Horses and Downton Abbey
 By Winniefield Park   •   16th Jan 2016   •   2,581 views   •   0 comments

Are you looking forward to the last season of Downton Abbey? I have my DVR set and can hardly wait for Sunday nights. This series covers the time period between 1912 and 1925. During this time, the internal combustion engine was beginning to take the places of horses, both for transportation and agricultural work. But for the landed gentry, horses still provided sport and a reason for socializing. Horse races, hunts, steeplechases and point-to-point races were places to see and be seen even if you weren’t actually in the saddle or running a horse. For those not in the aristocracy, horses were still an important part of everyday life.

During this time, women were starting to ride astride, although many still rode side saddle. In the series the riding is decent. The eldest daughter is most often seen in the saddle and the actress who plays her, although a non-rider, does well. Her stand-in was Pippa Booth, who did all the scenes side-saddle over the fences. And if you’re wondering if women rode side-saddle in races, the answer is yes, and they still do. Riders from the Dianes of the Chase were extras in one episode. The Vine & Craven, a hunt that is located near Highclere Castle where some of the series was filmed, provided the extras for the hunting scenes. Kimblewick and Bicester with Whaddon Chase also provided extras.

Of course, there are some inaccuracies in equipment, and if you watch closely, you’ll see modern style girths and safety stirrups. These items weren’t available back then. All riders and cast members are dressed in beautiful period costumes with full breeches and elegant jackets. You won’t see a lot of helmets. Bowlers and top hats were the thing, and ladies wore stylish nets over their faces and hair that must have had them seeing dots before their eyes as they rode. As in many TV shows and movies, horses can never be silent and dubbed in are the often heard squeals and whinnies. Thank goodness horses don’t really do this, or a quiet hack would be anything but.

Helmets wouldn’t have been a bad idea though as one actor narrowly missed a bad accident when horse accidentally careened into a car during a hunt scene. The car was being driven alongside when hounds and horse swerved into its path. No one, human or animal was hurt.

The series seems to have spawned a revival in side-saddle riding. Whether riding to the hounds or in the show ring, women are learning the elegant art of riding aside. Recently, a new world side saddle high jump record of 6ft 8in was set by an Irish rider. Groups like A Bit on the Side are offer information and resources, including clothing made especially for sidesaddle riders accessible.

Driving fans get only glimpses of horse drawn vehicles as clearly, motorcars are the way to travel. Eldest daughter, Lady Mary rides in a horse drawn carriage to her wedding, but otherwise, farm wagons, a few carriages and carts make a few appearances despite that historically, these things would still be frequently used. While the horsey aspects of the series are not entirely accurate, it is still good entertainment, the costumes and scenery are beautiful, the riding relatively inoffensive and the hiccups can be forgiven. Sunday nights now are too cold and dark to ride anyway.

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