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A look back to horseback riding

Undoubtedly, after Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow, people with the opportunity to do so will go horseback riding, adding a lot to their holiday pleasure. 

In the days before cars came on the scene, many women were courted by their boyfriends steering horse-drawn buggies. To the extent that there has been controversy regarding women and their equine favorites, it has revolved around how they should ride horses when not in a buggy. 

One of the most unusual cases involving law enforcement and women riding horseback arose in Birmingham in February 1907. Two women were arrested by a police officer, Sgt. Clyde Ennis, for the offense of riding astride down the streets of that still relatively new city.  

Sgt. Ennis had the backing of his chief, Robert Weir, who agreed with his officer that for women to ride down the streets of Birmingham astride was an act against the dignity of the city and therefore punishable. So, these two pioneering women were arrested and fined on account of having been seen not once but several times riding their horses astride through the principal streets and avenues of Birmingham.   

What would later be nicknamed “the Magic City” then had a population of about 40,000. Those who witnessed the rides of the women were said to have been embarrassed. 

The long-time custom for female horseback riding had been for women to sit “side saddle”.  The most conservative citizens would have preferred women not ride alone in any manner, with the opinion that women should be men’s passengers when they traveled by horseback. They would sit behind their male drivers and hold onto the man’s waist or sit on a small, padded seat or pillion.   

The latter method of riding was appropriate since the long, heavy skirts then worn by women made it virtually impossible to ride astride.   

What the “offending” were wearing during their Birmingham ride was not mentioned; however, it must have been such as to attract the attention of the authorities. 

Historians trace the notion that it was indecent for women to ride a horse with one leg on each side back to the last three decades of the 14th century.   

Princess Anne Neville of Bohemia, who was looked to as the embodiment of virtue and modesty, rode side-saddle across Europe prior to her marriage to King Richard III in 1472.  Their marriage lasted three years, as King Richard died in battle in 1485 and was the last English king to perish in combat in the final skirmish of the War of the Roses.   

King Richard is the uncle of Queen Elizabeth II, many generations and branches of the royal family apart.   

Anne Neville, subsequently Queen Anne, had a specially designed saddle that enabled her both to control her horse as well as maintain an acceptable level of decency.  Both of her feet were placed side by side on a footrest. 

In the 15th century, Catherine de Medici had a saddle made for her that called for her right leg to be placed over the pommel of the saddle.  Women who followed the example of Catherine found they could control their horses better – and, if they were sufficiently adventurous, put them through their paces with canters and slow gallops. 

Archeologists have found depictions of women with both legs on the same side of the horse on Celtic stones as well as on Greek vases and sculptures. Inevitably, the woman was just a passenger of the male who was controlling the horse.  

The woman’s feet were sometimes on a small footrest added to the pillion.   

Several centuries later, in the late 1930s, females were still an exceedingly small minority at what was then the Alabama Polytechnic Institute, now Auburn University.  They were discouraged from participating in several major campus activities; however, the Auburn Polo and Riding Club was one bright spot on their horizon. This club frequently had horseshows in which interested women could enter their horses. 

In Hartselle in the mid-1940s, we find there was a Junior Riding Club directed by a woman, Billie McCutcheon.  This club was regularly active and put on successful multi-class horse shows.   

The club kicked off summer 1946 with a show at Sherrill Stadium adjacent to the old MCHS campus. Winning “horsegirls” included Mary Nell Groover, dressed as a gypsy lady from Normandy. 

In the early 1950s, the most noted female equestrian was Martha Faye Winton, who had a blue-ribbon pony she named Rhythm Wave.  In July 1951, it was reported in the local newspaper that her pony had already taken first prize in two shows that year.   

Her mother, Mrs. Buddy Winton, said that her daughter had been riding horses since she was able to walk and entering horse shows since she was 4.   

She told a reporter, “She’s done just about everything you can do with a horse.  I even caught her once trying to brush the pony Rhythm Wave’s teeth. 

In 1960, Carol, the daughter of Jane and Lester Wooten, was an active young horsewoman. My mother, Mrs. Opal Cross Stewart, taught under Mr. Wooten when he was principal at the old Cotaco High School. He later served as both county superintendent of education and state representative from Morgan County.   

Ms. Wooten had a prize-winning Tennessee Walking Horse, which she boarded and trained while a student at Mississippi State College for Women.  

The horse was Lady of Haven. Its grandparents were reported to have been world champions. 

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