A glance at the history of stirrups

Credit : Scoopdyga

Friday 22 February - 10h00 | Sophie Lebeuf, translated by Ian Clayton

A glance at the history of stirrups

Aluminum, carbon fibre or steel, with a thick or thin base, metal or rubber, in bright or subtle colours… Choosing a stirrup these days involves multiple decisions, and offers numerous options and combinations. Clearly the days of a basic metal stirrup weighing more than a kilogram seem very far away! Indeed, even just 30 years ago, nobody could have imagined that this piece of riding equipment would have evolved to such an extent. How times have changed…

 - A glance at the history of stirrups

19th century silver-plated brass stirrups from Ottoman Turkey
Credit : DR

Every rider can recall their first years of horseback riding and the hours of practice without stirrups. And the famous sitting trot and and rising trot have allowed many to develop a strong riding position, enhanced lower-leg stability and ease in the saddle. And yet, which developing rider has not been relieved to hear their instructor tell them they could finally put their feet back in the stirrups?

The stirrup took time to appear on the scene. The saddle itself was a relative latecomer in the history of riding – Alexander the Great, for example, conquered his empire astride some simple pieces of cloth. Saddles with saddle trees, which made stirrups possible, are said to have first appeared in Central Asia around the time of Jesus’ birth. And after having initially taken the form of a buckle, notably in India, “the first stirrups for both feet – reinforcing the rider’s balance – seem to have arisen around the year 100 in the Kushan Empire (encompassing parts of Afghanistan, modern-day Pakistan and northern India) before spreading to northern China in the 3rd century and the western steppes of Iran in the 6th century.”

Hundreds of years later – around 700 years after Jesus Christ – stirrups reached Western Europe, spreading throughout the society around the 9th century. Several routes are possible when explaining their arrival in the region, and expert opinion is divided on the subject. Some say they were brought by the Huns; others affirm that they were introduced by Persians to Arabs, then Arabs to Byzantines; still others believe that Arabs imported them into Europe via southern Spain and the south of France. Whatever the case, “the earliest representations of stirrups appear on a chess set piece offered to Charlemagne by the caliph Haroun al-Rachid (who died in 809), then in Spanish documents in the first part of the 9th century.” (Historical facts are from Une Histoire du cheval: Art, technique, société by Jean-Pierre Digard, published by Actes Sud in 2007. All quotations are from Une Histoire du cheval: Art, technique, société by Jean-Pierre Digard, published by Actes Sud in 2007.) 
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An instrument of war and expression of style

An instrument of war and expression of style - A glance at the history of stirrups

Credit : Daniel Villafruela

In the ensuing centuries, some suggest that the integration of this tool in harnessing permitted new breakthroughs in horseback riding – more particularly, in cavalry riding, given that the main goal was to remain stable in the saddle during military charges. Indeed, now riders could charge at full speed, “their spear held under the right arm against the body – and no longer at arm’s length as in the past – with the leg stretched in front, wedged between the stirrup and the back of the saddle.” Thus, as Jean-Pierre Digard points out in his classic work Une Histoire du cheval: Art, technique, société, stirrups could be said to have contributed to the rise of knights, as the new combat techniques had created a new class of elite riders.

American medieval historian Lynn White Jr. (1907-1987) more or less backed this theory in his description of the revolutionary impact of stirrups on mounted warriors. In fact, the researcher drew upon his own equestrian experience to make the argument in a 1978 text: “From 1918–1924, I was (badly) educated by a military academy in California whose technical level had remained at that of the Spanish-American War. I learned to ride bareback there, which caused me to detest horses for a long time. And my enthusiasm for stirrups was confirmed later in my rider training. I am probably the only American medievalist alive today to have participated in a cavalry charge at full speed with sword drawn. We screamed.... less to scare a hypothetical enemy than to reassure ourselves that we wouldn’t fall off. Our stirrups helped a lot. Indeed, I invite those who doubt the importance of stirrups to mounted combat to ride without at full gallop in cavalry manœuvres.”

In fact historically, having had a taste of the comfort of stirrups, riders would never again doubt their numerous advantages: easier mounting, a more stable leg and better overall balance, etc. Over time, their various uses led to the emergence of different riding styles. For example, Iberian riders split into two competing schools between the 11th and 15th centuries: riding “‘a la jineta,’ with the rider suspended above the saddle, legs bent in short stirrups, heels in contact with the horse’s flanks” was paralleled by “‘a la brida,’ the rider sat deeply in an ’à piquer’ saddle with their pelvis wedged between a shallow but enveloping pommel and cantle, and legs descended in long stirrups.” Hundreds of years later, during the 19th century, stirrups enabled the Italian rider Federico Caprilli to revolutionise show jumping by inventing the balanced position, upright on one’s feet above the jump. Thus, after opening up new capabilities in mounted warfare and parade riding, stirrups had become a catalyst in the evolution of sports… Which they remain more than ever today. Continued below.

Ever more innovative

Ever more innovative - A glance at the history of stirrups

Today, silver and other metals have given way to a myriad of lighter materials in the construction of stirrups, including PVC, aluminum, stainless steel and carbon fibre. Indeed, over the past 15 years stirrups have been at the heart of equipment maker’s research, with the goal of constantly improving not only rider comfort but also safety and performance. They have become multiform, and their bases personalised, sloped or anti-slip, wider or narrower depending on the rider. Everything seems to be important in the design of a stirrup: the type of base, the length of the side pieces, the overall weight, the shape of the curve, the angle of the foot, etc. Brands have multiplied, with each putting forward its particular savoir-faire or unique innovation. And the best riders in the world have become ambassadors for these cutting-edge objects helping them optimise their performances. Watching riders today slip into their multicoloured, streamlined stirrups, it is amusing to think back to the object’s very first prototypes – and even more so to imagine that at a certain time, their predecessors did not even use them…

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