Riding side saddle is a centuries old tradition that has recently enjoyed a revival. While it was originally created to preserve a ladies modesty, it is now recognized as a separate riding discipline that takes skill and training on both the part of the horse and rider.
How It Began
The exact origins of side saddle are lost in time, however it is widely assumed that it developed from pillion riding, where a woman rode horseback behind the man who used the saddle and controlled the horse. When ladies began to ride horses independently, a saddle was devised that was more like a chair, even having footrests instead of stirrups.
This afforded little control over the horse, and still required a man to ride alongside, in order to control the side saddle mount. Gradually, as women saw fit to pursue the art and skill of horsemanship, a pommel was added to the saddle as well as a balancing strap.
Eventually the footrest was replaced with a short stirrup, and another pommel was added.
This enabled more control over the horse, and gave the rider a more secure seat. With this more advanced form of side saddle, women were able to ride to hunts as well as at speed.
Types of Side Saddle Riding
Riders who choose to ride side saddle do so for many reasons. Often times it is easier on someone with a back injury, or for someone who has lost a leg through amputation. Some therapeutic riding programs engage side saddle riding as it can be very secure, especially when used with a calm and well-trained pony.
Bridles and Bits
The bridles used when riding side saddle are the same ones used when riding astride. The only difference is in the length of the reins. Because the rider has to hold her hands above her right knee, the reins must be longer. This can be achieved by rein extensions available at most tack shops.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, most ladies riding side saddle used a double bridle. This means there were four reins; two attached to the snaffle or bradoon bit, and two attached to the curb bit. This allowed precise control of the horse, especially when out hunting or galloping across country. The reins of the bradoon are held between the pinky finger of each hand, then up the palm and finally between the thumb and the index finger. The reins of the curb bit were held exactly the same way, except they are not threaded through the pinky finger.
Occasionally riders would use a Pelham bit, which is a single bit that has the action of a bradoon and a curb and also has four reins. In modern times however, it is not common to see Pelham bits or double bridles outside of the dressage arena.
What Exactly Are The Reins For?
Many people think the reins are there to hold you on the horse. This is a common misconception that unfortunately can cause great discomfort to the horse as well as limit your growth as a rider. The reins are considered secondary aids, with the rider’s seat and legs being considered the primary aids.
A rider’s balance is achieved through a secure seat, not through holding tightly to the reins. This is especially true when riding side saddle. Having soft hands that are independent of the seat are the hallmarks of a skilled and compassionate rider.
Finding The Right Fit
If someone is interested in learning side saddle, it is imperative that they seek proper instruction. It can be difficult to find, but it will be well worth it. This noble and fun discipline is enchanting a whole new generation of riders, and its popularity continues to rise year after year.