Lee Pitts: Riding astride
One of my hobbies is restoring old saddles but I’ve never worked on a woman’s sidesaddle before. Now I have three in my shop to work on. It seems like, all of a sudden, I’m getting in touch with my feminine side. My backside, that is.
Actually, the term woman’s sidesaddle is redundant because, to the best of my knowledge, no cowboy has ever been seen riding one. If they did they would have been laughed out of the bunkhouse. But as a very curious person, just looking at the old relics makes me want to put on a dress and see what it’s like to ride one of the darn things. Instead of walking a mile in a lady’s shoes I want to ride a mile in her sidesaddle.
I just don’t understand how women rode the darn things, let alone got on one in a ladylike manner. It seems to me you’d have to be a contortionist to wrap your legs around two, or sometimes three, horns that seem to have been put in place by a male chauvinist pig who didn’t want his wife to go riding with him, so he designed the world’s most uncomfortable saddle. And to think there were some women in the nineteenth century who went up the trail from south Texas to Montana while riding a sidesaddle!
It had to be a weird experience for the horse too. Can you imagine a barely-broke Spanish mustang in 1880 looking back for the first time to see a sidesaddle and a women with her long flowing gown draped on one side? The horse must have thought, “Where’s the other half of the saddle?” And I’m quite sure the first Longhorn steer who saw such a sight didn’t stop running until he came to the Atlantic or the Pacific.
Restoring saddles is like restoring a car in that you have to take one apart down to the frame, or, in this case, the tree. I found there were many similarities with conventional saddles including the ground seat, tooling, center-fire cinch and the stirrups. Or, in this case, a stirrup. I had to do a lot of research in restoring the three sidesaddles and I was surprised to learn there were some with saddles strings, skirts and even a horn for women to take a dally when they roped off their sidesaddles!
Women hadn’t always ridden sidesaddle, or “aside” as it’s called. (As opposed to “astride”.) The American Indians, showing their practicality and common sense, never did make their squaws ride aside, nor did the Mexicans. The few white women on this continent in the middle 1500’s rode traditional saddles just like the men until the original Queen Elizabeth started all this nonsense. According to writer Glenn Vernam, the Queen was so deformed from too much inbreeding that she couldn’t ride astride, so a new saddle was designed for her. So, as Vernam wrote, “to cover up the defects of one woman a whole sex has been punished for centuries.”
Any woman who dared to ride astride was considered profane, wicked, a tomboy or a rascal, and they were called strumpets, clothespins, straddle-bugs, and worse. “They probably also climbed trees and threw rocks at cats,” wrote Vernam.
Around 1900 folks in the west finally saw the foolishness of the sidesaddle and women were then freed by society to become the great riders they are. Although the fancy-pants, stuff-shirts and riding academy instructors in the east were slower to change, even they finally noticed that women were split up the middle just like men.
A saddlemaker friend of mine says he’s occasionally asked to make a sidesaddle, usually for a lady’s riding group member to ride in a parade. So there are still plenty of sidesaddles in circulation and I know I’m not the only curious cowboy, so I got to thinking, wouldn’t it be great to have a Sidesaddle Rodeo where all the contestants had to compete while riding aside? And I mean everyone, from the team ropers to the barrel racers. While the bull dogger might have an easier time jumping off his horse, can you imagine a bronc peeler coming out of chute number three hanging on to the side of a horse named Mankiller or Root Canal, his one free leg, long dress and sun bonnet just a floppin’ in the breeze?