Why Women Rode Sidesaddle


I know, this may not be a burning question in everyone’s mind, what with Bridgegate, the Flotus turning 50 and the scarcity of salty snacks in Denver, there are loftier issues to ponder. But I must admit that from time to time this muse perplexes me, it’s a conundrum, like Stonehenge, UFO’s and why you never see any baby pigeons.

Logic would say that, anatomically, it should have been the men who rode sidesaddle. But propriety stated that women in the Old West must be consummate ladies, and that ladies kept their knees together at all times. It’s a wonder we’re here to talk about it at all.

I’m not buying it. If a woman’s stance in the saddle was that important, then why did they have to scrub floors, skin rabbits and endure natural childbirth? Men got drunk to have a simple tooth extracted. Basic physics would tell us that childbearing requires a much greater displacement of matter and energy. Not very ladylike to me. No, I think it all comes down to handicapping. The day the first woman agreed to ride sidesaddle was the day we all agreed to take a disadvantage, to start a little behind the line.

Sure, today we women wear pants, ride horses astride, some even hunt. But are things really so different? Take hair, for example. Natural beauty notwithstanding, hair in itself is most women’s first handicap of the day. (There was brief period in the sixties when we didn’t care, we were young, free and hoped no one would be keeping a permanent record.) No, because of hair we get up earlier to endure a litany of tortures: we lather, rinse, repeat, comb, mousse, gel. Apply extreme heat, attack our scalp with coarse bristles, and finish with a strong cover of liquid glue that invariably gets misdirected to a sensitive, vital organ. All before our first cup of coffee. Why? We’re taking a handicap. The understood, but never acknowledged rules of the game.

In my youth, which was not so long ago, this handicapping really began with puberty. Recent studies postulate that prior to that fateful stage, girls are psychologically and physically confident, seemingly oblivious to the battle of the sexes. But when their androgynous bodies begin to change, rather than being a time of celebration for the onset of womanhood, this becomes a period of ridicule, separation and an introduction to life’s handicaps. Girls lose some of that openness, shun sports and alter the way they interact with the opposite sex. Why? There seemed to be a prevailing attitude that puberty marked the time when a girl must learn what she can’t do, not what she now can. As if subconsciously the beginning of menstruation was a signal to the male population that the games have begun. Time to batten down the hatches.

Thank God for the sidesaddle. Without it puberty might very well have been my Alamo. But when I finally emerged from that maze of overacting glands, still standing and able to face whatever came along, unknowingly I had learned the secret passed down from our pioneering foremothers.

So, why did women ride sidesaddle? Because it was harder, and they could. Why does anyone accept a handicap, we could have said “no”. Because it’s a challenge that we think we can overcome, and it makes the game much more interesting.

I don’t know what girls going through puberty today are told, probably nothing. But hopefully as the rite of passage begins, each new woman will discover the secret of the sidesaddle, and smile, knowing that every challenge met was conquered on an uneven playing field. I know I’ll sleep better tonight.

Now about those baby pigeons…


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