The history of the horse tack, in ancient terms, is one that is hard to demonstrate effectively. In fact, we know very little of what happened with regard to horsemanship until the Middle Ages (approximately A.D. 476 to A.D. 1450). Over the course of this post I shall try and give a brief history of at least some parts of the horse tack from the available material.

Saddle

There is evidence, though disputed, that humans first began riding the horse not long after domestication, possibly as early as 4000 BC. The earliest known saddle-like equipment were fringed cloths or pads used by Assyrian cavalry around 700 BC. These were held on with a girth or surcingle that included breast straps and cruppers. From the earliest depictions, saddles became status symbols. To show off an individual’s wealth and status, embellishments were added to saddles, including elaborate sewing and leather work, precious metals such as gold, carvings of wood and horn, and other ornamentation.

The North Iranian Eurasian nomads known in Europe as Scythians and in Asia as Saka developed an early form of saddle with a rudimentary frame, which included two parallel leather cushions, with girth attached to them, a pommel and cantle with detachable bone/horn/hardened leather facings, leather thongs, a crupper, breastplate, and a felt shabrack adorned with animal motifs. These were located in Pazyryk burials finds. These saddles, found in the Ukok Plateau, Siberia were dated to 500-400 BC.Iconographic evidence of a predecessor to the modern saddle has been found in the art of the ancient Armenians, Assyrians, and steppe nomads depicted on the Assyrian stone relief carvings from the time of Ashurnasirpal II. The Scythians also developed an early saddle that included padding and decorative embellishments. Though they had neither a solid tree nor stirrups, these early treeless saddles and pads provided protection and comfort to the rider, with a slight increase in security. The Sarmatians also used a padded treeless early saddle, possibly as early as the seventh century, BC. and depictions of Alexander the Great depict a saddle cloth.

Early solid-treed saddles were made of felt that covered a wooden frame. Asian designs appeared during the Han dynasty approximately 200 BC. One of the earliest solid-treed saddles in the west was the “four horn” design, first used by the Romans as early as the 1st century BC. Neither design had stirrups.

The development of the solid saddle tree was significant; it raised the rider above the horse’s back, and distributed the rider’s weight on either side of the animal’s spine instead of pinpointing pressure at the rider’s seat bones, reducing the force directed on any one part of the horse’s back (lb/sq. in. or kg/sq. cm), thus greatly increasing the comfort of the horse and prolonging its useful life. The invention of the solid saddle tree also allowed development of the true stirrup as it is known today. Without a solid tree, the rider’s weight in the stirrups creates abnormal pressure points and make the horse’s back sore. Thermography studies on “treeless” and flexible tree saddle designs have found that there is considerable friction across the centre line of a horse’s back.

The stirrup was one of the milestones in saddle development. The first stirrup-like object was invented in India in the 2nd century BC, and consisted of a simple leather strap in which the rider’s toe was placed. It offered very little support, however. The nomadic tribes in northern China are thought to have been the inventors of the modern stirrup, but the first dependable representation of a rider with paired stirrups was found in China in a Jin Dynasty tomb of about AD 302. The stirrup appeared to be in widespread use across China by 477 AD, which then spread to Europe. This invention gave great support for the rider, and was essential in later warfare.

Bridle

The earliest records of metal bits used with horse bridles date from roughly the time between the 14th and eighth centuries BC, which falls within the Bronze and the Iron Ages. These discoveries were made in a region called Luristan, in ancient Mesopotamia, now present day Iran.

Prior to that, and also concurrently used by more primitive tribes than the Luristans, were bridle bits made of vastly diverse materials, such as horn, bone, wood, sinew, rawhide and rope. Naturally, these materials tended to wear out rather quickly and were eventually replaced entirely by metal.

It is quite surprising that metal bits found in Luristan are in principle very much like the bits we use today. They consist of the mouthpiece, usually a single bar without a joint and cheekpieces that were often quite elaborate. The quality of the work suggests that smelting must have been developed to a very high standard.

Judging by the width of the mouthpieces (approximately 5 to 6 inches), the horses must have had rather large and coarse heads, especially considering that the average size of the horses was around 14.2 hands. It is assumed that the riding abilities of the warrior tribes were quite basic. Their main skills were: controlling the speed of the horse, slowing it down and turning. Horses were ridden bareback and therefore their riders must have had superb balance in order to manoeuvre in battle.

Bas-reliefs as well as paintings of riding and chariot horses in Assyrian and Egyptian tombs and temples show that the same types of bridles and bits were used for many centuries.

The writings of Xenophon, a Greek general who fought in many wars, most notably against the Persians, provided evidence that a more advanced standard of horsemanship emerged around 440 B.C. Not only was Xenophon a great horseman in his own right—his principles of horsemanship form the basis of modern day classical riding—he was also an admirer of the Persians’ expertise with horses and the training of their cavalry. His writings also indicate that Greek cavalry horses—especially parade horses—were able to perform movements that closely resemble dressage movements. Along with a higher standard of horsemanship, there were also improvements and modifications made to bridle bits. As the Romans began to conquer the Hellenic world, they also took over their culture of horsemanship, although no Roman records have been found that compare to the writings of Xenophon.

Bitless Bridle

It is likely that the first domesticated horses were ridden with some type of noseband, made of various materials such as sinew, leather, or rope. However, because the materials used to make gear other than metal bits disintegrates quickly, archaeological evidence of the earliest use of bitless designs has been difficult to find. The earliest artistic evidence of use of some form of bitless bridle was found in illustrations of Synian horseman, dated approximately 1400 BC. However, domestication of the horse occurred between 4500 and 3500 BC, while earliest evidence of the use of bits, located in two sites of the Botai culture, dates to about 3500-3000 BC. Thus there is a very high probability that some sort of headgear was used to control horses prior to the development of the bit.

Ancient Mesopotamian forms of bitless headgear were refined into the hakma, a design featuring a heavy braided noseband which dates to the reign of Darius in Ancient Persia, approximately 500 BC. It is the predecessor to the modern bosal-style hackamore as well as the French cavesson, particularly the modern longeing cavesson.

Halter

Halters may be as old as the early domestication of animals, and their history is not as well studied as that of the bridle or hackamore.

Bit

It is likely that the first domesticated horses were ridden with some type of bitless headgear made of sinew, leather, or rope. Components of the earliest headgear may be difficult to determine, as the materials would not have held up over time. For this reason, no one can say with certainty which came first, the bitted or the bitless bridle. There is evidence of the use of bits, located in two sites of the Botai, dated about 3500-3000 BC. Nose rings were used on the equids portrayed on the Standard of Ur, circa 2600 BCE - 2400 BCE. To date, the earliest artistic evidence of use of some form of bitless bridle was found in illustrations of Synian horseman, dated approximately 1400 BC.

The first bits were made of rope, bone, horn, or hard wood. Metal bits came into use between 1300 and 1200 BC, originally made of bronze. In modern times, nickel was a favored material until about 1940, when it was largely replaced by stainless steel. Copper, aurigan and sweet iron (cold rolled steel) are incorporated into some bits to encourage salivation in the mouth of the horse, which encourages a softer mouth and more relaxed jaw. Bits also can be made of other materials such as rubber or plastic, sometimes in combination with metals.

Throughout history, the need for control of horses in warfare drove extensive innovation in bit design, producing a variety of prototypes and styles over the centuries, from Ancient Greece into modern day use.

Notes

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