Equestrianism Etiquette For the Fairer Sex

Equestrianism etiquette was a common theme among eighteenth and nineteenth century women, such as the princesse de Lamballe, Eliza de Feuillide, Frances Nelson, Laura Bell, and Madame Récamier. That was because etiquette required that before riding in public, a woman take a few preliminary lessons so that she would appear at ease on horseback as she rode sidesaddle. One writer described what an at-ease rider should look like:

“When riding, keep the body erect, and the head up. Press your knees close to your horse’s sides. Keep one arm close to your side, and let it hang gracefully. Hold the reins in one hand, and keep the hand directly over the ‘horn’ of the saddle, with the elbow close to your side.”[1]

Equestrianism etiquette

French lady riding sidesaddle. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Besides the difficulty of riding sidesaddle, equestrianism etiquette also meant the female rider had to wear horseback riding gear called a riding habit. It consisted of layers of clothing and other accessories: drawers, corset, waist, a basque or jacket, skirt, boots, riding hat, and whip or gauntlet. It was wearing these things that a woman needed to mount, ride, and dismount all the while displaying grace and fluidity.

When mounting a horse, it was suggested a woman’s first attempt be achieved with the use of a high horse-block and someone holding the horse still. A woman was told:

“[To turn] to her right side … toward the horse’s left, and slightly raising … [her] skirt … spring from her left foot towards the saddle, at the same time raising her right leg so that it will pass directly over the second and third pommels. This accomplished, the left foot may be placed in the stirrups.”[2]

Old Horse-block or Mounting Block in Scotland, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Old horse-block or mounting block in Scotland. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

If no block could be used and there was no one to assist, a balance strap could be used. The balance strap stabilized the saddle and offset the extra weight of the rider by attaching to the right rear of the saddle, traveling under the horse’s belly, and fastening at the left front. The balance strap was left far enough down “to enable [a woman] … to put her foot in the stirrup … [and] use it as a sort of stepping-stone … [along with] a spring from her right foot, she [could] reach the saddle sideways.”[3] When doing this a woman also had to grasp the second pommel firmly with her left hand and on rising grasp the off-pommel with her right hand. Then after being seated she could readjust the balance strap.

Equestrianism etiquette - French Lady Riding Sidesaddle, Author's Collection

French lady mounting to ride sidesaddle. Author’s collection.

Equestrianism etiquette also meant that once on the horse, the woman needed to ride smoothly. It was noted that if a spectator was watching a bad rider trotting it was terrible:

“[Nothing could] be more frightful to look at … The eye of the beholder is often pained at observing the constant shaking of the body and the unsteady motion of the hands which the nature of the trot renders impossible to prevent.”[4]

To avoid pained beholders and jolting riders, one suggestion was that novice riders practice a managed trot to form the proper seat. One female rider, however, argued against such a suggestion. She noted that too many ladies had relinquished the idea of riding “simply because the trotting [had] so jolted them they have not been able to bear it.”[5] She suggested it was better for a novice rider to begin with a walk and then move to canter because a woman would gain confidence “and the buoyancy of spirits which the fresh air inspires her with … will [cause her to] anxiously look forward to the next lesson.”[6]

Cantering (Top) and Trotting (Bottom), Author's Collection

Cantering (top) and trotting (bottom). Author’s collection.

After the ride, a woman needed to dismount according to equestrianism etiquette. If she rode with a gentleman, he was there to aid her in dismounting, which made the process easier. However, the woman still had to dismount “without disarranging [her] … dress, and without being awkwardly precipitated into the arms of the gentleman [assisting her].”[7] Dismounts were accomplished in the following manner:

“[The gentleman was to] stand about a foot from her with his face toward the horse, while she, after taking her foot from the stirrup and disengaging her right leg from the pommel … turn[ed] her body so as to face him. After putting the stirrup over the shield of the saddle, as in mounting, he … then extend[ed] his hands so as to support her by the elbows, while she rest[ed] a hand upon each of his shoulders.”[8]

Then, by giving a gentle spring, the lady would glide to the ground as he continued to support her, and to lessen the shock, she bent her knees before touching the ground. As it might not always be possible to have assistance in dismounting, a woman had to learn how to do it alone. To dismount on her own, here was the suggestion:

“[The lady was to] ride up to a horse-block … [with] the left side of her horse close to it, let the curb reins fall upon … [the horse’s] neck, retaining, however, the whip and snaffle-reins in her left hand, and then, removing her foot from the stirrup and her right leg from the pommel, she should seat herself a little sideways upon the saddle. Now with a slight turn of her shoulders to the right, she should place her left hand … upon the second pommel, and her right hand upon the off one, and thus alight sideways with her face toward the horse’s head.”[9]

If not using a horse-block, the dismount was similar, except “the gliding down must be effected quickly and lightly, and the rider, as she passes down, must release her hold upon the off-pommel, but retain that upon the second, also taking care to have the reins quite loose.”[10] Additionally, equestrianism etiquette dictated that a woman had to avoid getting caught up in her skirts as she conducted her dismounting maneuvers, otherwise she might end up face down in the dirt.

Equestrianism etiquette - Riding Sidesaddle, Public Domain

Riding sidesaddle. Public domain.

It was also noted that “the etiquette of riding, though meagre, is exact and important.”[11] That was because riding sidesaddle could be dangerous, not only for the woman in her long flowing habit, but also for the horse. It was also maintained that any female rider “should become perfectly at home in a saddle upon a constantly moving horse, so that whether it walks, trots, canters, shies, or jumps [she would not lose her position].”[12] Moreover, an old rhyme sums up how a proper female rider should look when atop her horse:

“Keep up your head and your heart,

Your hands and your heels keep down;

Press your knees close to your horse’s sides,

And your elbows close to your own.”[13]


  • [1] Houghton, Walter Raleigh, Rules of Etiquette & Home Culture, 1893, p. 111.
  • [2] Karr, Elizabeth Platt, The American Horsewoman, 1884, p. 100.
    [3] Ibid., p. 101.
  • [4] Godey’s Lady’s Book, Vol. XXXVIII, February 1849, p. 139.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Ibid., p. 140.
  • [7] Karr, Elizabeth Platt, p. 108-109.
  • [8] Ibid., p. 109.
  • [9] Ibid., p. 111-112.
  • [10] Ibid., p. 112.
  • [11] Young, John H., Our Deportment, Or, The Manners, Conduct and Dress of the Most Refined Society, 1879, p. 172.
  • [12] Magner, Dennis, The Art of Taming and Educating the Horse, 1888, p. 351.
  • [13] Young, John H., p. 172.

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