The Downton effect - why sidesaddle riding is making a comeback

Side saddle rider Emma Wood on her mount, Russ

Side saddle rider Emma Wood on her mount, Russ - Credit: Archant

Hot on the hooves of Downton Abbey, the art of riding side saddle is enjoying a resurgence, and a Mobberley horsewoman can show you how

Side saddle

Side saddle - Credit: Archant

The Queen did it for 36 years when Trooping the Colour. And Lady Mary in Downton Abbey still does it in fine style.

But for most horsewomen, riding side saddle - condemned over a century ago by the suffragettes - is surely a relic of a bygone age.

Think again. A steady stream of women are wanting to learn how to sit on their steed the old-fashioned way. For some it’s a matter of necessity, for others it is historical curiosity, but whatever the reason, it surely helps that the outfits are gorgeous.

Emma Wood, assistant manager at Mobberley Riding School, is the only instructor in Cheshire accredited by The Side Saddle Association, and has seen growing interest in the practice over the last three years.

Side saddle rider Emma Wood on her mount, Russ

Side saddle rider Emma Wood on her mount, Russ - Credit: Archant

‘Usually they’ve seen someone else doing it either out hunting or at a show and want to have a go themselves,’ says Emma, aged 37. ‘We have quite a lot of people in Cheshire who do it and we all get seen out and about. New recruits to side saddle can be young or old.

‘Some of the kids just get on; they don’t know why they want to do it, but they sit so naturally and beautifully,’ says Emma.

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‘We do have people who have either hip or back problems. If you can’t open your hips to get astride, side saddle may be the only way they can ride.

‘One woman, her horse was injured showjumping and she can’t jump it that high. She wanted another career for it, so she started doing side saddle.’

Emma, a rider since the age of four, first tried side saddle aged 18 while working as a groom for an English woman living in Pennsylvania. For many years after that she did not encounter side saddle at all.

But a group of diehards, who formed The Side Saddle Association in 1974, were busy keeping the practice alive, helped latterly by headlines such as those created by side saddle rider Susan Oakes who jumped 6ft 8in in Ireland in 2013, breaking a world record which had stood since 1915.

‘The Quorn have started doing side saddle hunts, and then the Cheshire Forest Hunt and Cheshire Drag Hunt,’ says Emma. ‘It’s been a snowball effect from the girl in Ireland trying to do the high jump.’

A glance at The Side Saddle Association website now reveals a busy programme of events, and plenty of opportunity for some serious dressing up (see ‘Sitting Pretty’)

If you want to invest in a side saddle, you can expect to pay £1,500 to £2,500 for an old one (Mobberley Riding School’s own saddle dates back to 1900) or as much as £3,000-plus for a new one.

Conventionally, the rider has both legs on the left side of the horse, though some choose to ride ‘offside’ with both legs on the right.

What is it like to ride side saddle?

‘It can be limiting, but there are some people who do everything side saddle that they would do astride,’ says Emma.

For some very experienced riders, particularly dressage riders, the switch to side saddle may be like learning how to ride all over again. But never mind the rider, what does the horse make of it?

‘Most horses we’ve had here are fine,’ says Emma. ‘I’ve tried the saddle on at least ten and only one stood still and didn’t want to move.’ n

Sitting pretty

For many a side saddle aficionado, the outfits are part of the appeal. Some shows have historical costume classes in which the rider turns out wearing period gear, including silk top hat, tricorn hat or a big plumed affair, and must supply a full description of their costume, even referring to an old painting to confirm historical accuracy.

Other equitation classes have their own dress codes, including top hat for afternoon shows, bowler hats for the morning.

‘If you have a silk top hat, you must wear a white or cream stock (cravat), cream, champagne or yellow waistcoat (ladies don’t wear red waistcoats), buff or cream-coloured gloves and dark habit,’ says Emma Wood. ‘Your top hat should be between 4.75in and 5.25in high.

‘If you wear a bowler hat, then you have to wear a shirt and tie and brown gloves, never black gloves because only a lady in mourning would wear black gloves, and a lady in mourning should not do anything so frivolous as riding.’

Footnote: the left ankle should sport a spur; the right toe should never peep from beneath the apron.

Side saddle: a history

In the Middle Ages, ladies would ride using a planchette, a wicker basket in which they sat facing sideways, so the horse would have to be led by a groom

By the 1600s, the side saddle was evolving into something with pommels for the right leg, but still did not allow the rider sufficient control of the horse to ride without a lackey on hand.

It was the 19th century before the side saddle as we now know it was in common usage, featuring a ‘leaping head’ - a pommel curving above the left leg - which meant riders could jump and gallop without being thrown.

But there were always some famous ladies who flouted the side saddle’s notions of modesty and propriety. In the 18th century, both Catherine the Great and Marie Antoinette chose to ride astride.

Side saddle riding - Downton Abbey style