by Matilda Branson
I ride horses. I think I was first on a horse at the age of 8 or 9 months old. Horse riding comes as naturally to me as does breathing. Wherever I live, or travel in the world, my eye is automatically on the look-out for anything horse-related, be it a likely stable or potential horse jump (the front fences of houses are usually particularly promising), even if I don’t have a horse with me. When I see a golf course, I think how wonderful it would be to gallop across the pristine turf. Desperate for horse contact whilst living in Nepal, I rescued a small pony from a brick kiln factory. A few years ago, I rode 1000 km across Mongolia on horseback, because how could I not? A horse-mad feminist, through and through.
When I ride, I ride astride. Most people do. If you’ve ever ridden, you were probably riding astride too, one leg either side of the horse. Yet this is a pretty recent thing for women to do. If you look at mediaeval paintings, and even photos up until the early 20th century of women riding, you’ll often see them sidesaddle, seated with two legs on one side of the horse.
Have you ever used the phrase “bohemian” to describe something a bit alternative or unconventional? The earliest form of the sidesaddle is credited towards one Princess Anne of Bohemia who travelled across Europe on a primitive form of the sidesaddle to wed King Richard II, thus setting a bit of a trend particularly for those of noble birth, that to ride astride was unladylike and improper. Although a few feisty ladies through the ages bucked (ha ha) the trend – Catherine the Great, Joan of Arc, Marie Antoinette, just to name a few – the sidesaddle became the principal mode of riding for women for a good half a century or so.
But why the sidesaddle? Why not a normal one? Was it because of the dresses they wore, or their perceived weakness as women in comparison to men and their inability to control their mighty steeds? Maybe a little. But the main motivation I think came with the social norm: A woman to straddle a horse – oh the thought of it! How unbecoming of a lady!
So what was underpinning such ideas? For all those anthropologists out there, it all boils down to ideas around a woman’s purity and chastity, and male control and regulation of female sexuality (perhaps the thinking behind this is if it’s left uncontrolled, women might just rampage across the Earth: wild, irrational and dangerous, hormones unbridled, ha ha). Once the mediaeval times dug in, so did feudalism and all the patriarchal norms that go with it, including the utmost need for a girl (especially an aristocratic one like our Princess Anne of Bohemia) to remain chaste and a virgin until her wedding night. And how to prove she’s a virgin? Why, the old blood-on-the-sheets and broken hymen trick! Convinces the rellies every time. Riding astride? A big no-no if daddy, mummy and hubby-to-be wanted to keep the hymen intact.
It was only really at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, with the suffragette movement, the first World War and the general modernisation of things that the sidesaddle began to go out of vogue. Although today it continues to be used, and is a respected part of equestrianism in itself due to the skill required in riding sidesaddle, most women today ride astride. Which I, for one, am very glad of, as otherwise I would fall off a lot. The point of this post is: don’t forget the seemingly obscure ways in which women have gained greater freedoms as part of the greater feminist movement. There are so many of them out there, which is great, and I would neigh for joy if I could.