Until the 1850s, riding was one of two socially acceptable physical activities for ladies of the aristocracy and upper classes, the other being dancing. It is now enjoying something of a revival.
While men rode and raced on horseback astride the horse, far back into ancient history, women had to preserve their modesty. This was achieved by sitting aside on the horse, behind the men, holding the man round his waist or sitting on a small padded seat. This was also partly due to their long, heavy skirts; it was impractical to ride astride.
Even as far back as 1382 it was considered vulgar for women to ride astride – such an act might even affect her physically, bringing into question her virginity. Thus Princess Anne of Bohemia rode side-saddle across Europe on her way to marry King Richard II.
The earliest functional side-saddle was designed in the late 14th Century. It was a chair-like construction, where the woman sat sideways on the horse with her feet on a footrest. Catherine de Medici is said to have developed a more practical design in the 16th century. Rather than keeping both feet placed side by side on the footrest, she placed her right leg over the pommel of the saddle, so as to show off her shapely ankle and calf to their best advantage! Riding this way allowed the rider much more control of the horse and even allowed the rider to trot and canter safely.
Further adjustments were made to the saddle over time, but it was the introduction of a second pommel in the 1830s that was revolutionary. This additional pommel gave women both increased security and additional freedom of movement when riding side-saddle. This allowed them to stay on at a gallop and even to jump fences while hunting and show jumping, whilst still conforming to the expected levels of propriety and modesty.
Like Ballroom dancing, Side Saddle Riding remains a more elegant way for women to interact with men, retaining their femininity. It is certainly a beautiful sight to see.