Friday, April 12, 2013

A Leg Up, Part II: Riding Habits, Mounting, and Dismounting by Guest Blogger Shannon Donnelly

Please welcome back the delightful author and horsewoman, Shannon Donnelly, for more on how young ladies rode in the early nineteenth century. 

On a comfortable horse, riding side saddle soon begins to feel a bit like riding a padded rocking chair. It's far less tiring than riding astride, for the only effort is to sit straight and still. It is also amazingly comfortable to let the right leg rest on the horse's shoulder (the right foot actually rests a bit forward of the horse's left shoulder).

But to look elegant in a side saddle, you need a riding habit with a long skirt that makes it appear as if you “flow” into the horse.

Riding Habits

The riding habit had to be cut so that it draped down over the horse's side, coving ankle and boot. This drape required that a loop also be attached to the hem, so that, when dismounted, a lady could gather up the extra length of skirt.

The skirt has always been designed to facilitate both mounting and riding. It is either a full skirt, usually cut with a drape on the left; or a wrapped skirt is worn over pantaloons (which came into fashion around the early 1800's). Because of the cut, as you mount, the skirt falls into its natural position, covering the legs to the ankle. In the saddle, the skirt is forgotten. On the ground, a loop over the wrist keeps the draping skirt out of mud and dust.

A skirted riding habit is neither difficult to wear, nor are they heavy and cumbersome. The fabric is usually a heavy cotton or twill. A habit provides any woman with a long stride as much freedom as breeches (and more than a fashionable round dress of the era would offer). Having worn both, I should always prefer a habit and can well understand the country ladies who wore little else.

A lady would also need a whip (to cue the horse on the right or “off” side since she would not have a leg on that side), gloves, hat, and possibly a spur (if she had a sluggish mount).

However, the important factor in riding side saddle is the horse: a comfortable stride and good manners are essential.

A Lady's Mount

The perfect side saddle horse is a smooth gaited horse with a light mouth (preferably not too tall). In other words, you want a comfortable ride.

While it is possible to rise to the trot (post) side saddle, some claim that this is the real cause of giving a side saddle horse a sore back as it requires too much weight to be put into the left stirrup.

Getting Up and Down Again

A rider traditionally mounts from the left. The rider stands at the horse's shoulder, facing the horse's hind quarters (or haunch). With the right hand, the rider turns the stirrup iron sideways. The left foot goes into the stirrup. The rider may grasp the cantle or back of the saddle with the right hand. He then pushes himself off the ground with the right foot, transferring his weight to the left foot in the stirrup and pushing himself into the saddle. Swinging the right leg over the horse's back, the rider lands lightly in the seat.

However, a lady's side saddle requires a slight alteration in the standard mounting and dismounting method.

The reins are still held in the left hand. The lady stands facing the horse, or even slightly forward. She also holds the reins and whip in her left hand. Taking the stirrup iron in her right hand to hold it steady, she places her left foot in the iron. With her foot in the iron, she can reach up to hold the saddle. As she hops up, her weight goes to the left foot in the iron and she leverages her weight up. However, instead of swinging her leg over the horse, she pulls her right leg up in front of her and seats herself sideways in the saddle. She then can settle herself with the right leg over the top pommel, the left under the left pommel and in the stirrup.

A groom (or a gentleman) can also give a "leg up" to a lady. However, in the Regency, no man, groom or otherwise, would dare to be so bold as to take a lady by the waist. Instead, he would make a stirrup from his hands. He then holds his hands low enough to allow the lady to easily step into them with her left foot. The groom boosts the lady lightly into the saddle.

(I've seen riders tossed over a horse by too strong a boost, to the smothered laughter of everyone except the rider.)

When a groom is unavailable, a mounting block can help and will keep a side saddle from slipping. This can be a block about two feet in height, or a fallen tree or bank can serve the same purpose of giving the rider a little extra elevation to easily step into the stirrup and swing up.

The dismount is easy. To get off the horse, a lady unhooks her right leg, takes her left foot out of the stirrup and slips off. But, if she has any sense, she only does this if she's certain she can get back on again.


Shannon Donnelly’s writing has won numerous awards, including a RITA nomination for Best Regency; the Grand Prize in the "Minute Maid Sensational Romance Writer" contest, judged by Nora Roberts; RWA's Golden Heart; and others. Her writing has repeatedly earned 4½ Star Top Pick reviews from RT Book Reviews magazine, as well as praise from Booklist and other reviewers, who note: "simply superb"..."wonderfully uplifting"....and "beautifully written."

Her Regency romances, including A Dangerous Compromise, can be found as ebooks on all formats, and include four novellas now out as a collection with Cool Gus Publishing.

Her Regency Novella, Border Bride, can be found as an ebook, or in print in her collection of Regency Novellas.  You can learn more about her on her website and blog.

A special thanks to her from Marissa and Regina for sharing her expertise with Nineteenteen.


Marissa Doyle said...

No wonder she'd want a smooth-gaited horse, if she can't post to the trot! I gave up any riding years ago because of arthritis in my hips (diagnosed while I was in my mid-30s)--I wonder if riding side-saddle would work for me?

Thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us, Shannon.

Vicky said...

Thanks for posting this side saddle series; it's really informative! One of my favorite regency novels has a heroine who is a very good rider, and she often rides her brother's horse when he is not around. is that a realistic detail, or do horses need different training for side saddle versus astride saddle?

Shannon Donnelly said...

A horse does need to be trained to go under side saddle. The rider does not have a leg on one side--so a horse has to be taught to respond to a tap of the whip.

A good story about this is my aunt had a horse she was training to go under side saddle. The horse had been taught to move into a leg--so he ended up going sideways until he figured out there was only a leg on one side (ever).

Once trained a horse can switch between then two.

However, the next issue is that not all saddles fit all horses. Back in the Regency, saddles were custom fit not just to the rider but to the horse. She might have a harder time getting her saddle to fit her brother's horse.