Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Look Ma, no hands: the stirrup

Warfare changed dramatically when the horse was first used in combat. It is no surprise to follow the spread of humans quickly escalated when the horse was domesticated.  For all of the horse’s abilities, every man could afford to buy or keep a horse. Domestic horses needed proper feed and care. The average farmer gratefully adapted the horse for farm work, using the strength of the equine to clear fields, prepare soil for planting (plowing), and as a pack animal when he hunted. The biggest change came to warfare with the addition of tack.


It has been written that the three most important devices or inventions in warfare were the chariot, the saddle, and the stirrup. Early use of the horse in war consisted of men riding in chariots. Chariots had their downsides: a driver was required to manage the horses while a second man used the weapons. Archers were effective and the chariots themselves required careful maneuvering. This changed when men changed to riding horses. Mounted riders sat high and could see further. Horses easily ran down foot soldiers. When saddles and stirrups came in to use, warfare took another big leap.

Saddles gave riders balance and support. Saddles with stirrups allowed increased stability on horseback. Warriors could shoot arrows or use hand weapons (swords, hammer, maces, etc) while guiding a mount with their legs & weight.  The development of stirrups allowed men to become ‘professional’ soldiers. It is debated that stirrups were a major contributor to the beginning of feudalism.

Webster’s defines a stirrup as a ring with a flat bottom hung by a strap, usually on each side of a saddle and used as a footrest in mounting and riding.

The first stirrups were simple, a circle of rope of which the rider inserted his toe. Saddle trees allowed a solid stirrup to be attached. Hard trees were covered with padding at first. Solid saddles reduced wear and tear on the horse.

Saddle decorations and coins show images of mounted riders with their feet in stirrup. Saddles were used by the Romans. The earliest date which the used of the toe loops can be verified occurred in China, with the terra-cotta figures found in tombs originating from the Qin Dynasty (221 B.C.). Artifacts found in India also support the early use of stirrups. Sometime during the period between the 1rst and 2nd centuries, stirrups came in to use.  China has art and carvings depicting riders using stirrups as far back as the 4th century.

People migrating to Europe introduced the stirrup in the 7th century but didn’t become common place right away. Rings made from wood, rope, and leather were used to make stirrups. Scandinavia, German, and Hungary show evidence of stirrups in the 8th century. English raiders brought stirrup from the mainland sometime between the 8th and 9th century.

Stirrups are used in two forms: long and short. Short stirrups, such as those used by riders (jockeys) kept pressure off the horse’s back, which allowed for greater speed. Long stirrups give the rider more communication with the horse and were used by knights. A stirrup in-between the two was adopted by most riders. Stirrups do have one major problem: a rider falling off needs to be able to kick free of the stirrups to prevent being trampled. The advent of boots with heels kept the foot from sliding through the stirrups, an important feature for battle.

Military might was gained from the back of a horse. The Mongols became mounted nomads, their lives rotated around horses. Infantry didn’t go out of vogue, but cavalry took its place as the elite fighting force. A new society grew along with the feudalism: the mounted knight. Heavy cavalry followed the light horse faction of warriors.

Knights, whether using maile armor or full plate, needed to keep their balance in the saddle. The medieval saddles used by knights had high cantles & pommels. The impact of the lance created a significant force:  the saddles and stirrups helped keep the knight up on his horse. It is not to say that stirrups are mandatory, for one could ride and fight without them.

Consider the “Airs Above the Ground” dressage moves of the famous Lipizzaner horses. Each skill of the horse was developed to use in battle. Riders of the Spanish Riding School can perform all of the elite skills without stirrups. Heavy cavalry used long stirrups while light “horse” relied on short stirrups. The Spanish called riding with long stirrups ‘La Brida’ and those riders using short stirrups were said to be using “La Jineta” style. Light horseman could swoop in and hit their opponents quickly before riding off again. Light horsemen were more flexible in the saddle, while heavy horsemen were the artillery of their time, often rising abreast to mow down enemies.

Today, stirrup length is determined by activity, the same as in ancient times. Jockeys and those who participate in jumping may use shorter lengths while the common western saddle has a longer length.

I hope you enjoyed this brief note on stirrups.

Stay safe out there!

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