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Horse riding for pleasure

Occasionally women rode horses for domestic reasons- travel or taking goods to and from market or for a purchase in a nearby town. Many women in Chaucer's book, Canterbury Tales, also rode horses for practical reasons, but women also rode for pleasure.

As illuminations from the Manesse Codex of a couple out hawking and the Duk Du Berry's Book of Hours illustrate- horse riding was not limited to servants running errands, but was also the passtime of noble ladies.

Riding astride
Women usually rode astride as men did, sitting on saddles the same way most women ride today. This was in no way indicitive of whether a woman was lowly or high born.

The image at left from a French manuscript, Romance of the Saint, from the 14th century, shows a woman clearly riding astride like a man.

Many other manuscripts, like the German Manesse Codex, dated to the early 14th century, also support women riding astride. Seen at right, is a Lady and her companion out hawking on horseback. The saddle is clearly visible and the folds of the surcote show the woman's leg clearly. Hawking was the privilege of the upper classes, and riding in this manner appears to be an accepted practice.

Interestingly, the romantic image we often attribute to the middle ages of the Lady with her long skirts or cloak spread out over the palfrey's rump in a magnificent display of costly fabric seems to be nothing more than wishful thinking on our part. Art clearly shows us that women tend to ride sitting on their gowns rather than spreading them out over the horse.

It is possible that when travelling in wet weather, an outer cloak might have covered the saddle and rump, but I have seen or read nothing to support this. It just seems extremely practical for wet weather.

Written references
There are only a few written reference to women's riding abilities, but these include Anne of Bohemia (1366-1394), Queen Isabella of Spain (1451-1504), Margherite Datini (14th century) and Catherine de Medici (1519-1589).

Margherite Datini, the wife of an Italian businessman, writes to her husband in a candid letter when he asks her to join him on horseback on a certain day. She replies that at that time, she will have her cramps, and will not be able to ride for a few more days afterwards.

The Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal, written circa 1226 tells us:

While fleeing enemies, Empress Matilda was riding cumme femme fait, en seant as ‘women do, sidesaddle.’ Her Marshal told her she would have to part her legs and ride astride because they needed to get a move on. ‘Les jambes vos covient desjoindre e metre par en son 'l’arcum.’

This shows us that although it was the norm for a woman to ride with her legs together at one side, it was not unknown for a woman to ride astride when required.

Some other medieval women, like Margaret Paston, regularly rode in her travels and according to Frances and Joseph Gies book, Women of the Middle Ages, she probably rode astride as women had always done rather than side saddle which was just coming into vogue in the early 15th century.

It appears that this was not considered unusual or shocking for a business woman who was in need to travel quickly to ride this way.

Riding side-saddle
While images in medieval art show a large number of women rising astride like men, there are a few images which clearly show the lady riding with both her legs on the same side- side-saddle.

Pictured at right is an image from Chaucer's canterbury Tales showing the Prioress riding side-saddle, unlike the Wife of Bath who is clearly shown astride.

A second image from an illuminated manuscript of Arthurian Romances dated between 1275 to 1300 from France, and now held at the Beineckel Library, MS 229, folio 329r, (below) shows a humerous picture of a woman jousting with her spindle and staff.

Although the image is clearly not a representation of real life, we can note that the women has been drawn riding side-saddle with her legs away from the viewer.

Anne of Bohemia is believed to have introduced the earliest version of a sidesaddle.

Although not entirely not like today's saddle, the medieval side-saddle was a basic chair-like saddle with a small foot rest known as a planchette.

From 1300 up until 1900, side-saddles evolved into the one we know today.


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