So, You Think You Love Horses? Some Reflections on the Nature of Horses and Man

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How we ride: Legacy of the Sword
and Mounting Horses from the Left Side

Imperial German Army Officer mounting from the left 1914
The tip of his scabbard hanging on the other side is seen just behind the right stirrup
officer mounting

Somewhere around 70-90 per cent of people are right-handed. It times past a mounted warrior controlled his mount with his left hand and held his sword in his right hand. Therefore, the sword or saber is worn on the left side of the body and draw by the right hand reaching across the body. This is necessary to allow for the length of the blade and drawing a sword worn on the right side with the right hand is an extremely awkward movement. In addition, since about the 16th Century many swords and sabers were made with hilts having basket type guards that are exclusively designed to be held in the right hand. The guard protected the sword hand from a raking movement by the opposing swordsman that might pass by a simple quillon crossbar and strike the sword hand. These guards would be ineffective if the sword was held with the left hand as the sides of the fingers are then exposed.

Military Riders used the right hand for
weapons and left to control the horse.
What do swords have to do with horsemanship and how we ride? They determined the traditional side on which a horse is mounted. We usually mount a horse from the animal’s left side, called the near side by horsemen. In earlier times this was necessary to allow for a sword worn on the left side of the body. If a person wearing a sword mounted from the right side the scabbard would catch on the side of the horse and impair mounting. With the exception of cavalry reenactors, few of us wear swords today. However, the tradition of mounting from the left persists.

On occasion you will find yourself needing to mount from the right side, called the off side by horseman. This may happen during a trail ride on a narrow hillside path when remounting from a bank with the uphill side on the horse’s right. Also riders might be asked to do this during a judged pleasure ride and, I must confess, I find it awkward to do. However, Native American riders, who did not wear swords, frequently, if not exclusively, mounted from the right side. In the American West a horse who was accustomed to being mounted from the right was called, “Indian broke.” Claims are made that Native Americans copied this from the Spanish but depictions I have seen of Spanish knights mounting show a left sided mount. Also in classical times spearman often mounted from the right side. This was because the spear (lance) was held in the right hand and the rider vaulted on the horse by swinging his left leg over while releasing the left hand from the horse’s body. It is stated that in feudal Japan Samurai warriors also mounted from the right. They are also generally depicted in artwork as wearing swords on the left side, but it is possible that swords were handed to Samurai by retainers after mounting or worn on the back. The point here is that there is no true right or wrong side when it comes to right- or left-sided mounting. It is a question of tradition and what the horse and rider are accustomed to. Those who mount from the left are living the legacy of the sword.

The Accidental Horseman

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