Aside World Magazine
Fall 2020 Issue
Mules and Sidesaddles
Written by: Jacqulynn Holly
Mules and sidesaddles are two intriguing subjects that been partners in history for hundreds of years, but their evolution together has seemingly fallen by the wayside and is lost to equestrians all too often.
Mules and sidesaddles are not entirely commonplace in the equestrian world, unless, of course, you are part of each one’s individual community. But lack of commonplace does not necessarily translate to lack in popularity – in fact, quite the opposite for these two unusual awe-inspiring entities. Combine mules and sidesaddles and you are sure to turn some heads and gain interest!
At what point did mules and sidesaddles actually become partners in history? It’s hard to say exactly, because every country was developing at a different rate, and although mules have maintained popularity for centuries and worldwide, sidesaddles have not been in existence even a fraction of the time mules have been sought after. Based on the history we do know, we can speculate that mules and sidesaddles were first truly introduced to one another around the 14th century with ever increasing popularity thereafter.
Mules were intentionally bred for as early 3000 BC. Assyrian carvings depict women and children fleeing the city of Lachish on muleback. This predates some of the earliest documented examples of women riding aside by nearly 4,000 years.
In the 14th century, paintings and statues of the Tibetan goddess Panden Lhamo depict her riding aside on a white or cream-colored mule. At this point in history, sidesaddle really meant sitting sideways in a chair-like seat with little to no control of the equine. Saddles of that type are commonly known as planchette saddles. Perhaps the most common reference is Anne of Bohemia who rode aside to her wedding in 1382. However, the goddess Panden Lhamo may have been the exception having ridden in a “saddle” made of her own slayed son.
Fortunately, most women who rode aside were far less gruesome and very elegant.
As legend holds, Isabella of Aragon, Queen of Portugal rode her black mule aside between opposing armies of King Dennis and son Affonso on the field of Alvalade to stop imminent combat in 1323. Although her courageous action did not take effect immediately, peace was ultimately restored in 1324.
According to Le Morte D’Arthur, compiled in the 15th century, Queen Morgana le Fay, Queen of North Wales, Queen of Eastland, and the Queen of the Outer Isles happened upon Lancelot while out riding. Although painted in 1908, William Frank Calderon’s How Four Queens Found Sir Lancelot Sleeping depicts Sir Thomas Malory’s setting of Lancelot sleeping beneath an apple tree with great detail, including the queens riding aside on their four white mules.
“… Sir Lancelot lay in deep slumber under that apple-tree, and knew neither that Sir Lionel had left him nor what ill-fortune had befallen that good knight. Whilst he lay there sleeping in that wise there came by, along the road, and at a little distance from him, a very fair procession of lordly people, making a noble parade upon the highway. The chiefest of this company were four ladies, who were four queens. With them rode four knights, and, because the day was warm, the four knights bore a canopy of green silk by the four corners upon the points of their lances in such wise as to shelter those queens from the strong heat of the sun. And those four knights rode all armed cap-a-pie on four noble war-horses, and the four queens, bedight in great estate, rode on four white mules richly caparisoned with furniture of divers colors embroidered with gold. After these lordly folk there followed a very excellent court of esquires and demoiselles to the number of a score or more; some riding upon horses and some upon mules that ambled very easily.”
Below, the six children of Philip I of Castile and Joanna of Castile are shown riding in a family portrait circa 1523. It appears only Eleanor of Castile is on a mule (far right). We can speculate that her position in the forefront of the family portrait and the luxury of riding a mule was because she was the eldest of her siblings.
In the United States, riding aside on a mule was
only made possible in large part by George Washington. In the late 1700s, Spain was producing
some of the most desirable jacks. And, as a gift to
George Washington in 1785, King Charles III sent two
jacks (only one survived the journey) to George
Washington. Washington named his new Spanish
stud “Royal Gift”, who became the key to the United
States’ first mule breeding program. Between 1785
and 1799, Mount Vernon went from having no mules,
to having produced 58 mules. By 1807, there was an
estimated 855,000 mules in the United States, opening up the world of aside to women on
One constant throughout history for both
sidesaddles and mules is that they were luxuries
acquired and used by higher social classes. No matter
the era, mules have always been valued higher than
horses. Similarly, sidesaddles have been a reflection
of wealth, prestige and class.
Mules were also frequently used by teachers riding to school and women riding to work, libraries, the market and more. They may not have necessarily been royalty as were so many of the previous examples in this article, but to own a mule and sidesaddle – and be so independent - was still a significant status symbol.
In Europe, women rode aside on their mules for similar tasks. Frequently they are depicted or shown riding sideways in the planchette style as opposed to a sidesaddle with a fixed pommel. This young lady riding her mule in France is carrying flour presumably to or from the town market.
Anne Maudslay, who married Alfred Percival Maudslay, a British diplomat, explorer and archaeologist is pictured on her mule in Quiriguá, Guatemala during an archaeological expedition in 1890. It is noted that Alfred rode a horse, while Anne rode a mule and additional mules carried their belongings on their journey.
In the 1800s mules and sidesaddles became popular for tourist rides in national parks across the
They were frequently used in Yosemite. Many women chose to ride aside and selected mules as
opposed to horses for their mounts due to their sure footedness and rationality on trail.
Regardless of what their activity was, women around the world were empowered by riding aside on
(From Holly Ray’s personal collection)
These two lovely ladies are winners of the Renfro Valley Mule Derby in Kentucky, in what appears to be the 1920s in front of the Renfro Valley dance barn. Mules continued to work hard on the farm, but women indulged in having fun riding them, too!
Today, women and mules continue to represent riding aside. Some of the most notable sidesaddle equestriennes include the late Crystal Elzer who exhibited mules aside annually at Bishop Mule Days, California and also rode her mules aside in endurance races. Meredith Hodges, owner of Lucky Three Ranch out of Colorado, is also a renown sidesaddle enthusiast who encourages mule women to ride aside. Judy Hastings out of Washington and Jennifer Housely in Tennessee, are also notable mule owners who have practiced historical re-enactment on their personal mules for decades.
For me personally, I encourage historical re-enactment aside on mules as much as the educational aspects in hopes of exposing the world to the history of these two beautiful fascinations. I enjoy riding aside in parades, demonstrations, drill team, trail trials and more. I know every discipline can be practiced and successful in using a sidesaddle and I aspire to show the world the endless possibilities!
Although mules tend to develop slower than horses and may require more attention in training, they are ultimately more reliable, more surefooted and balanced, and generally live longer, making them the ideal lady’s sidesaddle mount. Mules and sidesaddles are undoubtedly a match made in Heaven.
Crystal Elzer riding aside at Bishop Mule Days, 1993.
Meredith Hodges and sidesaddle team at Bishop Mule Days.