Giddyap! How the Stirrup Revolutionized Horseback Riding and Helped Build Empires
Seemingly simple, yet oh so significant - the stirrup is an invention that changed the history of the world. The emergence of the stirrup revolutionized the way horses were ridden and consequently re-shaped transportation. In fact, this invention played an important role in some key historical events and empire building.
This simple device consists of a pair of frames or rings attached to the saddle of a horse (or other equine animals) via straps, and served to hold a rider’s feet in place. Although the horse was domesticated more than 5 millennia ago, the stirrup was only invented at a much later point. The emergence of the stirrup revolutionised the way horses were ridden, changed the way wars were fought, and even gave rise to a new empire.
‘Wild horse catchers’ by James Walker. ( Public Domain )
Pre-Stirrup Horse Transport
The horse is widely believed to have been first domesticated on the steppes of Central Asia between the 5th and 4th millennia BC. It has been suggested that the first domesticated horses originally served as food rather than as transport. Soon, however, horses began to be used as a means of transportation. The bridle was then invented, so that the horse could be ‘steered’, as well as the saddle, which enabled the rider to mount the horse more comfortably.
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Mughal style painting of a white horse with a saddle and bridle . ( Public Domain ) The stirrup was created later than these inventions.
Prior to the invention of the stirrup, horseback riding, especially for combat, was a much more difficult task. Alexander the Great’s companion cavalry, for example, rode into battle wielding heavy spears in their hands and kept themselves balanced on their horses by gripping them with their thighs. The ancient Egyptians, on the other hand, found a way round this problem by using chariots. Nevertheless, these war machines were much less agile than riding a horse.
Hyksos chariot painting. Egyptians found a way around the difficulty of staying on a horse by using chariots. ( Public Domain )
Early Representations of Stirrups
The stirrup, on the other hand, was only created around the 3rd century AD. Sculptures from India dating to the 3rd century AD, for example, depict bare-footed horse riders using small stirrups that fit round their big toes.
Example of a clay horse statuette, complete with saddle and stirrups. This example is from the Kofun period (6th century) in the history of the Japanese empire. ( Public Domain )
Another example of an early stirrup comes from an engraving in carnelian from Kushan. In this engraving, a rider is shown using hook-style/platform stirrups, which are L-shaped pieces of wood or horn that served as a kind of foot-rest. Actual stirrups from this early part of this device’s history have not yet been found as they were probably made of material that would not normally survive in the archaeological record.
Kushan divinity Adsho (carnelian seal). British Museum. ( Public Domain ) This is one of the oldest known depictions of stirrups.
The modern form of the stirrup, i.e. those that enclose the feet, only began to emerge during the 4th century AD, and the Chinese are often credited with its invention. A ceramic horse figurine from a Jin Dynasty tomb near Nanjing, for example, depicts the enclosed stirrups that are still being used today. Evidence for the use of such stirrups during this period has also been found in other Chinese tombs, as well as in tomb murals and figurines from the Korean peninsula.
Jin (265-420 AD) iron stirrups. (Gary Lee Todd/ CC BY SA 4.0 )
How Stirrups Played a Role in Historic Events
Interestingly, stirrups were not used in Europe until the 8th century. It was the stirrup that made possible the development of the Medieval European heavy cavalry, one of the distinct features of that historical period. Without the stirrup, the Middle Ages in Europe would have been very different, especially in the field of warfare which could have led to very different shaping of the various empires.
The Mongol Empire Built on Stirrups?
Another instance of the profound effects the stirrup had on the world can be found back at the Central Asian steppes. During the early 13 th century, Genghis Khan succeeded in unifying the various tribes of Mongolia, thus becoming the sole ruler of the Mongol plains. This allowed Genghis Khan and his successors to go on conquering neighboring lands, thus expanding the Mongol Empire.