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Okotoks museum sides with saddle history

“The lady’s saddle came up with the family apparently. It’s an amazing piece. This is before the Civil War, but it is still very much rideable It is beautifully preserved.” Holly Hardman, sidesaddle collector
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Joanne Vang from Nanton, left, and Red Deer Lake's Holly Harman have contributed sidesaddles for the Side Saddles of the Canadian West exhibit at the Okotoks Museum and Archives. The exhibit is on display until Sept. 30.

Sidesaddle up to the Okotoks museum and take in some western history. 

The Okotoks Museum and Archives is displaying Side Saddles of the Canadian West until Sept. 30.  

“The focus of this retrospective is the Great West Saddlery Company,” said Red Deer Lake area’s Holly Hardman, who has donated a number of her 18 sidesaddles to the exhibit. “In 1885, Calgary was a boom-town and there were saddlers on every street corner.  

“What is here are saddles before the formation of Great West and then saddles from the Great West Saddlery from before Alberta became a province. 

“By 1917 Great West Saddlery was the biggest purveyor of leather goods and harnesses in the British Empire. It’s antiquity and part of our history.”

Hardman grew up around horses, riding in gymkhanas, show jumping, dressage and others. She got introduced to sidesaddles while living in Arizona.  

“I went to a flea market and there was a sidesaddle under the bench, and I said to the fellow, what is that,” Hardman said with a chuckle. “I knew what it was, but the man said, ‘It’s got something to do with horses.' 

“I asked him how much? He said $50... I brought it home and started riding sidesaddle.” 

She likes the elegance and style of the sidesaddle.  

“It’s an aristocratic pursuit that provides good costuming -  it’s kind of fun,” Hardman said. “A lot of people ride sidesaddle but they don’t talk about it.”  

Hardman presently owns 18 sidesaddles, many of which are at the museum. There were 24 on display when the exhibit started in August.  

“I have one saddle that the family history that I can document goes back to 1852, and that saddle was made before 1830 and arrived with the bride,” she said. “The gentleman’s saddle that goes with this beautiful saddle made three trips from Missouri to the Wetaskiwin area where they ended up ranching.  

“The lady’s saddle came up with the family apparently. 

“It’s an amazing piece. This is before the Civil War, but it is still very much rideable It is beautifully preserved.”  

Also on display is a sidesaddle from approximately 1800.  

“It’s a little bit wrecked but it is a very interesting saddle,” Hardman said.  You can see how the shape of the saddle starts to evolve,” Hardman said. “The very first sidesaddles were a chair. The woman sat sideways and the horse was led by a groom and the lady sat with her feet on a rail like she was sitting in a chair, there was a rail around the back like a captain’s chair.”  

Also on display is a sidesaddle made by Circle Y from the mid 1970s. Sidesaddles stopped being made in the 1980s but there has been a revival of interest and production.

Joanne Vang from the Nanton area has also contributed some sidesaddles to the exhibit.  

She said the sidesaddle was liberating for women.  

“(My fascination) is the complexity of the history of the freedom and emancipation for women as related to saddles and horses,” Vang said, who can ride sidesaddle. 

“It’s different, not everybody does it and you actually feel quite elegant when you are sitting up there in the full regalia,” Vang said.  

Some of the clothing is also on display at the museum.

“There are several dresses, which are very dangerous for riding sidesaddle because you can get hung up and dragged in a dress,” Vang said. “They developed what they called an apron. When you are off your horse you can loop it around your back so you can walk and not be exposed. 

“But when you are on the horse, it formed over the knee and it looks like you are riding in a skirt on the horse.”  


Bruce Campbell

About the Author: Bruce Campbell

Bruce Campbell is the editor for Okotokstoday.ca and the Western Wheel newspaper. He is a graduate of Mount Royal College journalism program, 1991. For story tips contact bcampbell@okotoks.greatwest.ca
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