Sandi Black, archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum, has always been intrigued by a sidesaddle in the collection. “It’s one of our mystery objects.” This is an especially large example of a sidesaddle, others in the museum’s collection being much smaller.
The design of this saddle dates from at least the 1830s when the second pommel, the leaping head or leaping horn, was added to sidesaddles to give further support and allow the rider to travel at greater speed. “The leaping horn is adjustable,” says Sandi, and demonstrates how it could turn on its base. On the right side of the saddle is a small pocket – a ladies’ handbag, as Sandi describes it. The saddle is well padded and looks comfortable.
In Britain, at least, some women still ride sidesaddle on the hunt, using saddles much the same as this old example. Although they no longer wear the long gowns of yesteryear, their modesty is protected by an “apron” worn over riding breeches.
The leather on the museum’s saddle is tooled, patterned and stitched, a sign of superior status. Someone of means owned and used the saddle.
“I love it,” says Sandi, “I think it’s beautiful. The amount of work that’s gone into it is amazing. It’s another everyday item of the past that we look at now and say, ‘Wow, that’s strange.’ And I was a lover of horses in my youth. I’ve never ridden sidesaddle but always thought it would be interesting.”
Sidesaddles are generally custom made for the rider and horse combination, where exact measurements are crucial for comfort and stability.
“This one has seen better days,” says Sandi, and it’s obvious the padding – horsehair, oddly enough – is seeking to escape through the worn leather. The stirrups are also missing and rust has got a firm grip on anything metal.
The sidesaddle fell out of fashion early in the 20th century as it became socially acceptable for women to ride astride in split skirts. The 1970s saw it revived in certain traditional and ceremonial settings, the British fox hunt being one.
Some women of note, regardless of social convention, refused to ride sidesaddle; Marie Antoinette and Catherine the Great being celebrated examples.
Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek on 5th June 2013. Reproduced with permission from the publishers.