Women riders on horses, mules, and donkeys have been depicted through the ages, riding both astride and aside (sidesaddle). While the sidesaddle is generally believed to have developed in the 1300s and later, women rode sidesaddle long before that. There are ancient Greek images (right) showing women sitting aside, their feet on a board, as well as the gallo-Roman bronze that shows both feet of the rider on one side of the horse, clearly visible. Goddesses on horseback are frequently shown riding aside. Later, saddles were developed with a horn, which a woman could use to brace herself with one leg (image at right).
Because my latest release, The Tapestry Shop, takes place in the 13th century. Catherine, the heroine, rides both aside and astride. For serious traveling, as she does after joining the Crusades, I have her riding astride. At other times, she rides pillion with Adam, the protagonist.
Even after modesty dictated that women ride aside, some women chose to look askance at such limitations, and rode astride. Extant images of women astride show not only the mistress of Henry II of France, but also Marie Antoinette, and Catherine the Great riding astride. Catherine even commissioned a painting done showing her sitting astride the horse. Even then, she probably knew the painting would make a statement: I can ride, and command, as well as any man.
It’s interesting to note that there are examples of men riding aside, too. During WWII, men rode sidesaddle while laying field cable from the back of a galloping horse.
For further reading, and to see more images of riders in history both aside and astride, go to http://ilaria.veltri.tripod.com/sidesaddle.html .