A Brief History of Sidesaddle Riding: A Connection to Female Advancement

Throughout much of history, societal success has depended upon our companion animal, the horse.  Nearly all modern commerce and progress are owed to this faithful animal, whose speed and strength have led to urbanization and industrialization. For a long time, women were not a great part of this developing progress.  They were not mobile and were not habituated to the engines of commerce, horses.  Women did not work the animals and did not ride them.  It was prudishly not considered proper for women, who were not wearing trousers, to ride astride, like a man. 

With the invention and gradual improvements in sidesaddle design however, women gained a great deal of freedom.  Despite their cumbersome clothing, they were at last able to sit front-facing and have control of the horse.  Roads that were nearly impassable for most of the year to coach or buggy at last opened up to women.  They could travel nearly as freely as did men, and so, there are perhaps valuable lessons to be learned about the sidesaddle’s relationship to female collaboration and the beginning of female advancement. 

Early sidesaddles were used by women during the American Revolutionary War, but these saddles were insecure and often dangerous, although they did provide nearly front-facing seating and fast transportation.  Usually these early saddles had hooks secured onto the off side so as to allow the carrying of bags of grain or other staples.  Thanks to these early saddles, two American women were war heroines.     

Sybil Ludington, daughter of Col. Henry Ludington, made history for her famous night ride in April, 1777.  In order to muster her father’s troops, she started riding at night, through very difficult terrain with Royalists, highwaymen, and looters along the way.  Sybil rode until dawn, using a stick to prod the horse and to knock on doors.  She rode twice as far as had Paul Revere, but unlike him, she completed her ride!  Today her statue can be seen on the shore of Lake Gleneida in Carmel, New York, her likeness mounted aside on horseback.  

 In May, 1781, young patriotic Emily Geiger, from what is now South Carolina, volunteered to take her elderly father’s place as a civilian messenger for General Greene.   Because General Greene’s troops were exhausted and weak from malnutrition, a civilian was the logical choice.  Emily completed most of the treacherous 70-mile ride before being captured by the Tories and imprisoned briefly at Fort Granby.  With capture imminent, Emily destroyed the complicated written message regarding troops and troop movements.  She had committed the message to memory, and after her release, she slipped away and rode on to deliver it to General Sumter.  This is a story nearly lost.  There is only a poor stone marker at her grave.      

As time moved on, there were many other examples of women who used the sidesaddle to free themselves for travel and work.  One was Mary Ramsey Lemons Wood, the Queen Mother of Oregon.  Born on a farm near Knoxville, Tennessee, she became an American pioneer when she immigrated to the Oregon Territory in 1852.  Aboard her horse, Martha Washington, she traveled the perilous trails.  Mary was an essential member of the party because of her skills as an accomplished midwife. 

  Molly Dyer Goodnight, born in 1839, also led an exciting life.  Her husband, Charles Goodnight, was an early pioneer cattleman near Pueblo, Colorado, and later in the Palo Duro in Texas.  In 1870, he commissioned for his new bride, a new type of sidesaddle, built to his specifications, and constructed locally in Pueblo.  A variety of makers soon adopted the design for what came to be known as the Goodnight Saddle.  Based on a working ranch saddle of the time with western bars, it had a more forgiving fit than any sidesaddle in use at the time because it could be used on almost any horse on the ranch.  It also accommodated more rear movement of the horse.  The leaping head, which curved over the rider’s left leg and secured her in the seat, was innovative.  Also, the seat in the Goodnight allowed a bit more movement for the rider, as was needed on the trail.  For a long time, Molly was the only white woman in Palo Duro.  Her many adventures included working cattle alongside the ranch hands, braving contacts with hostile Comanche, and finally, a friendship of sorts, with Quanah Parker, Chief of all the Commanche. 

  The leaping head feature, which allowed the rider to face fully forward, was a great advantage to balance and to the comfort of the horse.  Suddenly, women of means could go for rides in the parks and along the roads to visit friends.  They could participate in formal hunts with their husbands, even taking jumps.  Working class women could travel safely to the general store, to the feed mill, for work as teachers, for midwifery, or simply to visit family and friends.    

Just a few years ago, elderly Appalachian women often told stories of how they used their sidesaddles, carrying their baby in front and an older child behind.  They could tie cloth bags of feed or groceries on the off-side of the saddle. The Sears and Montgomery Ward companies sold affordable sidesaddles in their catalogs for both wealthy and common women.

 Today, horses are the machines of commerce in only a few isolated areas of the country, but there have never been more horses alive in this country than there are today.  Sidesaddle use is once again increasing, as women return to the safety and elegance of the riding style.  They have learned that they can compete on equal footing with astride riders.  The sidesaddle riders hunt, event, jump, and participate in competitive trail riding.  They are in horse shows, parades, and western games.  Sidesaddle units are yearly participants in the McDonald’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in Chicago and the Louisville Kentucky Derby Pegasus Parade.  They are on hand at many state equine shows and in local events throughout the country.  Watch for the members of the Southern Ohio Ladies Aside (SOLA) in local parades and festivities.  Contact them through the President of the club, Maggie Herlensky, at Maggie.herlensky@gmail.com

Submitted by:  Maggie Herlensky