The point at which horse cloths gave way to shaped saddles is unknown. The scanty evidence suggest that earliest fully shaped saddle was in use in Europe from the second century before the Common Era. Evidence becomes much more prevalent in the first century CE in the Roman Empire, showing four horned saddles, which, despite their lack of stirrups, are highly effective in military use.
The evidence for these saddles is primarily pictorial, but those are supplemented by archaeological finds of leather pieces from saddle coverings, and bronze plates used to face the horns.1 The suggestion that a piece of wood which was recovered in the Millennium Excavations at Carlisle could be an arch from a riding saddle does not bear up under a maker's scrutiny, however.2 Very recently, excavations of a stable in Pompeii produced some conclusive evidence on the matter, as the skeleton of a horse was found accompanied by a saddle. Preliminary investigation involved sectioning one of the horns which revealed wood inside.
The limited quantity and quality of evidence means that any reconstruction of such a saddle demands a lot of conjecture. As a point of fundamental philosophy, it should never be assumed that there was only one way of doing anything, even in a single culture over a limited period, let alone over the vast geographical spread of the earlier Roman Empire, and the hundreds of years until horned saddles were supplanted by stirrup-bearing saddles.
The most copious survivals from Roman saddles are a multitude of copper alloy plates that faced the horns. The function and manner of use of these plates remains obscure, and various theories are energetically debated. Apparently most are plain, but secondary sources mention decoration.
More than any other form of saddle, the horned varieties must be proportioned to the rider as well as the horse. A skilled rider will, of course, be able to ride effectively in a loose saddle simply by virtue of per seat, but to get the most benefit from the horns, a close fit is better.
The katafraktoi (Greek) or clibanarii (Latin) of ancient Iran (Parthians and Persians - what did they call those troops?) were much more heavily armoured that Roman cavalry of the early imperial era. Riding armoured horses, they took the fight much more directly to the enemy. Hence, their saddles were designed to be even more enclosing and stable than Roman ones, with the front horns being shown in the artworks as arching over to enclose the thighs. Riding on this saddle demands a subtly different leg dynamic than any Roman saddle I have used, and one that is both even more stable and less strenuous. See the Ribchester Roman Festival 2017 page for more on this saddle in use.
Stirrup-bearing saddles were carried into Europe in the later fifth and early sixth century by the migrating tribes who overran the Western provinces of the Roman Empire. Their original form having low arches was never superseded, although as cavalry developed as a primary military mode, low saddles were relegated to civilian riding in the West, although continued in military use in the East until influenced from the West during the era of the Crusades.
Copyright: Timothy George Dawson 2021