The practicalities of wearing riding habits, and riding ‘en cavalier’

We’ve written about Georgian era riding habits in an earlier blog, but this time we’re looking at the practicalities of wearing one. Female equestrians in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries were certainly hampered by their clothes, in comparison to men, and needed assistance just to mount and dismount. Then, once in the saddle, they had to arrange themselves to be perfectly positioned with their skirts all in place.

The young horsewoman’s compendium of the modern art of riding; comprising a progressive course of lessons; designed to give ladies a secure and graceful seat on horseback; at the same time, so effectively to form the hand, that they may, in a short time, acquire perfect command of their horses, (1827) gives the following instructions for a novice horsewoman.

Two persons are necessary to assist in putting a Lady on Horseback; one to hold up the Horse’s head, standing immediately in front, with a hand on each Bridoon Rein, close to the Horse’s mouth; the other to life the Lady up to the Saddle.

The Lady having first adjusted her Habit, is to place her right shoulder against the Saddle, her face turned a little from the Horse. Her right hand, with the Bridoon Rein hanging loosely on the fore-finger, or thumb, to be placed on the upright Horn, and to stand perfectly erect, resting the whole weight of the body on the right foot.

The person lifting our equestrian up, now stoops down and cups his hands together; the lady places her left foot in his hands and keeps her left knee as straight as possible.

Frontispiece: The young horsewoman's compendium of the modern art of riding, 1827
Frontispiece: The young horsewoman’s compendium of the modern art of riding, 1827

If the left knee be much bent, the person lifting the Lady up, has very little command of her weight; she is, therefore, compelled to drag herself up in the most ungraceful manner possible… by attention to the foregoing rules, the most heavy, or inactive person, may be lifted up at the first attempt, if the pressure in the man’s hands is correctly perpendicular, and the Lady stands so close to the Saddle as to touch it with her right shoulder.

Before all this, however, thought needs to be given to the riding habit… specifically keeping it out of the way.

[When being lifted onto the saddle] care must be taken, that no part of the Habit is under the Lady’s foot when placed in the man’s hands; as it acts as a check, and prevents her taking a sufficient spring, which must be proportioned to the height of the Horse the Lady is to be put on.

On arriving in the Saddle, the right knee must be put into the crutch as soon as possible; but, previously to doing so, it will be advisable to take hold of the Habit and under garments with the right hand, close to the right knee, to ease them up, in order to allow sufficient room for the knee to come quite down in the crutch, where it must remain perfectly stationary.

Should the Habit require any regulating behind, the Lady must take hold of the crutch with her right hand, and gently raise herself from the Saddle, and smooth it down with her left hand; but if it is properly adjusted, previously to being lifted up, it will require very little alteration after arriving in the Saddle.

Great care must be observed, that the Habit and under garments are particularly full and easy, in order that the Lady may be at perfect liberty, and not, in the most trifling degree, confined by them.

Costume Parisien / Costume d'Amazône, 1800.
Costume Parisien / Costume d’Amazône, 1800. Palais Galliera, musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris

It is a much safer plan, to put that part of the Habit which hangs near the Horse’s side, round the foot, previously to putting it into the Stirrup, than to fasten it down with a clasp, or a pin; as, in the event of a Lady being thrown from her Horse, the Habit disengages itself with the foot.

The Skirt to the Riding Habit should not be too long, as there is a possibility of its getting between the Horse’s fore-legs, or being blown across them, so as to check his action, and throw him down. It also makes a Lady’s figure appear disproportionate.

Fashion plate from Heideloff's gallery of fashion, 1790s.
Fashion plate from Heideloff’s gallery of fashion, 1790s.

There is also advice as to headgear, but not relating to safety as we’d understand it. No hard hats here, and we do wonder what the writer would have made of a lady carrying a parasol while hawking, as in this portrait below.

A Hawking Party by Gerrit Malleyn, 1779
A Hawking Party by Gerrit Malleyn, 1779; Glasgow Museums

Long veils are also dangerous on Horseback, as they get entangled with the Reins, confuse the Rider, and cause her to lose the command of her Horse.

Never lift the right hand up, with the Whip in it, to adjust the Hat; it not only looks extremely awkward, but will sometimes cause a Horse to shy. Place the Whip under the thumb of the Bridle Hand; and should there be a Rein in the right hand, it may either be dropped, or placed under the forefinger of the Bridle Hand. This leaves the right hand quite at liberty.

This lady, then, is doing everything wrong!

L'inconvénient des perruques, 1797.
L’inconvénient des perruques, 1797. The Clark

It was advised that, as with getting into the saddle, at least two men should be present to help our lady dismount from her horse and that:

before springing from the Saddle, [she should] draw the right hand down under the right leg, to feel that the Habit is quite clear of it and the Stirrup.

It wasn’t unheard of for women to ride astride a horse rather than side-saddle. An early nineteenth-century caricature, full of innuendo, jokes about the practice.

An Enquiry after Stretchit in Gloucestershire, or the Sailor's Reply, 1800-1810.
An Enquiry after Stretchit in Gloucestershire, or the Sailor’s Reply, 1800-1810. Wikimedia

It was more commonplace on mainland Europe for ladies to ‘ride astride’ or en cavalier (literally, as a rider or horseman). There are famous portraits of both Marie Antoinette and Catherine the Great riding in male clothing in this way. The ill-fated Caroline Matilda, George III’s younger sister, embraced the custom after she married the Danish king.

The [Danish] Queen Consort, young, gay, affable and obliging, gained all hearts by her assiduity to please. It is no wonder that such a person should give occasion for censure to those who were already disposed to find fault… The ladies of Denmark, unlike our countrywomen, when they ride, bestride their horses like men; but to preserve the decorum of the sex, they wear a petticoat over their drawers or breeches. Unhappily her Majesty looked upon the petticoat as an incumbrance, and when she hunted, dressed herself en cavalier. This was immediately taken notice of by her enemies as a great act of indecency.

Caroline Mathilde and Struensee riding at Hørsholm
A later depiction of Caroline Mathilde and Struensee riding at Hørsholm. SMK Denmark

Nevertheless, riding in this way caused much astonishment and excitement in England.

A German Lady who dresses, and rides en cavalier, has for several days past attracted the attention of the beaux and belles in Hyde-park. She is well mounted, takes her morning rides without any attendant, and leaps over the different bars in the park with all imaginable coolness, and resolution.

Marie-Antoinette, reine de France à cheval, Louis-Auguste Brun, 1783. © Château de Versailles, Dist. RMN / © Christophe Fouin
Marie-Antoinette, reine de France à cheval, Louis-Auguste Brun, 1783. © Château de Versailles, Dist. RMN / © Christophe Fouin

And, just slipping in within our timeframe, is this account of the trend-setting Lady Mary Deerhurst, taking full advantage of her freedoms while living and travelling abroad.

The lady alluded to in the Morning Post as astonishing the natives of Rome by riding in the public streets in Turkish trowsers, and en cavalier, with her daughter in a similar costume is Lady Mary Deerhurst, the lively daughter of Aubrey, Duke of St Albans. Her elopement with Viscount Deerhurst was followed in a few years by separation between the parties; since which period, being in possession of a splendid fortune, she has lived an independent life in Italy, somewhat after the fashion of Lady Hester Stanhope. In her exploring parties in the vicinity of Rome, Lady Mary frequently remains on horseback from twelve to sixteen hours, to the no small consternation of her languid Italian attendants.

Sources not mentioned above:

Caledonian Mercury, 10 February 1772

Morning Post, 3 March 1778

Globe, 30 January 1830

10 thoughts on “The practicalities of wearing riding habits, and riding ‘en cavalier’

  1. This is pretty interesting, I just bound a period text that includes this exact topic, in the form of a French (1768) woman in her riding habit, hunting and riding with this method. It was pretty neat to come across.

    It’s in the text “Supplement de L’Art de la Coeffure des Dames Francoises”.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jacey Bedford

    You also need to take into consideration the style of side saddle. The article talks about the ‘crutch’, This held the lady’s right leg in position but unlike a modern side saddle there was no support for the left leg. A modern side saddle has a stirrup for the left foot and a double pommel. The two pommel design was forst introduced in the 1830s, the lower pommel (called a leaping head, or leaping horn) being a downward pointing arch which the left knee rests against. It’s much more secure than an old fashioned side saddle with just a cup or crutch, The new two pommel design allowed ladies the security to gallop and even jump side saddle. This basic design is still in use today. The old design was much more dangerous. See here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sidesaddle#Two_pommel_design and here’s the old single cup/crutch version. https://i.pinimg.com/564x/c4/40/02/c44002c61da7db9cb00af03e3205bb39.jpg and here http://eighteenthcenturylit.pbworks.com/f/lwf5.qvic-sadjpg.jpg It leaves the rider much more unstable.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Joanne Major

      Thank you for the extra info on later side saddles, Jacey. Clearly side saddle design improved hugely from the Georgian into the Victorian era.

      Like

  3. very useful, and something i can consider for a horse-mad heroine in a WIP, thank you. The cartoon is amusing, and the writer has not gone as over the top as some ‘humorous’ writers in inventing naval speech [like any jargon it was almost incomprehensible to the landsman, and yet has influenced our language so much, but it was often parodied in newspapers]

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: The practicalities of wearing riding habits, and riding ‘en cavalier’ | Tales of Regency times

  5. I believe there were women wearing riding habits because of the fashion of the time in 1779. Fashioned like a British military uniform.. or French. , but did not actually ride. Preferring to stroll about, to be noticed..

    Like

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