Riding side saddle about more than looks

Developed in Europe during the Medieval period, the practice of riding side saddle was established as means of preserving a lady-rider’s dignity and chastity.  

Though its popularity peaked during the Victorian period in Europe, the style of riding still has a devout group of practicing riders today, a number of which are located in southern Ontario.

Joanne Milton owns Rustic Meadows outside Hillsburgh and has up to 40 students to whom she teaches a variety of riding techniques and styles – including side saddle.

She’s also one of 12 members of the Ontario Side Saddle Association, which has been active since 2010. However, without garnering more interest and financial support for this form of equestrianism in the province, they may only be able to survive for three more years.

Despite being rooted in the past, Milton says riding side saddle has experienced a resurgence in the U.K. and U.S. as baby boomers age and look for less physically demanding hobbies. She also says that despite common misconceptions, it is actually a safer form of riding than the astride option.

“It’s actually more safe. It’s very, very secure. The leaping head keeps you from being thrown forward,” she said. “I’ve had horses do things with me when I’m in the side saddle, that if they had done the same thing astride I would have been off the horse. Usually (riders) are wearing an apron overtop so you can’t see what’s underneath holding them in.”

Even though the rider appears unbalanced, weight is actually equally dispersed with shoulders square and spine aligned with the horse beneath.

Weight is carried along the right thigh from the hip to the knee and hands are held low. Though most saddles are designed for left-side placement of the legs, there are offside versions available and even reversible models to accommodate those with disabilities or permanent injuries.

“It saw another surge in popularity after both the First and Second World Wars. Quite often men came back from the war disabled and still wanted to ride. If they had a foot blown off, how are they going to ride?” she says. “In side saddle, you don’t really need either of them.”

Milton says she even has some students who learn to lope side saddle before they try the same speed astride.

“(A student) didn’t feel that safe (loping astride) so she asked me if she could try side saddle,” says Milton. “Very shortly thereafter she was actually loping in side saddle because she felt so secure.”

Initially Milton says she was attracted to the riding style due to its elegant appearance and ability to make any rider “look good.”

Now, she says she opts for side saddle because it allows her to ride for longer periods of time with less recuperation needed afterward.

“I have arthritis in my hips and lower back. I can ride astride for 20 minutes and I’m hobbling when I get off the horse – it takes me awhile to get my land legs back,” she said with a laugh.

“But I can ride for two hours in the side saddle and be able to walk when I get off because I’m not spreading my hips.”

Milton says in their club they primarily use English or western saddles; the English being equipped with more reinforcement for jumping and hunting, and the western being more ornamental and ideal for cutting, trail riding and pleasure class competitions.

One of the competitions Milton trains students for is reining – a form of western dressage where horses are guided through patterns of circles, spins and stops done at a lope or canter. Milton says the sport started with cowboys who used the manoeuvres when working with cattle on their ranch horses – and evolved into showing off a horse’s ability to perform off the field as well.

“Every pattern will include large fast circles and small slow circles, changes of lead and changes of direction, sliding stops and spins where they plant one foot in the ground and go around and around,” she says.

“That’s basically the required manoeuvres, and patterns are just putting them together in different orders.”

In a competition, each manoeuvre is judged and scored independently with penalties accrued for being on the wrong lead. The precision and substantial room for error makes the sport challenging – which is why it’s one of Milton’s favourites.

“Reining is very technical and it’s judged on its technicalities, not whether you look pretty. It’s all about precision, correctness and control,” she says. “For me, that’s what I really strive for … precision and speed.”

Milton also designs and sews her own side saddle costumes in both English and western styles. She says they are merely inspired by traditional outfits and not historically accurate – but it’s part of the fun to incorporate one’s own interpretation.

Her favourite outfit is one modeled after a garment worn by Queen Margarita of Spain.

“It takes an hour to get dressed. It takes a half an hour to finish getting dressed after you’re on the horse,” explains Milton.

This provides some appreciation for the time consuming task of riding as a lady in the past.

“Victorian ladies had three gentlemen to help them get on their horse,” quips Milton. “One to hold the horse, one gentleman to make sure her … delicate ankles were never exposed and the third to hold her 18 inch waist and place her on the horse.”

Because of the riding position, it is more difficult to obtain side saddles that fit an individual person. A saddle that fits one person is unlikely to fit another; there’s not a lot of room for discrepancy. With the cheapest models starting at $500, Milton says it’s a very real limitation in trying to teach more students.

“With only 12 members at $25 (each) we don’t have any money. Last year we managed to do a bunch of clinics which brought in a bit of money and people really enjoyed them but not everybody wants to do it on a regular basis,” she says.

“We are literally not bringing in enough money per year to cover costs of affiliation with the Ontario Equestrian Federation.”

If more people become interested, this opens up the possibility for more opportunities close to home, says Milton. She said she believes there are many people out there who may be riders but just haven’t heard of their club.

“I enjoy it because I believe in it and I believe there’s a lot of people that would enjoy it and I don’t want it to die,” says Milton.

Membership is $300 for a lifetime or $25 a year for adults and $15 a year for youths. Those interested in learning more about the association or riding side saddle can call 519-855-6865 or email info@rusticmeadows.com.