Side-saddle racing returns to Stampede

Women ranging in age from their early 20s to 70 are expected to compete in the event’s second year in Calgary

For the second year running, side-saddle racing will be part of the 2019 Calgary Stampede.

The field of eight women will race the entire track this year, following the evening chuckwagon races on July 5 and 6.

“We’re looking forward to celebrating a very traditional style of riding, in a very high-adrenalin way,” said Calgary Stampede manager of western events, Kynan Vine.

“Not only are they extremely skilled riders, but you will see they are also fiercely competitive.”

“Fast women and pretty horses,” is how horse trainer, artist, side-saddle rider and brainchild of the event, Sam Mitchell of Millarville, Alta., described the group.

Women ranging in age from their early 20s to 70 and originating from around North America and abroad are expected to compete. World record holder for side-saddle high jumping, Susan Oakes of Navan, Ireland, is also confirmed.

Side-saddle racing made its debut at the 2018 Calgary Stampede on half the track with eight women who had qualified to race at the Stampede through elimination events held previously. The Stampede grand finale was held in memory of side-saddle pioneer and former long-time Stampede board member Winnifred Harvey.

Just as the women of the era, riders are outfitted with traditional clothing and ride in vintage restored sidesaddles.

Side-saddle riding dates back to the late 14th century and is said to have been introduced by Anne of Bohemia when she travelled from Czechoslovakia to England in an arranged marriage to King Richard II. In an effort to preserve her virginity, a padded wooden cushion was strapped to the horse’s back with a wooden step on the near side of the horse to rest her feet upon.

As the sidesaddle evolved, it became a thing of nobility, giving women in positions of power independence on horseback. Many physical improvements were made to the sidesaddle over the centuries as royal women began to ride better and demanded to do more while riding. They wanted to gallop, hunt and jump as hard as the men.

“At a time when men had women tied up in corsets and relegated to the drawing room pursing boorish trivialities, the women of sidesaddle rebelled,” said veteran side-saddle rider Sara Martin of Wildwood, Missouri, who has ridden sidesaddle since she was 12 years old. “Instead they got a saddle and a good horse and went out aside, besting the men in the hunt field as they desperately tried to keep up. These women fashionably, tactfully, and skillfully said, ‘eat my dirt.’ ”

Martin added; “We’ve come so far, but it is a game women are still playing today on many fronts and in many places around the world and that makes the elegant rebellion of sidesaddle just as relevant today.”

Women participating cite many reasons for wanting to be part of the event: admiration of the style and tailoring of the era, the craftsmanship of the saddles, the challenge of mastering another discipline, and the attention it brings. But in the end, women’s history is at the forefront of their reasons.

“We combine femininity with strength,” said Mitchell. “You can be badass in a skirt.”

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