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Smoke Signals Monthly eMagazine

James NottageWomen Riding in the Far West

By James H. Nottage

May, 2009 Smoke Signals

A correspondent to a saddle and harness journal in the spring of 1894 wrote about California women abandoning the side saddle to ride astride.  It comes as no surprise that independent minded women in the West might cast “aside” the proprieties of Victorian manners, and after all, even equestrian traditions had to adapt to the needs and environments of the American West.

The idea of women riding astride surely shocked some readers.  The article noted that “western women, intrepid and defiant of conventionality, have arrived at a solution of the question, which to them is practicable.”  A horseback ride in California meant to them more than a jaunt in the park.  For a woman, the author noted, it might be a half day journey, jumping fences, finding her way along perilous trails “where it is necessary to make it as easy for her horse as possible, as well as to have a sure seat and a comfortable position herself.” 

The trend for women to ride astride on the West coast seems to have begun among pleasure riders several years earlier according to this account and ladies in the know contended that there were a number of good reasons to acquire a new rig from one of the great San Francisco saddle makers.  Credit for the movement was given to a Mrs. Dame.  A number of justifications were noted.  It was thought that the rider could keep a sure seat, ride more safely, and benefit from equal exercise to both sides of the body.  The riders felt it was easier to learn to ride astride than it was to learn side saddle.  Laying claim to the success of these women the article notes that “California’s girls are the best and most fearless of female riders in North America;  they take to the saddle as the duck takes to water.”

At the same time, riding clothes were being modified to serve the needs of these riders.  They favored “equestrian tights,” shoes, gaiters to the knees, full length divided skirts, , blouses of silk in the summer and cloth in the winter, and a cloth double-breasted coat or ulster, split front and back to be worn comfortably on horseback. 

The astride saddles favored were described as being a blend between English and Mexican styles with no pommel.  They often had covered stirrups.  The writer concluded that critics of women riding astride should note that it made as much sense as women riding bicycles.  “I think there is more chance of her falling off or tumbling over one of those little machines than off a horse.”

Today, we are fortunate to benefit from the growing number of researchers and writers recovering the details of our Western history.  Of course, Native American women rode astride for generations before the 1890s.  You can be certain that women who emigrated to the West were not all devoted to riding side saddles.  There is plenty of evidence out there including diary accounts, photographs, saddle catalogs, and other documents to prove this case.  Without a doubt, women rode both bareback and astride on farms and ranches throughout the West.  They had practical reasons rather than riding side saddle for fashion reasons.  It is a compelling story about riding traditions and the status of women that remains to be fully told.

James Nottage
Chief Curatoral Officer, Eiteljorg Museum, Indianapolis, IN
Founding Curator, Autry National Center, Los Angeles
Husband of Mary Ellen Hennessy Nottage

© Copyright 2009 - James W. Nottage

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