The word riding is descended from late Old English *þriðing or *þriding (recorded only in Latin contexts or forms, e.g., trehing, treding, trithing, with Latin initial t here representing the Old English letter thorn). It came into Old English as a loanword from Old Norse þriðjungr, meaning a third part (especially of a county), cf. farthing. The modern form riding was the result of initial th being absorbed in the final th or t of the words north, south, east and west, by which it was normally preceded.
A common misconception holds that the term arose from some association between the size of the district and the distance that can be covered or encircled on horseback in a certain amount of time (cf. the Walking Purchase).
The term was used in 19th century Canada to refer to subdivisions of counties.
In Canadian politics, "riding" is a colloquial term for a constituency or electoral district. Officially, "electoral district" is generally used, although government documents sometimes use the colloquial term. In colloquial Canadian French, a riding is known as comté, i.e., "county", as the electoral districts in Quebec were historically identical to its counties; the official French term is circonscription.
The Canadian use of "riding" is derived from the English local government term, which was widely used in Canada in the 19th century. Most Canadian counties never had sufficient population to justify administrative subdivisions. Nonetheless, it was common, especially in Ontario, to divide counties with sufficient population into multiple electoral districts, which thus became known as "ridings" in official documents. The term was used in the legal description of the electoral districts of Canada West, which were grandfathered, by means of a schedule to the new constitution, as the electoral districts for the first elections to the new Canadian House of Commons, immediately following Confederation. Soon after Confederation, the urban population grew (and more importantly, most city dwellers gained the franchise after property ownership was no longer required to gain the vote). Rural constituencies therefore became geographically larger through the 20th century and generally encompassed one or more counties each, and the word "riding" was then used to refer to any electoral division.
The local association for a political party, which legally is known as an "electoral district association", is often referred to as a riding association.
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The Yorkshire ridings were in many ways treated as separate administrative counties, having had separate quarter sessions and also separate lieutenancies since the Restoration. This practice was followed by the Local Government Act 1888, which made each of the three ridings an administrative county with an elected county council. These county councils, along with the ancient lieutenancies, were abolished in 1974 under the Local Government Act 1972.
A local government area East Riding of Yorkshire was created in 1996, but this does not cover the entire area of the former East Riding and includes areas from the historical West Riding.
According to the 12th century compilation known as the Leges Edwardi Confessoris, the riding was the third part of a county (provincia); to it causes were brought which could not be determined in the wapentake, and a matter which could not be determined in the riding was brought into the court of the shire.
There is abundant[quantify] evidence[by whom?] that riding courts were held after the Norman Conquest. A charter which Henry I granted to the Church of St Peters at York mentions wapentacmot, tridingmot and shiresmot (-mot designates popular assemblies), and exemptions from suit to the thriding or riding may be noticed frequently[quantify] in the charters of the Norman kings. As yet, however, the jurisdiction and functions of these courts have not been ascertained. It seems probable from the silence of the records that they had already fallen into disuse early in the 13th century.
Although no longer having any administrative role the ridings of Yorkshire still play a part as cultural entities – they are used for the names of a number of groups and organisations and some people in Yorkshire associate themselves with one riding or another (see West Riding of Yorkshire#Current usage and Yorkshire Ridings Society). Winifred Holtby's 1936 novel South Riding and its adaptations were set in a fictional fourth riding. The title of the novel trilogy Red Riding by David Peace, set in Yorkshire, is a play on the word.
County Tipperary in Ireland was divided in 1838 into two ridings, Tipperary North Riding and Tipperary South Riding – the divisions remained as local government counties, but were renamed simply 'North Tipperary' and 'South Tipperary' in 2002. They ceased to exist with the 2014 reforms of local government.
County Cork was divided into East and West Ridings in 1823. The ridings still exist for judicial purposes, and Garda (police) divisions are based on them. County Cork is divided for some purposes into the two ridings, with county councillors for the ridings meeting separately to perform certain functions. County Galway was also divided into east and west ridings.
Ridings existed in rural New Zealand in the late 19th and early to mid 20th century as part of larger county councils in the area. For example, The Taranaki County Council was divided into three separate ridings: Moa (south), Omata (west) and Waitara (east).
As use of the automobile became more popular with the improvement of roads, combined with the concurrent trend of urban drift (c. 1950s), the ridings were either merged back into their parent councils or separated off into county councils in their own right. The Taranaki Country Council's three ridings eventually split, with the Omata Riding remaining part of the Taranaki County Council, the Moa riding merging with the Inglewood Borough Council and the Waitara Riding becoming part of the Clifton County Council.
In 1989 these were again merged reorganised into district and/or city councils. For example, the above three all merged with the New Plymouth Council and Waitara Borough Councils to form the New Plymouth District Council.
Ridings are originally Scandinavian institutions.
In Iceland the third part of a thing which corresponded roughly to an English county was called þrithjungr. The island of Gotland and the Swedish provinces Närke and Hälsingland were also divided into þrithjungar instead of hundreds.
In Norway (excluding Iceland) the þrithjungr seems to have been an ecclesiastical division.
The term farthing is analogous for quarters of a county. Gloucestershire was once divided into farthings. In Tolkien's fictional world of Middle-earth, the Shire is divided into four farthings, into the Fourth Age.