As a leatherworker I do a lot of restorations. I regularly repair leather-bound boxes to hold antique $40,00 carriage clocks, make knife sheaths for eBay sellers and repair bridles and other tack for cowboy friends. The restorations I dread the most are bringing old saddles back to life. I’ve done dozens, including a couple for a museum and one that sold for $32,000! It’s hard work because usually the saddles are filthy with lots of “dead” leather that needs replacing. And matching the color of the old leather with dyes is not easy. The only thrill in restoring these old saddles is removing all the dust and debris to uncover old saddlemaker’s marks like Visalia, Gallup, Hamley or Leddy.
For some reason the last four saddles I’ve restored for customers were sidesaddles and every time I work on one my respect for women who rode such contraptions grows exponentially. Sidesaddles usually consist of a single stirrup, a cinch, a small piece of carpet in a Victorian pattern to sit on, and not much else. They have to be one of the most idiotic inventions in history. The only advantage over astride saddles is that in the 1800’s when a man’s saddle cost about $50, a sidesaddle cost only $30. But even for an old tightwad like myself that price difference would not be enough incentive to attempt to climb on one. Especially when you consider that horses were much wilder back then. I swear I don’t know how the women hung on but there is one report of a woman riding a sidesaddle on a cattle drive all the way from Texas to Montana!
As I understand it, the sidesaddle was invented because Queen Elizabeth couldn’t ride astride like men and women had done for centuries because of a deformity in her back, probably as a result of too much royal inbreeding. This was during the Victorian age when women felt they had to do what the royals did. So women had to hang off the side of their saddles holding on for dear life for generations all because of too many cousins marrying each other.
Of course, there is an alternative theory that male ropers invented the sidesaddle so women couldn’t compete and beat them in roping contests because there was no place to tie to on most sidesaddles.
Indian women never rode aside and neither did Arabs. Lots of Californio women in the mission era also eschewed the sidesaddle. Such women who chose to do so were called clothespins, saddle bags and strumpets. They were considered tomboys who probably threw rocks at cats too. But most American women at the turn of the nineteenth century rode aside. History records that a big scandal was created in Saratoga, New York, when a Mrs. Adolph Ladenburg had the nerve to ride down Main Street in broad daylight riding cross saddle and wearing skin tight breeches!
Horror of horrors!
Men, I hope you won’t think any less of me but every time I restored a sidesaddle or watched the group of female equestrians who ride sidesaddle every year in the Rose Parade I got the urge to ride one just to feel what it was like. So I found a spot where no one could see me, slapped a sidesaddle I’d just finished restoring on my wonder horse Gentleman and then was faced with my first problem. When the call comes to “saddle up” how do you go about performing such a task? After all, there was no saddle horn to grab on to, and my feet wouldn’t fit into the dainty slipper-like thing that served as a stirrup. I finally solved my dilemma by climbing up a tree and jumping on to my wonder horse. After suffering a painful groin injury I then had to figure how to wrap my legs around the two knobs meant to keep me in the saddle. I finally figured it out and it felt like I’d fall overboard at any minute. My wonder horse Gentlemen just turned around and looked at me in total disgust. Even more than usual.
I never did figure it out and rode around and round in circles like those ponies you see at the fair for little kids to ride. Afterwards I had to see a chiropractor and I’ve been walking sideways ever since.