The ladies going hell for leather: 'Downton effect' sees riding side-saddle return with a vengeance

  • @susiemesure

To the Suffragettes, it was a symbol of male domination. But the side-saddle is back in vogue for the first time in several decades. A new, mostly female, generation is reviving the archaic riding style, which is getting a modern makeover in the form of new outfits, known as habits, and saddles. Groups such as the Flying Foxes and A Bit on the Side put on displays to try to dispel the discipline's staid image.

Fans hail the "Lady Mary" effect: one saddler, Sarah Parry, says she "always notices" when Downton Abbey is back on TV. The fictional heroine of the Julian Fellowes drama hunts "aside". "It's always on a Monday morning that I get more inquiries," Ms Parry added.

The Riding Club London, which is based in Wimbledon, offers "the ultimate Downton Abbey experience". Katharine Quinlan, its managing director, said the programme had "glamorised the riding style", adding: "We've seen an increase in side-saddle lessons and requests, ranging from individuals who are looking to learn from the beginner stages, to those who want to get to a level to be able to hunt side-saddle this season."

This year alone has seen a new British side-saddle high jump record – set by Michaela Bowling at 6ft 3in – and the first ladies' side-saddle steeplechase race since the Second World War. The discipline featured at the Horse of the Year Show, which concludes today in Birmingham, and later this month the opening meet for the Leicestershire-based Quorn hunt is expected to attract around 50 enthusiasts from all over the world.

Membership of the Side Saddle Association, which was revived in the 1970s by the late Elizabeth Skelton, is steady at around 1,000, but interest in the riding style extends beyond the group.

Ms Parry, who took up riding aside because she had a bad back, said the attraction was "about claiming back being female". She designs and sells modern equipment, from the first ever "machine-washable" riding habit to one of the few new saddles that are made today.

Most people rely on experts such as the West Yorkshire-based Suzie Vandepeer to refurbish old saddles, which they buy online or at auctions. "It takes a lot of work to make old ones safe for hunting and jumping. People buy them blind from eBay but they don't know the condition."

For saddlers such as Ms Vandepeer, the labour is one of love as much as an enterprise. With the last three big British names in the business – Mayhew, Owen, and Champion and Wilton – all long gone, she believes it is important to keep old skills alive.

In Salisbury, Mark Romain runs courses at the Saddlery Training Centre. One of his consultants, Richard Godden, 76, is from "the last generation who went through apprenticeships when side-saddles were being made and used. When he retires, there won't be anybody left with that knowledge". His own students can apply for grants from the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust, which was set up to support British craftsmanship.

For any modern women's libbers getting hot under their vintage Victorian collars, there is a surprisingly counterintuitive element to the discipline: riding aside gave Victorian women the ability to ride alongside men on the hunting field at a time when they did precious little else on a par with the opposite sex.