• J.J. Wheeling

Women in the Saddle

As a twentieth-century girl, seeing a woman astraddle on horseback is a common sight. But, in 1849, when horseback travel was reserved mostly for men, proper women rode side saddle for the very reason stated in my earlier blog, "The 'What the…' factor.” Travel for the majority of women consisted of foot, wagon or carriage, train or ship.

Now that you have a brief understanding of coverture and the Cult of True Womanhood, try to imagine a woman’s predicament as she set out on the trip across the continent to California from anywhere in the East. Her out-of-doors skills may have been limited. She may never had slept one night not covered by a solid roof. She may never had spent more than a few hours on a wagon’s unpadded seat and her only alternative was to walk beside the wagon if she needed a change. Did she consider that she might end up driving the team of horses as they pulled the family wagon or be forced to climb aboard the horse without the convention of a side saddle? I’m sure there were those who came from farms where the idea wasn’t foreign and with a few garment adjustments, the task could be accomplished. But, for the many the idea had to be daunting.



And, even more overwhelming, would be the potential circumstance where her ignorance became paralyzing. Case in point: My husband grew up on a ranch in eastern Montana where horses play an important role in the ranch’s work force. He is very comfortable on a horse. So much so that when he took me home to meet his family a month before we got married, one of the things he insisted we do together was to take a romantic ride across the rolling hills around the ranch. I explained my lack of confidence and he assured me there was nothing to worry about with the two horses he was saddling. His horse, Twister, was a known bucker and once he’d hopped about a few times, he would settle into the activity at hand. He assured me that my horse, I’ve forgotten its name, was a steady and obedient soul.

Off we went across the fields at a lovely equine walk, enjoying the June sunshine. But Twister hadn’t yet performed his expected dance. My husband considered that perhaps Twister had outgrown his bucking habit and turned his attention to getting me to pick up the pace. As it happens, just as my husband took his attention away from his horse, Twister launched him like a human cannonball, his trajectory high and graceful. So smooth was Twister’s move that my husband landed on his feet! Twister took off back to the barn and left my husband fuming.

Insisting I let him have my horse to chase down Twister, something I gladly did, my husband raced after Twister at a fast gallop while I felt the overwhelming relief of solid ground under my feet. As I walked back to the barn, it occurred to me that I would have been completely helpless to come to my husband’s aid if something had gone wrong. The epitome of paralysis! I felt unnerved and made the decision to avoid ever riding a horse again.


In my story, I put a character in a difficult situation where she was forced to ride a horse even though she’d never done it before. I struggled and rewrote the scene trying to deal with her garments, her circumstances and, of course, how she would ever have the courage to sit on a large animal’s back with no understanding of how to control it. I gave her the courage and continued on with the story but I felt a little disingenuous…until this past summer.


It is a long story and since this blog is going on, I’ll cut to the chase. My father and husband were asked to film a commercial for a local business using the scenery from our ranch, our cattle, while…yes, you guessed it, on horseback. A good ol’ western cowman photo shoot. Except that, at the last minute, my father was called away. It was quickly determined that our adult daughter, who has good riding experience, could fill in, no problem. Except she had made plans with visiting friends for the same evening. It was becoming clear that I was going to be the last woman standing. The film crew was coming and there was no backing out.


My husband and I on horseback this summer

Because of my character and the guilt I felt for not having the courage to get back on a horse, I felt the overwhelming urge to prove to myself. And I thought of the women who, throughout history, had been forced to overcome their fears and do what needed to be done in situations far direr than disappointing a film crew. So, when the time came, my husband saddled up the horses: my steed’s name was Ralph, and his, Art. I took a deep breath, said a little prayer and swung myself into my father’s saddle. It helped that Ralph had tender feet so he wasn’t inclined to get too carried away as we walked to where the film crew had set up their equipment.


For the next hour and a half, it was like Ralph and I were one. Over and over again, we had to push the cattle into place for the camera, then maneuver ourselves so we were part of the shot. Ralph didn’t appreciate a flapping reflective tarp or the camera drone they used at the end but I stayed in the saddle both times. There was a bit of trotting required but otherwise, no demand for a fast pace. And before I knew it we were unsaddling the horses, the film crew very pleased with the results. Even my husband was a little shocked at how well Ralph and I worked together, which is always nice. Let me be clear, it wasn’t a daunting cattle drive nor was I saving anyone’s life but it was more time in the saddle than I had seen in 34 years, so it was a triumph.


I felt the glow of having overcome a fear but also, in a small, small way, felt the little spark of confidence that a pioneer woman might have felt having also had to overcome a similar obstacle and succeeding.

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© 2020 by J.J. Wheeling

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