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The History of Horse Riding Equipment

The history of horse tack from 4000 BC up to the present day. A fascinating peek into the history of horse riding equipment and the advancement of ancient horse gear.

Who invented the saddle?

A saddle in the form we know today was first found in a Siberian Burial tomb dating back to 500 BC.

Nubian Saddle with frame dating from AD 375

The history of Horse riding equipment, specifically saddles can be traced back to about 700 BC, although there is disagreement about dates, with some scholars citing evidence that Equus (Latin for horse) or horses were being ridden as far back as 4000 BC by the Chinese. Horses were ridden bareback, there was no such thing as a saddle, or a bridle, instead, all that separated rider and horse was a piece of tasselled cloth, held on to the horse’s back by a strip of material, known in modern times as a girth. A simple rope looped around the neck controlled the horse.

early saddle cloth

Over the next thousand years or so, cloths turned into pads and the thickness of the pad increased providing more comfort for both horse and rider. Although designs progressed, something we would recognize as a saddle today was not evidenced until around 500 BC when examples of saddle frames incorporating leather cushions, a pommel, and a cantle were found in the Siberian burial tombs of Eurasian nomads, however, early saddles were still treeless and did not use stirrups.

When were stirrups invented?

Stirrups and Stirrup leathers were invented by the Chinese in 300 AD, with pictorial evidence on a tomb in China.

Although this is the first evidence of proper stirrups as we know them today, the Chinese had developed an earlier version of a stirrup, but only one stirrup, which was used exclusively as a mounting aid. After the rider had mounted the single stirrup was looped over the mane.

Fighters in India took this one stage further by creating a stirrup-like “toe ring” attached to the pommel of a pad on the horse’s back. This gave some support and helped the rider balance, but must have caused some horrible injuries!

Example of 7th Century Hungarian Stirrups

There is quite a lot of speculation over who invented the true stirrup as we know it today. Although certain experts believe early Nomadic tribes used them, they do not have physical evidence of the fact. We know that saddles without a solid tree would create abnormal pressure points caused by the rider’s weight when using stirrups, making the horse’s back sore and unrideable and so many experts hypothesize that the invention of a treed saddle and stirrups must have occurred simultaneously.

Early solid treed saddles were made from a wooden frame covered with felt and the earliest evidenced examples are depicted on cavalry horses in the terracotta army around 206 BC. The earliest pair of stirrups was found in a Chinese Jin Dynasty tomb around 302 AD.

Stirrups greatly increased the rider’s ability to stay securely in the saddle and control the horse. It is argued, the invention of the stirrup was as important in the spread of modern civilizations, as the invention of the wheel or printing press.

The earliest evidence of a wooden treed saddle in the Western World was a four-horn design used by Roman soldiers as early as the 1st Century BC. In terms of horse welfare, this was a major development. We know that saddle trees help to spread the weight on either side of the horse’s spine and distribute it evenly over the horse’s back. The saddle was at last more comfortable for the horse as well as the rider.

Example of a Mongolian Saddle

From the earliest times, owning a horse was expensive and used as an indicator of wealth. Similarly, saddles, as they became more sophisticated were used as symbols of wealth. Elaborate decorations including fancy leather work, stitching, and precious metals were added to prove an individual’s status. Comfort and distinction were for the rider, rather than the horse. As saddles progressed over the ages, to satisfy both the needs of horse and rider, so did the method of controlling the horse.

Example of a bejewelled Ottoman saddle

Who invented the bridle?

The earliest evidence of horse bridles was found during archaeological excavations in East and Central Asia of Bronze age settlements by Mongolian herders.

Ever since the first horse was ridden there would have been a need to control the animal. From the first simple rope looped around the horse’s neck, the ability to control a horse was a huge step in their domestication and their use as transport and as cavalry in warfare.

Bridles were invented far earlier than anything remotely resembling a saddle and are likely to have been bitless, made of rope, sinew, or leather.  The first discovery of archaeological evidence suggests that bridles were made up of a noseband and rigid cheekpieces, whilst limited damage noticed on the teeth of horse skulls found during excavations, is consistent with the use of a soft organic bit made from bone, horn, or hardwood. Metal bits as old as 1200 BC have been discovered and thousands have been recovered within the continent of the Eurasian Steppes dating from 1000 BC onwards.

Example of a bronze bridle and bit from 700 - 650 BC

Evidence from ancient artworks, paintings, and carvings, show bridles and bits in regular use by everyone from the Egyptians, Assyrians,  and Greeks, to the Romans and Medieval Horse tack by Knights during the Middle Ages. Bridles were being used to control horses for transport, riding, chariot driving, and war. The earliest surviving record of horse care and education, a manuscript written by Xenophon a Greek General around 400 BC called the “The Art of Horsemanship”, describes improvements to be made on standard bridle designs to help with better control, movements, and training.

Sadly after Xenophon, there is very little evidence of how horse tack, saddles, and bridles were influenced for the next 1000 years, until the middle ages and the rise of the medieval knight and medieval horse equipment. Horses needed to be much larger and stronger (thanks to selective breeding) having to carry a knight in heavy armour into battle. Controlling a larger stronger animal resulted in harsher equipment, for example, bridles with long-shanked bits. (Shanks provide leverage, and the longer the shank the less the movement of the reins required to apply pressure to the horse’s mouth.)

Medieval Knight on a horse The history of horse tack

Historians and equestrian enthusiasts are fortunate to be in possession of writings by celebrated experts of the day from Dom Duarte the 1st King of Portugal in the early 14th Century to Francois Baucher in the early 19th Century who are not only responsible for the improvements in horse tack, that is very much in evidence today, but also for the fundamental principles still used in dressage, classical dressage, and many other modern equestrian disciplines.

The history of horse tack – The Last Two Hundred Years

Over the last two hundred years or so, horse riding has evolved into two distinctive riding styles primarily to benefit the way a horse was being used. These can be simply defined as “English Riding” and “Western Riding”. There are significant differences between English Horse Tack and Western Horse Tack.

English Horse Back Riding

Although collectively known as English Riding, there are many different styles seen around the world, but all have one thing in common and that is a flatter “English” saddle, designed to allow the rider to have closer contact with the horse’s back. English disciplines allow the horse more freedom to move in an optimal manner for a given task, ranging from dressage and show jumping to horseracing. Other differences include most versions of English riding requiring riders to use both hands on the reins and the rider having direct contact with the horse’s mouth via the bit and the reins, used as part of an aid in controlling the horse.

English Saddles The history of horse tack

Western Horse Riding

Western horse riding can trace its roots back to cowboys and working ranches in the United States during the 19th Century. Horse riding equipment and styles evolved to meet the needs of ranch hands who spent many hours in the saddle and needed light control of the horse through hands and leg signals.  Western saddles are larger and heavier than English ones and feature a deep secure seat, high cantle, or saddle horn. The larger saddle means the weight of the rider was spread over a larger area of the horse’s back which makes it more comfortable, especially for long days chasing cows. A larger thicker western saddle pad was required to accommodate the fact that unlike English saddles, Western saddles do not have any padding underneath.

Often Western riders would need to free up one hand to rope cattle or use a lasso and so western riding uses the neck rein method to change direction (light pressure from one hand on the reins against the horse’s neck). Also because only light control of the horse is needed, Western Bridles often do not have a noseband or browband

Cowboy with Western Saddle and Western Horse Tack

Who invented the western saddle?

The first official invention of a western saddle was by a man called William D Davis, who was born in New York in 1853. Davis had an idea to make long rides easier and whilst serving as a buffalo soldier in the 10th Cavalry division sketched out his idea to use springs under the saddle seat and above the stirrups making longer rides much more comfortable. He filed a patent for this riding saddle in 1896.

William Davis Saddle Patent 1896

Horse tack for both English and Western versions has remained fairly consistent over the last 50 years. Most horse tack was and is still made of black or brown leather and the most popular English bridle is still a snaffle bridle which is used for many different disciplines. Advancements in technology have seen the invention of treeless saddles, bitless bridles, and ergonomic bridles, but any innovation is geared toward comfort for the horse.

The Future of Horse Tack

Horse fashions have changed over the last twenty years. Horsey clothes were not cool and badly stereotyped. Think of a “Horsey Person” and you imagine white breeches, boots, a black riding hat, and a tweed jacket.

History of Horse Tack

Whilst traditional athletic gear was being designed for everyday fashion even if the wearer wasn’t sporty, equestrian fashion was being left behind. The last twenty years, however, have seen a huge leap forward in Equestrian design and equine couture. The realization of “Riding” as a lifestyle choice and the invention of modern technical fabrics have seen an influx of equestrian-inspired fashion designs, which can be worn on or off the field. Of course, the same can be said for horse tack. Having gone to the trouble of coordinating your own look, it’s natural to assume you want your horse to look as good.

As we have mentioned earlier in this article, in the past, you had two choices when choosing your riding tack, plain black or brown leather saddles and bridles, with saddle pads available in white, black, brown, and if you were lucky green. There certainly wasn’t any fancy horse tack. Nowadays it’s possible to get a saddle pad in almost any colour and in some really wild designs, and it’s the same with horse bridles, horse rugs girths, and ear bonnets, all can be colour coordinated to match.

Sadly in recent years, we have noticed some manufacturers and retailers using cheaper materials and mass production, to sell horse tack as cheaply as possible, resulting in a tidal wave of low-quality, inferior equestrian equipment. It appears that in a rush to provide consumers with the latest fashionable item for the cheapest price, some brands have forgotten that horse tack should be suitable for the purpose intended and it should fit correctly. After all ill fitting poor quality tack could affect the horse’s comfort and even result in unnecessary injuries.

About Pink Equine

Since our inception in 2007, Pink Equine has been one of the market innovators in horse tack. Whilst our unique designs offer you the rider the means to coordinate the look of your horse, make a fashion statement and look amazing, we believe that first and foremost horse tack should function correctly, and incorporate the best materials and design, providing maximum comfort for the horse.

If you love horses and beautiful things, as we do, you will find our horse tack products elegant and of the best quality to match. We only use premium Italian leather in all our horse bridles and girths, which have been sourced by us. All items are finished by hand and protected by our Quality Guarantee.

Fashionable Horse Tack - Burgundy Horse Tack Collection

In addition to our own brand of horse tack, we also work closely with E. A. Mattes, who in our opinion offer the best technically designed saddle pads and girths available on the market today.

“Elegance is not standing out, but being remembered” – Giorgio Armani P

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precision – The determination to deliver consistent perfection

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Individual – Providing customers with the opportunity to unleash their inner creativity

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New Fashioned – Leading the way in bespoke Horse Tack Design

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Knowledgeable – Over a decade of experience, designing and bringing quality horse products to market

Register now for FREE membership to the Pink Equine club and enjoy 10% OFF all our regularly priced horse tack. Other benefits include a newsletter, access to free competitions, early notification of new products, and member-only special offers. (Once you have joined, log in to see the discounted prices). Click here to register now, you have nothing to lose.

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