History for the fantasy buff: saddles and stirrups

Continuing on a horsey theme, what is the primary purpose of the saddle? Most assume it is to provide the rider with a more comfortable and stable seat, and that is true to an extent, but it also serves another critical purpose: to keep the rider’s weight off the horse’s spine. If you look at the underside of a saddle, you’ll see that the saddle is designed to keep all weight off the spine and transfer it to the large muscles of the back, where it can be borne without injury.

(photo from wikipedia by Margit Zippold)

This has implications for anyone writing in the ancient world, because this type of saddle (the “solid tree saddle”) was not invented until 200 B.C., and until the solid tree saddle was invented, there were no stirrups.

It’s not that ancient peoples didn’t think of the idea. They tried stirrups. But when your saddle places weight on the horse’s spine, and then you attach stirrups which increases the load, the horse suffers back injuries.

I’ve got a Bronze Age novel set around 2000 B.C., and my characters ride horses. I’ve got them using primitive saddles with no stirrups. This raised all kinds of issues in the writing. Simple things like, how do they mount their horses? All those throwaway lines about the character putting a foot in the stirrup and swinging up into the saddle… suddenly those weren’t throwaway lines anymore. Those lines wouldn’t even work for that book.

I ended up having my characters vault into the saddle! It may sound crazy, but I know it is possible because I have done it myself. I used to bring horses up to the stable from a distant pasture, and because I was lazy, I’d go out and halter the horse, then fasten the lead rope around the horse’s neck like reins, vault up on the horse’s back, and ride it to the stable bareback. I was young and limber back then, and these were smallish horses! The horses in my book are smallish too, and the characters are young.

One wonders about riding techniques of the day, too. Did good riders learn how to squeeze with their knees when riding bareback (or with a primitive saddle), mimicking the effect of a solid tree saddle, so that they weren’t bouncing around on the horse’s spine? That probably gets into more detail than most books require. But riding in ancient times probably demanded more skill from the rider than after the solid tree saddle was invented, not just because it was harder to stay on, but because bad riding could damage the horse.

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4 Responses to History for the fantasy buff: saddles and stirrups

  1. It really makes me appreciate the chariot. Thanks for sharing!

    • Amy Raby says:

      You know, it may be one reason chariots were popular with ancient people. I’m just speculating, but without stirrups, chariots may have been more stable on the battlefield.

  2. ethlum says:

    I have been riding horses for a very long time, and as a vet their well-being is paramount to my particular style of riding. I have also wondered whether bareback riding would in time injure the horse. I have come to the conclusion that a good technique makes bareback riding safe for both horse and rider. Many riders, when confronted with bareback riding, do press their thighs and knees so as not depend entirely on balance to remain mounted; I try to disuade my students from such a technique, because in my opinion the rider’s aids cannot be properly given with tense legs, and these riders tend to become tired very quickly. A supple hip, however, allows the rider to remain properly seated, without bouncing in the slightest, but then balance is essential, and that takes hard-work and patience. Even at the trot, a good rider is able to remain very close to the horse in a relaxed fashion no matter how long the trail be. Also, it has been reported in the literature — I apologise since I could not find the specific reference — that bareback riding makes for a better distribution of pressure despite the fact that some of it may fall on the spinous processes of the vertebrae. Even if a tree takes weight off the horse’s spine, a faulty technique makes for a very unconfortable ride for the horse, whichever the saddle. Bouncy riders tend to injure their horses even if riding with perfectly fitted tack.

    As for mounting techniques, I personally vault on the horse. The horse needs to be trained for this. I have done this not only with short stocky horses, but with very tall show-jumping horses. I myself am not very tall, and I’ve seen riders shorter that me vault on very tall horses. As for stirrups, I agree that a treeless saddle would make for a lot of pressure if stirrups were to be used, but there are some very nice examples, such as the Argentinian Recado or the “Albarda Zamorana” from Spain, that delve into the notion. Even if the recado does have some sort of tree, it isn’t nearly as elaborate. When thinking of “primitive” riders, one must think of Mongolian horsemanship. Even if their traditional saddle does have a tree, I have seen many treeless examples, and they too are incredibly skilled bareback riders.

    Another interesting fact, that could be of literary use to you, is that Xenophon (somewhat 300 B.C.) describes a mounting technique using a spear, somewhat resemblant of pole vaulting. Also, it is thought that the pommel horse used for men’s gymnastics, was originally developed for use by Alexander’s army, to teach propper mounting technique. I have personally tried mounting by means of a pole, and it proved a most disastrous feat :-s Xenophon also describes the use of the horse for purposes of war, and I can imagine many ways in which a mounted warrior has the advantage against a chariot. Also, Xenophon describes airs such as the piaffe, or some other very collected air. The Greeks not only rode on unshod horses, but also stirrup-less, which means that the argument that bareback riding and treeless saddles place excessive pressure on the m. longissimus dorsi and thus prevent collection is not entirely accurate. I am currently training a mare to collect her airs, and I don’t plan to use a treed saddle on her, when the time comes to ride her.

    Finally, I think we should look into the techniques and tack used by some legendary riders, the Natives of the Great Plains of North America. If there are examples of their saddles with a tree, I have seen pictures of the riding bareback or with treeless saddles.

    Greetings from Mexico.

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