Horrible History: Horse play
Introduction What follows was inspired by a @HistoryFilmClub tweet shown right. Like many who responded, naming just one historical inaccuracy in a film or TV show proved far too difficult. Sadly, and contrary to the claims of directors, producers, costume designers et al., far too many historically themed media productions are beset with inaccuracies. Not wishing to be unreasonably critical, we thought there was an opportunity to highlight some of the more common errors and then counter them with whatever historical evidence exists. In this way we hope to learn something, but there are some caveats to be born in mind:
• We know films and TV dramas are fictional, whether they claim to be ‘based on true events’ or not. Yet that does not always excuse the liberties taken with characters, timelines, locations, costume, technology, props, action sequences (especially fight scenes), and a whole lot more.
• That said, ‘errors’ are clearly excusable if a production is rooted in the fantasy genre, is not claiming 100% historical accuracy, or is not a factual documentary.
• However, where inaccuracies appear, especially in historical documentaries, we think it only fair to point them out because they mislead the audience.
• And finally. we are well aware from our experience advising filmmakers and from being on set that liberties are sometimes taken due to production constraints.
So, with that in mind, what can we ‘learn from mistakes’ with historical depictions of horses and riding? One of the most obvious errors frequently depicted on film is the use of stirrups at a time when they simply were not used. Put simply, it appears that people had ridden horses for around 1,500 years before they devised a method for achieving greater stability in the saddle. Indeed, the Romans did not adopt stirrups until very late on since their use of the four-horned saddle provided a suitably secure platform for horse-archers and the heavily armoured, long kontos (lance) wielding cataphractoi. Yet, although this type of saddle was depicted in Roman-era images, it was not until the mid-1980s that the late Peter Connolly solved the mystery as to how this saddle was constructed and realised the first working reproduction (Connolly, 1986). Ever since, reconstructed saddles made to this ancient design have proved highly effective. Riders are held firmly in the saddle by the four horns, with the front pair securing the thighs. Practiced riders have proven they can shoot bows, wield swords, spears and lances, even leaning from the saddle to deliver effective strikes; all without the aid of stirrups . If proof were needed, then just consider that the four-horned, stirrup-less, saddle was in use for at least 500 years. It was clearly doing its job.
Even so, an early form of stirrup has been traced to India in the second century BC. It consisted of a simple loop through which the rider placed his big toe. This was, however, of limited value in stabilising a rider, and of no real value whatsoever as an aid to mounting a horse. It is conjectured that the first recognisable stirrups were devised in Central Asia during the first century BC by a nomadic group known as the Sarmatians. This innovation soon spread to other Central Asian peoples, who would have quickly noted that bracing one's feet in a set of stirrups made shooting a bow from the saddle that little bit easier.
Invaders from Central Asia, such as the Huns, most likely brought the stirrup to Europe, where it seems to have been valued as much for aiding in mounting as it was for steadying a rider in the saddle. In fact, the words for stirrup in Old High German, Old Saxon, and Old English are all derived from words for climbing rope (stīgan ‘to ascend’ and rap ‘rope, cord’) perhaps giving the actual truth behind its almost universal adoption. When used with the contoured saddle, stirrups afforded a mounted warrior considerable stability and improved control in close combat (meleé). Put simply, stirrups allowed the rider to lean farther to the left and right in the saddle allowing them to deal powerful blows with a sword, axe, mace, or lance. When using the lance in a couched position, the mounted warrior could also deliver a more forceful blow whose energy was derived and enhanced by that of the charging horse. Scenes from the Bayeaux Tapestry, dated to c. 1080, show mounted Normans and Anglo-Saxon infantry hurling spears and lances at each other, but it also depicts mounted Normans charging home with their weapons couched (see below).
The cavalry charge evolved to be a significant tactic in the Middle Ages. Although cavalry charges were possible in antiquity, a combination of a frame saddle secured in place by a breast-band, stirrups and the technique of couching the lance under the arm delivered a hitherto unachievable ability to employ the momentum of horse and rider. These developments began in the 7th century but were not combined to full effect until the 11th century (Nicolle, 2011, 24–8).
Despite the historical evidence for when they were introduced, all too frequently in films and documentaries ancient horsemen (Persians, Greeks, Romans, etc.) are seen riding with stirrups. An anachronism this maybe, but the production’s props department’s faux pas is quite understandable for a few reasons:
• Throughout history cavalry have always been expensive to field. To recreate a Roman ‘spectacular’, for example, or even the basic Roman cavalry unit - a turma of 30 horsemen - remains similarly expensive and logistically challenging today . There are simply too few Roman four-horned saddles for hire and too few riders practiced at using them.
• The dearth of skilled riders probably alarms media producers worried about liability insurances and health and safety concerns. It is therefore far easier, and cheaper, to allow the actors, extras and other riders to use modern saddles with stirrups which, it is hoped, can be concealed.
• Disguising modern saddles is typically achieved with saddle blankets, but the resulting silhouette in no way recreates a Roman era or any other early treed saddle. As for stirrups, their use is instantly recognisable (see below).
Side-saddle versus riding astride
Despite popular thinking for most of history women rode astride horses just like men. Yet all too often in early period dramas women are depicted riding with a modern side-saddle. That said, sitting aside can be dated to antiquity where we find the earliest depictions on ancient Greek vases of women riding with both legs on the same side of the horse. Centuries later, in Mediæval Europe, this style of riding was developed as a way for noble women in their fine dresses  to ride a horse while preserving their modesty. Some Mediæval depictions show women seated aside while the horse is led by a man, or seated on a small, padded seat (a pillion) behind a male rider. Ninth century depictions show a small footrest, or planchette added to the pillion. Importantly, these designs did not allow the woman to effectively control the horse; she could only be a passenger. So, while considered unbecoming in Europe for a genteel woman to straddle a horse while riding, side-saddle was developed in part to manifest the social and cultural norms of the time but also, perhaps, to reflect the power differential between the sexes.
In the 14th century Anne of Bohemia (1366 - 1394), first wife of King Richard II, is credited with making riding side-saddle popular among her ladies at the English court. The earliest functional ‘side saddle’, however, remained a chair-like affair where the woman sat sideways on the horse with her feet on a small footrest. As mentioned, the design made it difficult for the woman to both stay on the horse and use the reins to control it. Consequently, it continued to be the custom for the animal to be led by another rider sitting astride their mount.
A more practical version of the side-saddle was developed in the 16th century. Attributed to Catherine de' Medici, although this in itself could be a myth, the new design allowed the rider to sit facing forward by hooking her right leg at the knee around a small horn added to the near side of the saddle. The footrest was replaced with a ‘slipper stirrup’, a leather-covered stirrup iron into which the rider's left foot was placed. The design meant the rider, now facing forwards, was able to hold the reins and control her horse, albeit only at sedate paces initially.
Two pommel design It was not until the 1830s that Jules Pellier invented a side-saddle fitted with a second pommel. In this design, still in use today and the version most likely to be seen on film, the upper pommel is mounted a few degrees left of the saddle’s centreline and curves upward and to the right. The rider’s right leg wraps around the upper pommel at the knee, which supports the right thigh as it lies across the top of the saddle. The lower right leg rests along the left shoulder of the horse against a second, lower mounted pommel (called the ‘leaping head’ or ‘leaping horn’). This pommel is curved gently downward over the top of the rider's left thigh. It is attached so that it can pivot slightly and adjust to the individual rider. The rider’s left foot rests in a single stirrup as shown below.
The second pommel revolutionised riding side-saddle providing increased security and additional freedom of movement. It allowed riders to retain a firm seat at the gallop and even to jump fences. Indeed, at a horse show in Sydney, Australia in 1915, Ester Stace set a world record in side-saddle show jumping of 1.98 m (6 ft 6 in). She’s pictured above right completing a substantial jump while clearly riding side-saddle. Pellier’s 19th century design opened up nearly all recreational equestrian pursuits to women while also ensuring they could conform with society’s expectations of modesty and decorum.
All this talk of horses leads us to an observation about riding the trail or at least getting from A to B. In many period dramas the image shown right is intended to portray an ancient trackway or an old road. Inconveniently, however, what are visible are wheel ruts and, most significantly, a central grassy ridge resulting from the track’s use by modern wheeled vehicles. The bare earth is not the problem since this is what one might expect were the track to be repetitively used by pedestrians; the surface would be worn away somewhat uniformly. The problem is the grassy ridge. This can only be formed by something with a wheelbase that wears away the surface either side but leaves the centre line untouched. Were a cart drawn by a single horse to regularly use the track, then even the grassy area would be worn away by the action of the horse’s hooves. So, while these country trails look old they are in fact a product of modern vehicles.
Obliquely linked to the subject, is the depiction of the horse and cart. More specifically the ‘error’ centres on cartwheels made from solid planks cut to a circular shape that sometimes look like they have been bolted together. An example of a handcart with such wheels is shown right. This style of vehicle is often encountered in media productions set in Mediæval Europe, particularly in gaming. It seems the rough and ready solid wheels reflect the producer’s bias that the Middle Ages were somehow brutish, dirty and unenlightened. Yet the lightweight spoked wheel has been in use for over 4,000 years from when they first appeared on chariots in Asia Minor in ca. 2,000 BC.
A stunning example is the Egyptian version shown right. Described as a war chariot, this lightweight, gilded version was formerly part of the grave goods recovered from the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun (born ca. 1340 BC, died ca. 1323 BC). The two wheels are typical of ancient Egyptian chariots with six spokes, attached to a central hub, supporting a wooden rim. None of which is to argue that solid wheels were not used, just that cartwheels have a long antecedent and were far more sophisticated than sometimes believed.
While we are discussing war chariots, let us address another trope - scythed wheels. Two exemplars are shown below, namely the widely inaccurate Victorian statue of Boudica and daughters in their war chariot adorning Westminster Bridge in London, and a scene from the iconic chariot race in the epic movie ‘Ben Hur’ (1959). The latter includes a close-up of one bladed hub fitted to the axle of the villainous Messala’s chariot wheels.
Unfortunately, there is no archaeological evidence that chariots in the Roman Iron Age had scythes or blades fitted to the wheels. That is not to say that war chariots never used scythes or blades as can be discovered here, but the Greek historian Arrian  explicitly distinguishes between Persian chariots that did and those of the Britons that did not. According to him the Britons ‘used two-horse chariots, with small, bad horses. Their light two-wheeled chariots are well adapted to running across all sorts of terrain and the wretched horses to enduring hardships. Of the Asians, the Persians long ago practiced the use of scythe-bearing chariots and armoured horses, beginning in the time of Cyrus’  (Arrian, Ars Tactica, XIX). Arrian’s account is corroborated by the lack of archaeological evidence of scythed chariots in Britain. Our earliest eyewitness, Gaius Julius Caesar, also did not record scythed wheels when he confronted British charioteers during his brief visits in 55 BC and 54 BC. He does state, however, that the Britons’ chariots were retired from the battlefield, perhaps an indicator that their usefulness was effectively countered by Romans already experienced at dealing with chariots. Indeed, by the 4th century AD, Vegetius could dismiss the scythed chariot as a ‘laughing-stock’ being rendered ineffective if a single horse were killed or wounded (Epitome of Military Science, III.24) which, as Appian recounts, is exactly what the Romans sought to do: ‘for when a horse becomes unmanageable in a chariot all the chariot becomes useless’ (The Syrian Wars, XI.6.33). Vegetius also records (above right) the Roman tactic of scattering spiked caltrops (Latin: sing. tribulus, pl. tribuli) across the battlefield to maim or disable advancing animals (and men) and successfully negate the threat posed by war chariots.
Undoubtedly the grievous injuries caused by scythed chariots would have had a profound psychological effect on those who witnessed or survived an attack. Yet, against disciplined troops chariots were far less daunting. Requiring flat, open, and dry ground (Curtius, VIII.14.4) to manoeuvre and gain momentum, troops could quickly advance and overwhelm the chariots before they could charge in at full speed. Horses could be thrown into confusion by the noise of battle or, according to Frontinus, driven back by the shouts and javelins of the Romans (Frontinus, Strategems, II.3.17). In the same paragraph Frontinus also relates how Roman general Lucius Sulla commanded the postsignani  to drive a large number of stakes, set close together, firmly into the ground. As the enemy’s chariots drew near, Sulla ordered the line of antesignani  to withdraw within these stakes. By these tactics either the chariots were caught among the stakes or were driven back upon their own men throwing the enemy formation into confusion. Likewise, where troops maintained their discipline and close-order formation, horses and drivers often shied away. Alternatively, with practice chariots could be allowed to pass through gaps deliberately opened in the battle lines and then surrounded and attacked in the rear. Essentially, by the time the Romans became the dominate power around Mediterranean Sea, the knowledge to counter chariots, whether with scythed wheels or not, was well established.
And finally…This has either been a rant on some pet peeves with media representations of historical themes or food for thought. Regardless, thank you for reading this far. Until next time, bon appétit.
Appianus Alexandrinus, The Foreign Wars Book 11: The Syrian Wars, Available online: https://www.livius.org/sources/content/appian/appian-the-syrian-wars/appian-the-syrian-wars-7/ (accessed February 20th, 2023).
British Dressage (2021), ‘The History of Dressage’, Available online (accessed January 14th, 2023).
Connolly, P., (1986), ‘A Reconstruction of a Roman Saddle’, Britannia 17.
Lucius Flavius Arrianus, Ars Tactica Liber XIX (‘Art of Tactics Book 19’).
Nicolle, D., (2011), ‘European Medieval tactics (I)’. Oxford: Osprey Publishing.
Publius (or Flavius) Vegetius Renatus, Epitoma Rei Militaris Liber III (‘Concerning Military Matters Book 3’), LacusCurtius, Available online: http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/vegetius3.html (accessed February 20th, 2023).
Sextus Julius Frontinus, Strategemata (‘Strategems’), LacusCurtius, Available online: https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Frontinus/Strategemata/2*.html (accessed February 20th, 2023).
1. Mediæval historians, and especially those who recreate Mediæval horsemanship, frequently state that the introduction of stirrups allowed a more powerful spear or lance strike to be delivered. Their assertion, however, has not been proved through rigorous, repeatable experimentation and therefore remains debatable.
2. The ‘Turma!’ event in Carlisle in July 2018 was both a public spectacle and a piece of historical research. The aim was to expand the understanding of Roman cavalry equipment and the Hippika Gymnasia, the ritual tournaments performed by the cavalry of the Roman Empire to display their expertise and practice their skills. The event was the first to recreate a fully equipped Roman turma of 30 cavalrymen and horses.
3. Long skirts were the usual fashion and riding astride in such attire was often impractical, awkward, and could be viewed as immodest. Yet women did ride horses and needed to be able to control them. Thus there was a need to develop a saddle designed to allow control of the horse and preserve the rider’s modesty.
4. Arrian of Nicomedia (Greek: Ἀρριανός Arrianos; Latin: Lucius Flavius Arrianus; c. AD 86/89 to c. after AD 146/160) was a Greek historian, public servant, military commander and philosopher in the Roman period.
5. Cyrus II of Persia (c. 600–530 BC), commonly known as Cyrus the Great, founded the Achaemenid Empire, the first Persian empire.
6. Postsignani: troops posted behind the standards. Antesignani: troops posted in front of the standards and serving for their defence.