Riding a horse in eighteenth-century England was an activity enjoyed by both men and women : “Men and women alike rode for pleasure” (Olsen, 1999, 148). But the latter did not enjoy this exercise the same way as the former did. Indeed, the “fair sex” had to adapt to restrictions which influenced posture and clothing style. During the 18th century, England still used the common way of riding for women of the time in Europe, but also saw the evolution of their clothing style which aimed at improving women’s comfort while riding. We will try and see how women had to adapt to ride on horses.
Good for the health
Riding was not merely a pleasure, but was highly recommended as being good for the health. Exercise in general was highly favoured in the 18th century for its virtues. Exercise is said to develop one’s spirit and “necessary for the proper exertion of our intellectual faculties, during the present laws of union between the body and the soul” (from The Young Gentleman and Lady Instructed in such Principles of Politeness, Prudence, and Virtue,… Vol. II. 1747, 109). Doctor William Buchan for instance, advises riding to cure nervous diseases. He says that nervous diseases can be the result of the loss of a husband or of a child, and that even though those diseases can never be totally cured, he writes that:
“Exercise in nervous disorders is superior to all medicines. Riding on horseback is generally esteemed the best, as it gives motion to the whole body, without fatiguing it. I have known some patients however, with whom walking agreed better, and others who were most benefited by riding in a carriage” (Buchan, 1790, 423).
This last sentence can make us wonder if precisely, the mode of riding of women in the 18th century was not too tiring. Indeed Doctor Buchan in the quote above says that riding is good to improve one’s health as long as it is not too tiring. In this case, we may question the fact that horse riding is be the best option for women to recover health.
The guide to seat on a horse
The Countess of Coningsby in the Costume of the Charlton Hunt, George Stubbs, 1760
Riding sidesaddle was introduced in England in the 14th century during the reign of Richard II (1367-1400), by his wife Anne of Bohemia (1366-1394). “King Richard married Anne, Daughter to Venceslauce, King of Bohemia; which Anne brought in the fashion of (…) Riding upon Side-Saddles on Horseback; for before, the Women here rode astride as the Men did” (Curzon, 1722, 226-227). As we can see on the painting above, riding sidesaddle consisted in having both legs on the same side of the horse. Therefore it is said that women rode aside and men astride. A woman would sit on the saddle and have one feet on a stirrup and one knee over the pommel (which is the front part of the saddle) in order to gain some stability : “as soon as seated put your left foot in the stirrup and your right knee over the pommel” (Carter, 1783, 10). This position was considered to bring deformities to the body (some instructors would recommend riding astride for women), it was also less comfortable and safe as the one of men. It needed therefore to be secured through modifications on the saddle itself. Some riding masters in favour of riding aside instructed thus : “A lady’s saddle should be (…) considerably longer than a man’s (…); the pommel sould never be less than six inches, as much higher as the size of the lady may require, that her knee may not be thrown off by any sudden spring of the horse” (Carter, 1783, 27). Those differences where precisely made in order to enable women to keep riding aside instead of allowing them to ride astride : “since the improvements (…) a young lady on a modern constructed side-saddle, is as little liable to grow awry as when sitting strait in a chair” (Carter, 1783, 26). This desire to make ladies ride aside came from the fact that riding astride was considered as indecent for women : “The Becoming Position of Women on Horse-back, forbids all Indecency of Expression” (from The Young Gentleman and Lady Instructed in such Principles of Politeness, Prudence, and Virtue,… Vol. II. 1747, 70). This idea of indecency takes its roots from the old-dated belief that a woman’s hymen can break when riding astride. Riding aside was considered essential to protect a woman’s virginity.
How to get on a horse
A woman needed two men to mount a horse. One had to hold the horse’s head still and the other had to help the woman to get on the horse : “the groom should stand before the horse, holding him by the bridoon rein”, “the lady must lay her right hand on the top of the pommel with her whip rest on the off shoulder of the horse, and her left hand on the right shoulder of the person that is to lift her, who stooping and fixing their hands together, by intermixing their fingers, the lady will put her left foot in their hands bending her knee and raising it nearly on a line with her hip, and giving a spring she will be lift on the saddle” (Carter, 1783, 10). A women also needed a man to help her get off the horse : “taking a foot out of the stirrup, and giving her left hand to her attendant” (Carter, 1783, 11). Therefore, a woman was dependant of men and could not travel or hunt without requiring help beforehand. It was clear at the time that women had more restrictions than men to ride and that this is why, women started to find inspiration in men’s riding style, in order to improve their own.
A new fashion
Riding colthes, or “riding habits” (see the first image above) were made of a coat (see the second image above), a waitscoat (see the third image above), a a petticoat (or skirt) and in 1780 “a train was added” (Cumming, C.W. Cunnington, P.E. Cunnington, 2010, 173). Throughout the 18th century, around the 1740s, the style of the riding habit became more masculine. This change was due to the desire on the part of women to have more comfortable dresses to ride. Indeed, when mounting or dismounting a horse, a women always had to take a moment to adjust her dress in order to be well seated : “Ladies, till they have acquired a seat, will be liable to have the petticoat get up; they should learn from the beginning to replace it themselves, (…) by degrees in any pace the horse may be going” (Carter, 1783, 12). This demanded constant attention, and an attention that was, like riding aside, only imposed on women, as men, of course, wore breeches. The new cut was inspired from men’s coats and waitscoats. In the paintings below, we can see that Lady Worsley wears a riding habit inspired by the uniform of the British regiment (her husband Sir Richard Worsley was himself an officer): the coats are very much alike and share the same simplicity in their cut. The length of the dress was shortened during this century : “At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the coat and waistcoat were almost knee-length. (…) By the 1750, the riding coat was shorter” (Blum, Ettesvold, Druesedow, 1975-1979, 42-43).
Lady Worsley, Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1776
This masculine style brought lots of criticism. Mostly men it seems, were outraged by this new fashion. This change of style occurred at a period during in which “fashion was a trivial, feminine interest and (…) women’s behaviour as well as their appearance [were to] be determined by their sex” (Tague, 2002, 52). Indeed, at the time, women had to stay very feminine, and riding was even considered as aiming at amplifying their charm and femininity : “Riding contributes much to the improvement of a young lady, and displays her beauty” (Author, 1747, 110). On the contrary, this new fashion, according to commentators of the time, blurred the distinction between the two sexes. These riding habits were considered as “making the sex of the wearer difficult to identify, creating confusion in the way men responded to her” (Tague, 2002, 52).
This new fashion was despised by most men, but also by some women:
“A little party of horsemen passing the road almost close to me, arrested my attention, and particularly a fair youth, seemingly dressed up by some description in romance. His hair, well curled and powdered, hang to a considerable length on his shoulders, and was wantonly tied, as if by the hands of his mistress, in a scarlett ribbon, which played like a sreamer behim him. He had a coar and waistcoat of blue camblet, trimmed and embroidered with silver; a cravat of the finest lace; and wore in a smart cock, a little beaver hat, edged with silver, and made more sprightly by a feather. His pacing horse was adorned in the same airy manner, and seemed to shared in the vanity of the rider. As I was pitying the luxury of this young person, who appeared to be educated as an object of sight alone, I perceived, on my nearer approach, a petticoat of the same with the coat and waistcoat; and now those features which had before offended me by their softness, were strengthened into as improper a boldness; and she, who in appearance was a very handsome youth, was in reality a very indifferent women. (…) This model of this Amazonian hunting-dress, for ladies, was first imported from France (…) but I cannot help thinking that is fits awkwardly on our English modesty” (Armstrong, 1763, 234).
The end of the story written by Lydia Armstrong mentions a point that strengthened the dislike of this new style: the fact that it came from France. People feared that after following the French’s dressing style, England would soon become dependant of France on other things, such as its politics. Borrowing this new style of riding habits was seen as a loss of the English identity, of the “English modesty”.
We can see throughout these examples that women, who enjoyed riding very much, had to restrain themselves due to obligations linked to their sex. They had to sit in a precise way that required constant attention and for which they always needed help. Furthermore, they had to face criticism when they tried to improve their condition, by trying the be more equal to men through new riding habits.
– Carter, Mr. Instructions for Ladies in Riding, by Mr. Carter,… London, 1783.
– Curzon, Henry. The Universal Library: Or Complete Summary of Science Containing Above Six Select Treaties,… London, 1722.
– Anonymous. The Young Gentleman and Lady Instructed in such Principles of Politeness, Prudence, and Virtue,… Vol. II. London, 1747.
– Buchan, William. Domestic Medicine: or a Treatise on the Prevention and Cure of Diseases by Regimen and Simple Medicine,… London, 1790.
– Ladies. The Ladies Complete Letter-Writer; Teaching the Art of Inditing Letters,… London, 1763.
– Olsen, Kirstin. Daily Life in 18th-century England. United States of America, Greenwood Press, 1999.
– Tague, Ingrid. Women of quality: accepting and contesting ideals of feminity in England 1680-1760. United States of America, The Boydell Press, 2002.
– Cumming, Cunnington C.W., and Cunnington P.E. The Dictionary of Fashion History. United Kingdom, MPG Books Group, 2010.
– Victoria and Albert Museum, “Riding Habit,” V&A Search the Collections,
– Victoria and Albert Museum, “Jacket,” V&A Search the Collections,
– Victoria and Albert Museum, “Waistcoat,” V&A Search the Collections,
– Tate Modern, “Joshua Reynolds: The creation of celebrity: Room guide: Room 7,”
– Blum, Ettesvold, and Druesedow, “Notable Acquisitions” (Metropolitan Museum of Art), Costume Institute, no. 1975/1979 (1975-1979) : 43-44.