Esther Stace cleared a record 6'6" at the Sydney Royal Show in Australia in 1915 riding sidesaddle. Photo source: Walcha Historical Society.

Esther Stace cleared a record 6’6″ at the Sydney Royal Show in Australia in 1915 riding sidesaddle. Photo source: Walcha Historical Society.

Elizabeth Macarthur was a horsewoman.

She wrote a letter describing riding through the bush on a three day trip to the Hawkesbury.  Governor Macquarie wrote about encountering her on horseback.

But that’s all I know.  I can’t tell you if Elizabeth rode for pleasure, although her friend Betsy Marsden certainly did (Betsy’s husband wrote to friends bragging of his wife’s riding prowess).  I can’t tell you if amongst the Macarthur’s many horses she had a special favourite. I can’t even tell you if Elizabeth rode astride or used a sidesaddle but at least with this last question I can at least make some educated guesses.

Sidesaddle didn’t become the accepted style of riding for women until the 15th century. Before then women were just as likely to ride astride as men. However, examples of women riding with both legs on one side have been found on 5th century Oriental artifacts and 9th century artifacts from Greece and on medieval Celtic stones. In the medieval time period, women often sat sideways while being led by a man, or sat on a pillion behind a male rider. These riding methods did not allow a woman any control of the horse.

In the 16th century, Catherine de’Medici decided she was tired of having men help her ride, so she (or her minions) designed a sidesaddle with a more forward seat.  Even with these improvements, the sidesaddle was not entirely stable. Some women, such as Marie Antoinette and Catherine the Great, still chose to ride astride.

It wasn’t until the 1830s that sidesaddles saw improvement again. Jules Pellier added the third pommel, or the leaping head, which gave riders a far more secure seat than any other model of saddle. It’s unclear whether Pellier was the inventor of the leaping head or merely the man who decided it would be smart to market it. The new design allowed women a safer way to jump, although they certainly jumped before the leaping head.

Side Saddle IllustrationThe sidesaddle remained the saddle of choice for women until about the 1930s, when jumping competitions became a popular sport. Daisy Bates, short term wife of Breaker Morant and long term outback adventurer, published Three Thousand Miles in a Sidesaddle in 1938.

Sidesaddle riding faded off until about the 1970s, where the last improvements were made to the sidesaddle. The leg horn was made shallower and the seat flatter. This allowed a woman to move her leg more freely in case of trouble.

Today sidesaddle enthusiasts compete in niche events but, at least in Australia, they are few and far between.  I found a wonderfully interesting blog written by a modern-day sidesaddle rider in England.  In Australia, try the Side Saddle Association of South Australia.

So, back to Elizabeth Macarthur.  Given the above information, and Elizabeth’s own desire to remain firmly within the bounds of propriety, it’s highly likely that she rode in an early version of the sidesaddle.  We know, from Governor Macquarie, that she rode out alone so it’s also highly likely that her preferred mount was a pony: sidesaddles make it quite difficult to mount and dismount alone so a tall horse would be out of the question.

Elizabeth also writes about the difficulty of sourcing good quality fabric for clothes that needed to last and last so I doubt if she had a special riding habit.  Perhaps she just wore a skirt over trousers or pantaloons.  No underwear in those days, or not as we know it – making a sidesaddle an even more likely option (go on, think it through!).

Equestrienne Australis, a book about Australian horsewomen, states categorically that “Elizabeth Macarthur’s saddle, habits and accessories packed in trunks were sent out in ship’s steerage.”  But this ‘fact’ carries no footnote and is, I suspect, complete wishful thinking.  I’ve never found any such record.  In fact it’s highly unlikely that Elizabeth owned a pony, or a saddle, of her own while she lived in England – she couldn’t afford to.

Writing a biography is like making a fisherman’s net: the recorded facts provide the knots, the known historical context provides the lines between the knots but the net itself is comprised of multiple empty spaces. As a writer, as a story-teller, I long to fill those spaces.  But if I’m only making educated guesses, I’ll have the decency to tell you so.

For a terrific article about sidesaddles and the emancipation of women, try Sidesaddles and Suffragettes: The Fight to Ride and Vote.