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  • Writer's pictureTastes Of History


Updated: Feb 14

Origins It is stated [1] that some scholars [2] believe the first true stirrups were conceived in Central Asia during the first century BC by the Sarmatians [3]. It is suggested that 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 it much easier to shoot a bow from the saddle [1]. This last statement, while not untrue, does ignore a wealth of evidence for horse-archers predating the stirrup’s introduction. The Parthians, for example, were highly skilled light horse-archers who famously used a tactic known eponymously as the 'Parthian Shot' [4]. In real or feigned retreat, the horse-archers would turn their bodies to face backwards and, at full gallop, shoot at the pursuing enemy.

The tactic meant the Parthians could shoot at their enemy as they approached, wheeling right to ride parallel to the enemy front while continuing to shoot into their ranks before wheeling right once more to turn away. At this point the archer could use the 'Parthian Shot' to deliver further arrows on target. Against static formations this circling tactic could be used time and again to whittle away at the enemy and sap morale. Should the enemy attempt to counterattack, then the Parthians would simply turn tail shooting at the pursuing enemy.

Before stirrups The manoeuvre required superb equestrian skills since the rider's hands were occupied with his composite bow. As the stirrup had yet to be invented, the Parthian rider relied on his weight and pressure from his legs to guide his horse (as shown above right). That, of course, and the adoption of a superior saddle to replace the saddle cloth or pad, held on with a girth or surcingle together with breastplates and cruppers, in use since the Assyrians around 700 BC. The introduction of a solid saddle tree, which relieves the pressure on the horse’s back from the rider’s weight, also offered a more secure platform from which to wield weapons. One of the earliest solid-treed saddles in the West was first used by the Romans as early as the 1st-century BC, but the design was also without stirrups.

Who needs stirrups? Even though the Romans did not use stirrups until very late on, their use of the four-horned saddle provided a similarly secure platform for horse-archers and later the heavily armoured, long kontos (lance) wielding cataphractoi. Although 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 [5]. Ever since, modern saddles made to this ancient design have been proved highly effective. Riders are held firmly in the saddle by the four horns, with the front pair securing their thighs. From such saddles, practiced riders have proved they can shoot bows, wield swords, spears and lances, even leaning from the saddle to deliver effective strikes; all without the aid of stirrups [6]. If proof were needed, then consider that the four-horned, stirrup-less, saddle was in use for about 500 years. It was clearly doing its job.

Westward Ho! Eventually invaders from Central Asia, such as the Huns, brought the stirrup to Europe. From then on it seems stirrups were valued as much as an aid to mounting a horse as for stabilising 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 did afford a mounted warrior better stability and improved control in close combat (meleé). Put simply, stirrups allowed a rider to lean farther to the left and right in the saddle, while reducing the risk of falling off, but actually provided little real advantage in the shock charge [7].

Into the East From its central Asian origin, the stirrup migrated West into Europe and eastward to China at roughly the same time. Despite apparently inventing everything first, there is no verifiable archaeological evidence for the Chinese using stirrups until the early 4th-century AD, however. To quote David Graff [8]: 'The very earliest Chinese representation of a stirrup comes from a tomb figurine from South China dating to AD 302 [9], but this is a single stirrup that must have been used only for mounting the horse. The earliest figurine with two stirrups probably dates from about AD 322 [10], and the first actual specimens of stirrups that can be dated precisely and with confidence are from a southern Manchurian burial of AD 415 [11]. However, stirrups have also been found in several other tombs in North China and Manchuria that are most likely of fourth century date. Most of these early Northeast Asian stirrups were oval in shape and made from iron, sometimes solid and sometimes applied over a wooden core, and this form would remain in use for many centuries thereafter.' The stirrup appeared to be in widespread use across China by AD 477.



1. Old World Contacts, Armies First - Second Period: 330 BCE - 1000 CE, 'Stirrups', (accessed June 24th, 2020).

2. Precisely who these scholars are is not stated and currently unverifiable.

3. A large Iranian nomadic confederation that flourished from about the 5th-century BC to the 4th-century AD.

4. Despite the similar phonetic sounds, the phrases 'Parthian shot' and 'parting shot' were derived separately at different times. According to The Phrase Finder, 'parting shot' was first used by John McLeod, surgeon on HMS Alceste, who includes the phrase in his 'A Narrative of a Voyage to the Yellow Sea' dated 1818: 'The consort, firing a parting shot, bore up round the north end of the island, and escaped.' The term 'Parthian shot', however, was recorded for the first time in 1832 by one Captain Mundy, ADC to Lord Combermere, on a hunting trip in India: '...I made a successful Parthian shot with my favourite Joe Manton [shotgun].' It would appear that the use of 'parting shot' preceded the use of 'Parthian shot' by some 14 years and thus the two phrases are not synonymous.

5. Connolly, P. (1986), 'A Reconstruction of a Roman Saddle', Britannia 17.

6. Mediæval historians, and especially those who recreate Mediæval horsemanship, frequently draw attention to stirrups allowing 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.

7. Ibid.

8. Graff, D.A. (2002), Medieval Chinese Warfare, 300-900, Warfare and History, London: Routledge.

9. A funerary figurine depicting a single stirrup was unearthed from a Western Jin dynasty tomb near Changsha. 

10. A full-length, double-sided riding stirrup was unearthed from a Jin tomb, this time near Nanjing, dating to the Eastern Jin period. 

11. The earliest extant double stirrups were discovered in the tomb of a Northern Yan noble, Feng Sufu, who died in AD 415. 


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