The ancient Greeks too often rode bareback - it is hard to imagine, but in Alexander the Great's time Macedonian cavalry rode bareback, within saddle or stirrups. It must have been very difficult fighting on horseback or taking part in a charge! Just think about that next time you ride without stirrups!
Limebrook Farm Livery Yard
People have been riding horses for thousands of years. If you ride a riding school horse you probably don't think too much about the saddle you are sitting on - as long as it is comfortable.
History of the Saddle
However, if you own your own horse you will probably start to think about this vital piece of tack in a different way. It needs to be fitted properly to the horse, and needs to be regularly cleaned and cared for. It is also the most expensive item of tack you will have to buy!
Have you ever wondered why the saddle has evolved in the way it has?
In simple terms a saddle has a girth attached to keep it in place, and is made up of leather (or nowadays a synthetic material), frame (tree) and padding.
But how, and why, has it evolved the way it has? Today there are general purpose saddles for everyday riding, specialist dressage, racing and jumping saddles, endurance saddles - and these are just versions of the English Saddle!
Extract of Bayeaux Tapestry
About 2000 BC when people first started to ride horses they rode mostly bareback, or sat on a a piece of cloth or animal hide. Bronze and Iron Age man, whilst making good use of leather for footwear and harness (evidence of bridles, reins and harness have been found from that time) did not have saddles for their horses.
So what is the History of the Riding Saddle?
It was the late Iron Age period before saddles first began to appear. The first use of saddles is generally attributed to the Moors in North Africa. These early people began to recognise that riding for any length of time was uncomfortable, and early saddles began to emerge that formed a padded barrior between the rider between the rider and the horse. As with all inventions, they started simple, but soon became decorated and more elaborate.
In about 700 BC, in the Middle East, Assyrian warriors went into their battles on decorative saddle cloths which had straps which resembled girths.
In a Scythian tomb found in Siberia from the 5th century BC there has been found a saddle cover intricately decoarated with animal motifs made from leather, felt, hair and gold. The Scythians used cushioned saddles and girths, and may even have had leather stirrups.
The saddle was here to stay, and improvements started to be made. The 'tree' of the saddle is first seen in Asia in about 200 BC. A primitive saddle tree kept a rider's weight off the horse's back. These riders soon found this improved the health of the horse, and lengthened the time he was able to work!
The developments continued, as people began to use horses more and more in their battles and as a way of covering ground faster than marching, they began to think about innovative ways in which they could utilise this living machince. By being able to balance in a horse more easily and have their hands free they could use a spear more effectly. The Sarmatians in the 3rd century AD developed a leather saddle, and are credited with the development of the saddle, the metal stirrup and the spur. Standing up in the saddle improved spear throwing aim!
When the Romans first invaded Britain they did not ride on saddles, but towards the end of their empire they began to use them. Their saddles did look very different to those we use today!
Roman Cavalry Saddle
(photo courtesy of Caerleon.net)
The main difference between the saddles we know today and the Roman Cavalry Saddle is that it had no stirrups. The saddle had 4 horns (pommels) which the rider used to get a good grip with his thighs. His hands were then free to hold and use the shield, sword, spear and javelins. If unseated, getting back on could be a problem. However, there is evidence that riders were trained to mount a horse at canter by vaulting.
The Roman saddle was held in place by a simple girth together with a breast strap and breech strap (around the horse's bottom) to keep it from moving forwards or back.
It was nearly a thousand years later before the saddle came into general use in Europe, when the medieval knights made improvements to the early design of the Sarmatian saddle. It has continued evolving to the saddles we use today.
Main Types of Saddles
There are two main types of horse saddles, the Hungarian and the Moorish.
Cowboys in the United States use the Moorish saddle (more commonly known as the Western Saddle) which has a horn to which the lasso can be tied. A lasso puts a lot of strain on the saddle, so to hold it in place it has two strong girths, each tightened by a cinch strap. The English saddle is an example of the Hungarian saddle. Hungarian saddles have no horns. The English saddle has padding, and the stirrup is hung farther forward than on the Moorish saddle.
Riding in a Western saddle has evolved very differently to riding in an English saddle. The saddles have developed over time to be most suited to the particular discipline chosen by the rider.
The English Saddle
Three thousand years of development have produced the saddle we use today. The pictures below show the many parts of the saddle, and what a complicated piece of engineering it is.
Pictures courtesy of Global Pampas http://www.globalpampas.com.ar
Care of the Saddle
However, all riders are today aware of the importance of having a properly fitting and well maintained saddle for the health and comfort of the horse, as well as the security of the rider. If a saddle is not cared for, accidents can happen, as well as severe and irreversable damage being caused to the horse's back.
English saddles need to be chosen carefully to fit a particular horse. A saddle should be fitted by a qualified person, perferably one who is a member of a recognised organisation such as the Society of Master Saddlers.
If cared for the saddle can last for a very long time. Special attention should be regularly paid to those parts of the saddle which could weaken and break. The girth straps should be checked to make sure the holes are not stretching, and that the straps are securely attached to the saddle.
Stirrup leathers should be checked at regular intervals - especially if the horse is ridden by the same rider with stirrups the same length for most of the time. The stirrup leather may wear at the point it crosses over the stirrup bar. If in doubt, replace the leathers!