Great Advances in Technology: The Stirrup

These days when we think of technology we think of complex machines. But those machines had to start somewhere, and evolved from early, simple forms to the current advanced models. Even before that, they grew from an idea: that humans can make life simpler by constructing devices that do some or all of the work.

Horses of course are animals rather than machines, but in their way they’re a powerful labor-saving device. The horse can carry a human or pull a human structure—wagon, chariot, plow—and increase the human’s strength, reach, and productivity by orders of magnitude. The horse had a huge effect on human wars and migrations, but one little modification in the equipment upped the ante even further.

The stirrup is taken pretty completely for granted. It’s standard equipment for most riders around the world. Not using it is a choice, usually because the rider wants to improve her balance and her overall skills. In movies it’s everywhere, including Greek and Roman costume dramas. In epic fantasy it’s default mode.

And yet this apparent no-brainer for the equestrian is quite a late invention. Anything that claims to be Greek or Roman which shows people riding with stirrups is nope, uh-huh, never happened. Greeks rode basically on saddle blankets. Romans developed saddles with wooden trees (which is the technical term for the underlying structure of the saddle), which allowed the rider an increased level of stability, but there were no supports for the feet.

Where and when the stirrup first appeared is a matter for debate, but it seems to have been invented in China around 500 BCE, and at first was a single loop of leather attached to the saddle as an aid for mounting. Riders up to this point had to spring onto the horse, which was and is rather an athletic feat especially in heavy robes or armor. One might use a servant, a block, or a convenient rock to haul oneself up, but getting from the ground to the horse was not a simple proposition.

It wasn’t long before enterprising equestrians thought to put a loop on the other side and use the two together for riding as well as for getting on. This innovation traveled slowly westward, arriving in Europe at the dawn of the Middle Ages. By that time the 0riginal strap had acquired an attachment that more nearly resembled what we think of as a stirrup, a frame of wood or metal to support the foot.

We know this happened sometime around the seventh century CE, and became more or less universal in the West somewhere in the eighth century. Charles Martel’s knights did not seem to have had the stirrup, and the early years of Charlemagne’s reign also appear to have been stirrupless, but by the time he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800 CE, his knights were riding with the new (to Europe) invention.

What a stirrup does is stabilize the rider on the horse. Mounting is considerably less strenuous, of course, but the real payoff is what happens once the rider is in the saddle. The stirrup makes it much easier to balance; if the horse makes a sudden move, there’s something to catch the rider as he slides sideways. He’s still relying on muscle tone to stay in the middle, but now he’s got help.

Egyptian army in Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

This isn’t just a crutch for the inexperienced or inept rider. For the mounted warrior, it’s a huge asset. Archery from horseback becomes a less complicated proposition: with stirrups to stand in and provide stability, the archer can shoot with more accuracy, using a stronger bow. The sword fighter has a more solid base, and the lancer can carry a heavier weapon and strike with greater force—leading eventually to the full-on mounted knight and his long lance, not to mention the sport of jousting.

Stirrups revolutionized the art of war. Mounted forces could fight harder, longer, and stronger, and use bigger and deadlier weapons. Even for the rider simply using the horse as transport, the stirrup made the process less uncomfortable: it’s amazing how being able to stand in the stirrups can reduce the less mentionable effects of butt-in-saddle, and riding rougher gaits and jumping obstacles becomes notably less of a challenge.

With the addition of stirrups, saddles evolved as well. The stirrup itself is not particularly safe or stable if attached to a simple pad or blanket. The thing rolls, for one thing, and if the rider puts more weight on one side than on the other, she’s all too likely to hit the dirt—if her foot doesn’t get caught in the stirrup and cause her to be dragged.

For best results the stirrup needs to be attached to a solid structure, fitted to the horse’s back so that it stays in place regardless of what either horse or rider is doing. There are treeless saddles that achieve this feat, but most saddles are constructed on solid trees, which vary in size according to the shape of the horse’s back. There’s a whole industry devoted to this art and technology, and one of its reasons for being is the stirrup.

Somewhat ironically, now that we have this combination of technologies, riders make a point of learning to ride without them. The principle is that whatever you can do with a saddle and stirrups, you should be able to do at least moderately well without. That helps to develop better balance and steering skills, and minimize dependence on technology for staying on the horse.

But your Mongol horse archer and your medieval Western knight are definitely going to fight more effectively with the tech than without. Your workaday rider trying to get from here to there will appreciate the help with mounting and the stability once he’s on board—and even your lady riding aside, or sidesaddle as it’s called, makes use of stirrups to stabilize her seat, in addition to the structure of horns that supports what would have been her outside leg.

Sidesaddle is somewhat of a triumph of fashion and crusading morality over simple practicality. The aggressively modest medieval lady who wasn’t riding in a wagon or a horse litter (versus the practical lady who rode astride like anyone else) was most likely riding pillion—i.e., sitting sideways behind a gentleman or a servant riding astride.  Eventually ladies took the reins for themselves and rode aside in their own saddles, and did anything their male companions did—sitting sideways, supported by a feat of engineering that, if it failed, could damage the rider severely.

It’s no wonder women finally said enough of this, put on riding breeches, and went back to riding with a leg on each side. Riding sidesaddle is both elegant and challenging, and quite a bit more dangerous than riding astride. One has to give serious props to the ladies who rode this way as a matter of course (and fashion and modesty), and the ones who still do for the art and the pleasure of it.

Judith Tarr is a lifelong horse person. She supports her habit by writing works of fantasy and science fiction as well as historical novels, many of which have been published as ebooks by Book View Cafe. Her most recent short novel, Dragons in the Earth, features a herd of magical horses, and her space opera, Forgotten Suns, features both terrestrial horses and an alien horselike species (and space whales!). She lives near Tucson, Arizona with a herd of Lipizzans, a clowder of cats, and a blue-eyed dog.

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