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

 

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Service Engineers - Doncaster / Hull

£27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Service Only Engineers are requ...

Recruitment Genius: Employability / Recruitment Adviser

£23600 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Employability Service withi...

Day In a Page

Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...