The History of Horse Tack: From Ancient Civilizations to Modern-Day
The Story of Tack Told With Tact
Tack, tach, and tact are technically not homonyms, but when said quickly in English, they sound like they are. “Tact” is a diplomatic way of speaking. “Tach” is the root for “fast,” as in tachometer, and “Tack” is a change in direction on a boat or can be a small nail, but it also refers to anything used to ride or handle a horse.
The first mention of the horse occurs in Paleolithic cave paintings as early as 30,000 BCE. In ancient history, man hunted horses for meat. Scholars accept that the horse was first domesticated over 6,000 years ago in what is now Ukraine. However, Mesopotamia’s earliest documented control of a horse for riding comes from about 2,000 BCE.
As humanity developed and gained knowledge, so did the development and improvement of horse tack. There is disagreement about exactly when tack came to be. The earliest form was a simple woven mat. When the rider kept sliding off, the cinch was developed. This addition was a simple tie around the belly of the horse to keep the mat in place. It was a prototype of the saddle.
Plaques and writings from Mesopotamia reveal a rudimentary rein attached to a nose ring inflicted on the animal. As humans and horses got to know each other better over the centuries, horse handlers learned that equines are intelligent and easily trained. Adaptations in horse tack moved away from man forcibly controlling the animal through pain to the more humane methods of cooperation between man and animal enjoyed today.
Bred and Trained for War
There have been many ancient texts and writings about horse handling discovered. The earliest details are in letters from the kings of Mari in modern Syria from 2,000 BCE. There, riders sat on the side, not straddling the animal, and sat closer to the horse’s rear.
The Indo-Europeans of the Eurasian Steppes brought the horse to the near east, where Asians advanced horsemanship as a wartime adjunctive. From 1350 BCE, Anatolias Kikkuli’s texts instructed the training and feeding of chariot horses. These texts also included the first references to veterinary medicine for equines.
The horse was introduced to China at about the same time. The Chinese had been harnessing oxen using a throat and girth harness; however, attempts to adapt this system to the horse failed. Unfortunately, the compression of the trachea from the anchoring strap compromised the horse’s breathing when galloping while carrying a chariot. Despite this, it became the system of choice in most areas outside China.
Discoveries from the Han Dynasty (206BCE–220CE) reveal larger, heavier chariots capable of holding six adults led by a single horse. This development was due to the breast strap harnessing system. The rest of the world was still forced to use up to four horses to pull a two-person chariot, which gave the Chinese an advantage in war. Historians say it to be an adaptation of the human harness the Chinese used to pull watercraft along canals.
The earliest saddles were designed as prestige displays for wealthy riders. They were ornate but not created with the horse’s comfort in mind. A nomadic tribe around the Black Sea 4,000 years ago called the Samations developed the first wooden saddle tree. The tree had wooden bars across the front and back that helped the rider stay on. Today, the “saddle tree” is the front of the saddle upon which the rest is built and attached.
The ancient Greeks and Romans used nothing but rode bareback for a long time. Even though stirrups had been invented in India and China, Greeks and Romans utilized saddles constructed with four corners that reasonably contained the rider. This saddle is reflected in a minted coin from the reign of Quintus Labienus from the first century BCE.
Stirrups were also invented in China in the first centuries BCE. The earliest were simple “L” shaped wooden pieces suspended from the horse’s side. Their use significantly increased the wartime functionality of the animal. Consequently, their use spread quickly across Eurasia.
Bits are the oral component of modern tack. They were a significant development that allowed one-handed control of the steed with reins attached to the bit, leaving the other hand free for a weapon. The earliest curb bit found was from about 1,000 BCE in Rome; however, historians believe travelers brought it to Rome from Asia.
Bridles are headgear used to control a horse. The earliest were made of sinew, leather, or rope without bits. The earliest bits were made from bone, wood, or animal horns, but metal bits also have been dated to the same time as saddles.
A War Machine into the Medieval Ages
Once the domesticated horse became popular in Eurasia, it changed all the rules of warfare. As conflicting groups each updated tach in battle, improvements were sought to unbalance the odds. In Europe, one such development was the horse collar.
Developed in the 12th century CE in Europe, this thick collar was low on the neck and was attached to a heavier rear load, a cart, for example. The pressure exerted was against the chest, not the throat.
Spurs were another significant piece of tack created in Europe in the medieval ages. More than a more efficient way to spur on the horse, they held social implications. Medieval Knights and Squires wore spurs, and they identified them. Knight’s spurs were gilded, while the squires were silver. To gain Knighthood was called “getting your spurs. A disgraced Knight had his spurs removed from his boot by a kitchen cleaver publically.
As armor for warriors developed during the medieval ages, so did horse armor, a form of tack. Asia had been the leader in tack advances since Indo-Europeans introduced the horse. China quickly noted that the rider was lost, despite wearing armor if enemies killed the horse. Consequently, breastplates and other protective coverings for the mount were developed.
Mirroring the progression of the rider’s armor, the horse breastplate went from a simple cloth to chain mail and, ultimately, metal plate. An example is illustrations of ornate breastplates used in jousting. Although created in Asia, the practice spread to Europe quickly.
Adaptations in saddles also progressed during this time, specifically in Japan.
The Kura (鞍) is a Japanese saddle associated with the samurai. The |Japanese used the Chinese saddle until the beginning of the Common Era. Then, unique modifications identified the saddle style as a “Kura.” Samurai had two distinct saddles. One was the “aristocratic” saddle and the other a “war” saddle.
The Industrial Revolution is associated with advances in science and knowledge following the Renaissance. With the knowledge gained concerning control and comfort for rider and animal, mass produced tack became available to a wide range of horse handlers. The development of new materials positively influenced tack.
Nylon, nylon web, processed leather, and a commercially made rope is now commonly used for halters and leads. While saddles are still basically made from the same materials as in the past, their production and contours have been improved for the comfort of the horse and rider. In addition, saddles have become available to most equine enthusiasts.
Tip of the Iceberg
Many have never considered how horse tack development influenced warfare and the changing geopolitical shape of the world over time. Advances in tack reflect the intellectual and cultural progress of the globe. There is much more to learn about world history, as seen through the advances of horsemanship.
Online resources, including the following, can provide additional insights that may surprise and certainly interest you:
- The Equine Research Centre (https://equineresearchcentre.com/)
- The International Museum of the Horse (https://imh.kyhorsepark.com/)
- The British Horse Society (https://www.bhs.org.uk/)
- The American Museum of Natural History (https://www.amnh.org/)
- The Equine Heritage Institute (https://www.equineheritageinstitute.org/)
Anyone interested in world history, in addition to equestrians, will find fascinating information about tack, the history of warfare, and world history in general through further research into the history of tack. So, saddle up and get reading.
In Post Image 1 Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication