The first riders appeared in the distance just before noon, dark silhouettes galloping along the crest of a hill in the bright April sunshine. It wasn’t until they closed in on the final jump that spectators at the finish line could see it — the way the riders sat high in their saddles, both legs draped daringly over the left side of their steeds, their posture flawless even in the heat of the race.
As their horses soared one by one over the white fence, the riders’ skirts hardly ruffled an inch.
In many ways, it was the usual scene at the Loudoun Hunt’s 49th annual Point to Point Races, held Sunday at Leesburg’s historic Oatlands Plantation — the traditional steeplechase itinerary and de rigueur tailgating accessories (daffodils, bloody marys, the occasional taxidermied fox). But tickets this year sold even faster than usual because of the promise of something new. Or, well, old: the inaugural Mrs. George C. Everhart Memorial Invitational Side Saddle Race.
The all-women race was the first of its kind to be held in the United States since the 1930s, organizers claimed — but probably not the last. Sidesaddle riding is making an unlikely comeback in the United States, greeted by many nostalgic equestrians as a delightful revival of a long-lost skill celebrating feminine modesty and elegance.
To some critics, though, it is an unfortunate return to an oppressive practice long ago overturned by suffragettes, who fought not only for the right to cast ballots but the right to ride astride.
The popularity of “Downton Abbey,” with its sidesaddle-riding heroines, probably deserves some of the credit or blame. But the trend was gaining traction in the U.K. before the World War I-era soap opera took off.
“I think there’s a real craving for glamour and the sense of tradition, kind of a return to elegance and a return to the way things were done,” said Maggie Johnston, 51, one of the race’s co-organizers and a longtime sidesaddle rider. “There’s a fascination with the history of sidesaddle.”
She hopes the race will recruit more riders who want to try riding aside instead of astride. She would love to see it become an annual event in Virginia and inspire other sidesaddle races across the country.
The day’s two highly anticipated sidesaddle races (one with jumping, one without) were fleeting events for the equestriennes — just over half a mile and blur of pounding hoofbeats. But they went over big. After crossing the finish line, the riders turned their horses back to walk a victory lap, waving at the fans who cheered from lawn chairs and picnic blankets.
“I love it!” one spectator shouted, raising her glass of wine.
Johnston and her race co-organizer, Devon Zebrovious, have called the sidesaddle race a “revival” of a long-forgotten art. But a “reappropriation” might be more on point. The reasons to ride aside nowadays (it’s fun; it’s graceful; it’s a challenge) are different than the reasons of yesteryear (one must carry oneself in modest fashion; one must keep one’s lady parts intact).
The earliest sidesaddles were mostly a means to transport female passengers — such as Princess Anne of Bohemia, who rode aside while traveling across Europe to marry England’s King Richard II in 1382. She is often credited with popularizing the style in England. But when most people think of riding sidesaddle, they conjure images from the Victorian or Edwardian eras: “Downton’s” Lady Mary Crawley, with her waist tightly corseted, her dark hair fixed beneath a veiled top hat, and her long skirts cascading below the belly of her steed.
Before women were granted equal rights, sidesaddle was generally the only horse-riding option available to them: It was unacceptable for a lady to spread her legs to straddle a saddle. Sidesaddles evolved to position a woman’s body entirely to the left side of her horse, with her left foot in a single stirrup and both legs secured by two stabilizing pommels.
Historically, the practice placed more value in a woman’s appearance than her autonomy or safety; more than a few fallen riders wound up dragged to their deaths by petticoats tangled in stirrups and saddle straps.
Which is why some are less than thrilled by the style’s recent glorification in pop culture.
“Being entertained by television is fine, but we run a serious risk if we allow the norms of another era to influence our modern moral compass,” said Basha O’Reilly, 67, co-founder of the Long Riders’ Guild, an international organization that supports long-distance equestrians.
O’Reilly said she prefers to idolize equestriennes such as Inez Milholland, a legendary American suffragette who rode astride while leading demonstrations in Washington and New York, or Nan Aspinwall and Alberta Claire, passionate activists who embarked on long-distance rides in the early 1900s to fight for women’s rights.
These ladies would not be charmed by the return of a riding style they fought to end, O’Reilly said. “I believe most sincerely that Inez, Nan and Alberta would denounce the sidesaddle for what it is — a regression to an outdated and cruel practice whose political connotations should never be forgotten.”
Zebrovious, 35, co-organizer of the sidesaddle race at Oatlands, said she knows some people wish sidesaddle would vanish forever. And she’s aware of the efforts of the suffragettes, some of whom burned their sidesaddles after the passage of the 19th Amendment.
“We’ve run into people who say, ‘We finally got rid of this 80, 90 years ago — what are you doing?’ And they have such fallacies. They think women were forced to do it and that as soon as they had the opportunity, everyone abandoned it, and that it’s horrible for the horse.”
(Is it bad for the horse? Despite the sidesaddle’s inherent lopsidedness, equine veterinary experts at Leesburg’s Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center pointed to a 2006 Austrian study that found no evidence that a sidesaddle would harm a horse with a healthy back.)
Zebrovious noted that plenty of women enjoyed riding sidesaddle and that it’s possible to celebrate the skill without condoning its historical political context.
“I think people have sort of gotten beyond the feeling that we have to be against what was done in the past,” she said. “Especially in this country, because we are so much newer than Europe, we were a little more in the mind-set that we needed to always be new. That’s why we’re about 10 years behind Europe with this.”
British writer Susanna Forrest, whose memoir “If Wishes Were Horses” explores the historic relationship between women and horses, said she was skeptical of sidesaddle when she started researching her book.
“I had just assumed that it had hobbled women, that women hadn’t been able to really ride properly. But instead, I found that women were steeplechasing, they were performing in circuses, they were playing polo and traveling,” she said. “Horses were a respectable way to do things that were quite unfeminine — you could race wildly about the countryside, you could be in charge of something much bigger and stronger than you, you could compete directly against men.”
Rather than a means of suppression, Forrest began to see sidesaddle as a uniquely female art. “It can be disparaged because it’s largely been assigned to women in the past,” she said — but so had other traditionally female skills or roles that have nonetheless claimed a place in modern feminism: knitting, sewing, stay-at-home motherhood.
No one is forcing a sidesaddle on anyone anymore, Forrest said.
“In the end,” she said, “it’s all about choice.”
After the sidesaddle races were over, the riders gathered under the trees behind the Oatlands mansion, grinning and gushing. (“That was so much fun.”) They sat tall in their saddles, posing for pictures before they dismounted.
Just up the hill, a much smaller sidesaddle rider was also smiling for cameras. Six-year-old Hayley Rees had been circulating in the crowd all morning atop Scarlett, a feisty pony who seemed intent on headbutting her handler — Hayley’s grandmother Donna Poe.
They were there acting as ambassadors of sorts, Poe said, in the hope that other little girls might see Hayley riding aside and decide to try it, too. Hayley first asked to try the style last year, Poe said.
“Because she saw all the pretty pictures of the ladies, right, Hayley?”
Hayley nodded shyly.
“We’ve just been greeting everyone and letting everyone see what sidesaddles look like, and learn what they’re all about,” Poe said.
She smiled at her granddaughter. “Hopefully, in 10 years, she’ll be in a sidesaddle race,” she said. “This is our future.”