Summer School: Evolution of the Saddle

The evolution of the saddle spans thousands of years, and it has undergone significant changes in design, materials, and functionality.

The exact origins of the first saddle are not precisely known. However, evidence suggests that the earliest known saddle-like equipment can be traced back to the ancient Assyrians and Persians around 700 BCE.

These early saddles were simple pads or blankets placed on the backs of horses, camels, or other animals to provide a more comfortable seat for the rider. The pads were usually made of animal skins or felt and were secured with ropes or straps.

Neo-Assyrian plaque, ca. 883–859 BCE, The Met.

A frozen Scythian tomb from the 5th Century BCE revealed a saddle blanket intricately decorated with animal motifs made from leather, felt, hair and gold.

The Sarmatians, a large confederation of ancient Eastern Iranian equestrian nomadic peoples, are credited with inventing the first true saddle in 365 CE. The saddles were known for their high front and back, which provided stability and support to the rider during fast-paced maneuvers and combat. It is worth noting that our understanding of Sarmatian saddles is based on archaeological evidence and historical accounts, as no intact Sarmatian saddles have survived to the present day. The depictions of Sarmatian saddles can be found in artwork, such as ancient frescoes and sculptures, as well as descriptions by historians and travelers who encountered the Sarmatians.

Over time, various civilizations and cultures developed more sophisticated saddles tailored to their specific needs. The first known saddles with a tree-like structure were used by Roman cavalry in the 2nd century CE. It consisted of a solid pommel and cantle connected by a sturdy wooden arch or bridge that spanned across the horse’s back. The saddle tree was then covered with padding and leather to create a comfortable seat. Another distinctive feature were the four horns, which aided rider stability.

Roman Cavalry Reenactment, Wiki Commons.

The invention of the stirrup is believed to have occurred during the early 1st millennium CE, although the exact origins and the specific culture or individual responsible for its invention are still a subject of debate among historians. Regardless, it is considered one of the most important advancements in horsemanship and warfare, as it revolutionized cavalry tactics and greatly enhanced a rider’s stability, control, and effectiveness in combat.

The earliest evidence of stirrups comes from archaeological finds in Central Asia, particularly in regions associated with the nomadic peoples of the Eurasian Steppe, such as the Sarmatians, Xiongnu, and later the Mongols. These early stirrups were made of various materials, including leather, bone, and metal.

Horse and rider, early 8th century, China, The Met.

The design and technology of saddles continued to evolve, with different cultures and equestrian traditions contributing to their development. They often became a symbol of wealth and, as such, became works of art in their own right.

Pictured below is “one of about twenty known Medieval saddles decorated with bone plaques. Used in parade, they were probably more ceremonial than utilitarian. The bone plaques used to create the saddle, probably from the pelvic bones of large animals such as cows, are attached to the core with bone pins and glue. The underside is lined with hide and birch bark.” The Met

Central European, ca. 1400–1420, The Met.

This example is similar in appearance to “tournament saddles” of the same era. Called hohenzeug in German, these saddles raised the rider up to a foot above the horse’s back.

The Met states, “Long hours of training and practice were required for riding, and above all, fighting on such saddles, but they were seen as more challenging and impressive than the more standard saddles, an important point considering the spectacle aspect of late-medieval tournaments. Very popular during their time, only a handful of examples of this type of saddle are known to survive.”

Stirrups finally reached Europe by the 8th century CE, which also played a significant role in the rise of armored knights.

Man’s armor, ca. 1570 and later; horse armor, ca. 1580–90 and later, Milan and Brescia, The Met.

With the rise in popularity of disciplines like jumping and fox hunting, the high cantle and pommel of medieval saddlery became a hindrance. The modern English saddle originates from the “szür” or “szurkó” saddle utilized by Hungarian warriors, including the famous Hungarian cavalry called the hussars. The most notable development from the szür saddle was the incorporation of knee rolls or thigh blocks.

The Western saddle was developed in North America during the 19th century and was primarily used by cowboys and ranchers for working. It incorporated elements from Spanish vaquero saddles, which were brought to the Americas by the early Spanish explorers and settlers. These saddles, in turn, had influences from Moorish and Arabic designs brought to Spain during the Islamic rule.

Image by B Snuffleupagus from Pixabay.

It’s important to note that the evolution of saddles has been a continuous process influenced by various cultures, equestrian practices, and advancements in materials and technology. The design and construction of saddles continue to evolve to meet the needs and preferences of riders in different disciplines and riding styles.

Go riding.

Amanda Uechi Ronan is an author, equestrian and wannabe race car driver. Follow her on Instagram @uechironan.