mounted Champion for Women’s Rights
Her name was Inez Milholland and it was her destiny to lead an equestrian and political revolution, the intertwined implications of which have never been previously studied.
Born to a wealthy New York family, Inez attended Vassar College, where she was suspended for organizing a women’s rights meeting. After graduation, she visited London, where the determined young American met women like Lady Apsley, who said, “A good horsewoman in a sidesaddle is a credit to her menfolk.”
Having been raised by her parents to prize independence, instead of sedately riding sidesaddle, Inez ignored the gasps of London society and galloped her horse astride along Hyde Park’s Rotten Row. Like Alberta Clare, Milholland realized that mobility was synonymous with escape from a male-dominated society. That is why, in addition to being a suffragist, labor lawyer, correspondent, and public speaker, Inez Milholland ranks as one of the most important female equestrian leaders in American history, for it was on the back of a horse that she liberated her sisters from the sidesaddle, as well as helping obtain them the right to vote.
She did this by making three rides astride which changed the political and equestrian landscape of America in a few short months. In May 1912 Milholland saddled up a fractious bay and led 10,000 marchers across New York.
Then she headed to the nation’s capital.
Mounted on a white charger named Gray Dawn, Inez set out early on March 3, 1913, determined to lead an immense women’s suffrage parade several miles from the nation’s Capital to the Treasury Building. Her Joan of Arc-inspired costume was “a symbol of the free women of the future, crowned with the star of hope, circled with the blue mantle of freedom and breasted with the torch of knowledge.”
Yet the suffragettes, who were marching on the eve of President Wilson’s inauguration, had barely begun their long walk when they were attacked by a horde of antagonists. Cut off from her friends, and alone in the middle of the howling mob, it looked as if the drunken thugs might pull down the suffragette rider. Instead, Inez spurred Gray Dawn and charged the rabble.
“You men ought to be ashamed of yourselves,” she shouted, as her adversaries fled.
Thankfully, before her bluff could be called, US cavalry troops galloped in from nearby Fort Myers. In the ensuing melee, the cavalrymen cantered up the avenue, crashing into civilians and clearing the way for the beleaguered suffragettes. Yet not even the cavalry could fully contain the wrath of the attackers who darted in behind the army, determined to kick, grab, curse, howl and spit at Inez and her fellow protestors. As the injuries rose, ambulances were called in to cart away hundreds of wounded spectators and suffragettes. But the women marched on.
Finally, many weary hours later, Inez and her fellow protestors reached their goal. The nation was aghast at how they had been treated. Inez, however, had no time to mourn.
Two weeks later she was in the saddle once again. This time she led 10,000 marchers through a peaceful New York. That was her last great ride and it ended at a rally witnessed by 150,000 people.
Then, like a candle that burned too bright, this mounted symbol of hope and equality died at the age of 30 from pernicious anemia.
Her last public words were, “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?”
The answer was seven more long, unjust years.
Royalty’s Last Stand
In July of that year, 1913, Queen Mary of England made a fruitless attempt to turn back the hands of time, when she announced a royal ban on women riding astride in Hyde Park’s Rotten Row.
Once again it was the women of the American West who thundered out their opposition, with the LA Times announcing, “The sidesaddle is a cumbersome, cruel burden on a horse and all right-thinking people believe its time is past.” While cautioning that what was good enough for Los Angeles was good enough for England, the paper went on to warn, “God Save the Queen — from starting any more fool notions.”
American women were finally granted the right to vote with the passage of the 19th amendment to the US Constitution in 1920. The Presidential election of November 1920, was therefore the first occasion on which women in all states were allowed to exercise their right of suffrage.
Likewise, even conservative Washington DC reported a simultaneous shift in the values of their equestrian community. Before the twin liberties of voting and riding astride were granted, the nation’s capital had denounced Miss Ruth Haines when she dared to ride astride down Connecticut Avenue. “All Washington gasped and Miss Haines was voted ‘too Western’ for the capital,” the local paper recalled. Haines’ daily rides were attended by “a gaping throng” who argued for or against the “straddle bug” riding for women. Yet soon after the death of Inez Milholland, the paper went on to report that “all that is changed” and even society ladies had become “full-fledged straddlers.”
Free Women – Free Riders
Thus, the fall of the sidesaddle is linked to the rise of female liberty, for it was the dawning of political freedom which brought about the overdue death of this repressive equine invention. The extent of that dramatic social change began to be apparent in the early 1930s when women were offered the option of equestrian equality. They abandoned the sidesaddle in droves in favour of riding astride.
Then, when the acclaimed film National Velvet was released in 1944, women old enough to have spent their childhood in a sidesaddle watched the young girl, Velvet Brown, dream not of being a pretty face but of winning the Grand National steeplechase while riding astride. By 1946, when Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald’s completed his masterpiece The Book of the Horse, this encyclopedic 880-page work lacked a single reference to the sidesaddle.
Now, with the dawning of this new century, we will soon witness the end of the sidesaddle’s last royal connection, for though Anne of Bohemia was the first English queen to ride in a sidesaddle, the current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II will undoubtedly be the last ruler to have done so.
Pants in the Press – How riding skirts sold newspapers
Though a cowgirl can now dress any way she wants, that wasn’t always the case. In fact back in the days when the sidesaddle ruled the female equestrian world, if a cowgirl showed up in town wearing her brother’s pants, or even a split skirt, she would have been arrested for indecent exposure.
That’s what happened to Evelyn Cameron in 1895 when the English photographer, turned Montana rancher, cantered into Miles City one fine August day. Because Evelyn had dared to come to town wearing a split riding skirt she had made herself, the sheriff, backed by the town’s outraged women, threatened the foreigner with arrest if she didn’t leave town.
Nor had this social prejudice lost any of its wide-spread power when Two-Gun Nan Aspinwall made her ride from San Francisco to New York in 1910. She too wore a split skirt. However, Nan lived up to her name by shooting up any town dumb enough to try and pass judgment on her sartorial decision making.
Yet, as these American newspaper articles demonstrate, the war to keep women out of pants consumed a lot of ink and raised a nation’s temper to the boiling point.
Havre, Montana – August 1897
There were six young women who competed in the bronc riding competition. The broncos chosen were as villainous a crew of ponies as ever got together. The riders wore a combination costume of cowboy and bicycler’s wardrobes. There was no pretense about sidesaddles as all the broncos were ridden astraddle. The mix-ups were so lively that it seemed the riders would be reduced to their high heeled boots. Sombreros and whips were lost, the riders’ long hair whipped in the wind, and their clothes had the appearance of having been used as street sweepers. But there were no serious rents in garments and not even a scratch on any pretty face.
Pasadena, California – June 1904
“I have learned that the only true way to ride is to ride astride. The ones who object to women riding astride are those who think a woman should ride to be seen and not for her own pleasure,” said Miss Herma Rupe, a charming equestrienne.
Los Angeles – May 1905
“The woman does not live who can throw her leg over the back of a horse without profaning the grace of femininity, or grasp with her separated knees the shoulders of her mount without violating the laws of good taste; or appear in the cross-saddle with any semblance of dignity, elegance or poise,” reported The Lancer, a male columnist in the Los Angeles Times.
Indianapolis – September 1907
It would make an Indianapolis girl’s heart ache if she had to ride horseback like a New York maiden, who uses a sidesaddle and affects English fashion. Yet what would the New York girl think if she saw the Indianapolis girls in their riding skirts, bare headed and riding astride at a merry clip? The New Yorker would shake her pretty head and say, “We are more refined in the East.” But the Indianapolis girl could wisely reply: “Not a bit of it. You are only more conventional.”
New York – February 1911
There is nothing particularly new in the wearing of trousers by women and the divided skirt has been threatening us a long while. However, the tailor-made gown is as near to the masculine fashion in attire as most women ever care to get.
Los Angeles – May 1917
For Sale – Smart riding suits for women that combine utility, comfort and trim style.
New York – May 1924
This season the belles of the bridle path will be wearing a comfortable new item known as the jodhpur, which is described as being “very swagger, indeed.”
It was first published in the United States in the October-November 2008 issue of I.M. Cowgirl and first published on Horsetalk.co.nz on October 17, 2008.