Roman Cavalry

A Short Canter Through Early Historical Riding Styles Part 3

The saddle, Romans, frames, pads and reconstruction
The idea of a saddle with horns can be seen on iconography from the Middle East to France. Perhaps just where the four horned saddle developed is not important, but its construction is still a matter of contention. Peter Connolly used the surviving evidence in the form of leather covers, their stitching, stretch and wear marks, as well as metal horn plates, to produce a working Romano-Celtic saddle. He produced a design based upon a solid wooden four-horned frame. The size of the horns are in part dictated by the surviving copper alloy horn plates, possibly acting as stiffeners. Surviving pieces of harness fitting also give clues to the nature of harness and how the saddle was attached to the horse.

The pioneering work of Peter Connolly has in my opinion still not been fully recognised by all. Connolly made around 25 saddles and others have made many more over the past few years.

Various other attempts have been made to reproduce four-horned saddles using alternatives to the solid wooden frame, in part perhaps to justify simpler and cheaper reconstructions. Flexible padded saddles as used by Junkelmann for 1st - 2nd century cavalry simulations, without a wooden frame can produce similar wear and stretch marks as found on surviving saddle covers. The metal horn stiffener can be attached to the padded horns internally or externally, or not used at all. The fact that individual names have been found scratched or punched on to the stiffeners has been used as evidence that they were used externally.

Finds presented at the Carlisle Millennium Project conference in 2004 were found during excavations on the Castle Green between 1998 and 2001. Two saddle covers were illustrated which both showed stretch marks where they had been pressed down over a wooden frame. The covers were very worn and had both been patched many times. Overall the stitch pattern used on each cover was the same as has been found on other sites, but these covers retained trapezoidal flaps of leather, about half as deep as they were long, with the widest edges lowest when on the horse. They demonstrate that rather than just being sewn up under the saddle as originally believed, leather covers could be secured over the horns and wooden frame of the saddle. These saddle covers simply hung down the sides of the horse, even having a substantial fringed curtain of leather hanging from the lower edge. These seem to be covers from riding saddles rather than pack saddles, protecting the rider's legs against the girth and the edge of the wooden frame. Other side panel flaps from saddles have now being recognised from other sites. The girth strap, rather than being stitched into the saddle cover as initially thought, could be attached directly to the saddle frame giving greater stability. A piece of wood was exhibited which exactly conformed to the curved piece of the saddle frame that crossed the withers in the Connolly reconstruction. The find of a possible wooden cantle from Carlisle and the internal wear and stress marks on existing leather saddle covers all point to the use of solid side boards, cantles and horns. The complete saddle covers from Carlisle suggested that the leather covers could be removed from the wooden frame, and Comitatus have pioneered the use of this saddle design.

The purpose of the saddle is to lift the weight of the rider from the horse's spine. Both the solid framed and padded styles of four-horned saddle can meet this basic requirement. However I initially believed the solid wooden frame of a four-horned saddle was inflexible, and potentially painful for a horse's back. Each saddletree would only be able to be used on one shape of horse, and even a saddle made to fit a specific horse would cease to fit if the horse lost condition on campaign. This would result in pressure sores, calloused and thickened skin. But experience has altered my view. A solid Roman saddle with a wooden frame can be made to fit most horses, with the addition of good padding in the form of a saddlecloth or furs. The same was true of the solid wooden framed military saddles of the 19th century, when cavalrymen were taught how to fold their saddle cloths to fit their horse and saddle, especially on campaign. Horses would grow used to the saddles, in the same way that their unshod hooves would harden with exercise. The Roman military like later armies would endeavour to purchase a certain size and type of horse, one well suited to their saddle design.

The copper alloy stiffeners certainly seem important to re-enforce the horns and make them stronger. The rear horns are particularly important in bracing the rider against powerful thrusts, and when riding uphill. This may explain why the rear copper-alloy stiffeners can stretch completely across the rear of the saddle, giving optimum re-enforcement. My first saddle was a light 4.8kg design, easily carried and stored, with very little padding for the riders comfort. The second saddle I used was a little larger, at 5.2 kg, while Connolly's initial reconstruction was 6.8kg. The variance partly being due to size, the copper alloy stiffeners or lack of them, and the amount of stuffing in the saddle. Padded versions of these saddles made without a wooden frame often have a metal bar towards the front of the saddle for stability. Reconstructions are generally very heavy at 11-12kg, and larger than examples based on a wooden frame. The weight of the rider forces the seat of the saddle downward and the horns lock around the rider's legs. While this gives a very secure seat, the rider will find it difficult to get out of the saddle if the horse falls so some movement in the saddle is to be preferred. The wooden frame seems by far the more usable of the two designs and the Carlisle finds certainly seem to prove its validity. It is a good design, but it is time consuming to produce and the horns are intrinsic weaknesses. Initially the saddle feels as if the rear horns do not offer sufficient support. Indeed, the angle that the saddle sits on the horse is very important. If the rear of the saddle is not high enough, the rider's full weight is constantly hammering on the two rear horns.

I now market and sell Roman saddles made to the Carlisle design to buyers all around the world. I wanted to make Roman riding available to all and by making saddles commercially available new groups and individuals are starting to experiment with Roman cavalry in their own right.

But there are still many questions to be answered about the design, which makes it of interest to saddle reconstructors and Roman military specialists. I am amazed at the number of people who still question aspects of this design, yet their questions were first addressed by Peter Connolly and Carol Van Driel Murray in their article "The Roman Saddle" in Britannia Volume XXII, back in 1991.

Junkelmann and others suggested that a saddle without an internal frame was kinder to a horses back, would fit a greater range of size of horse, and be more serviceable. Indeed saddle reconstructions tend to fall into the "Connolly camp" using a solid internal frame, or the "German pad saddle school" using a stiff well padded saddle that conforms to the horses back.

A German made pad saddle re-enforced with steel cantles.

Others look at evidence in the form of surviving copper alloy horn plates and suggest these dictate larger saddles which perhaps were armoured. They perceive the Connolly design as too small and not corresponding to such plates or horn stiffeners. Indeed Timetrotter, a German re-enactment group use saddles re-enforced externally with copper-alloy plates, and very good they look too.

But as Connolly and Van Driel Murray pointed out back in 1991 we should not believe that there was just one design of Roman saddle. Larger saddles, perhaps re-enforced by copper alloy may have been needed by heavily armoured riders or shock troops. And while the military used wooden framed saddles, civilians could have used versions of the pad saddle. Indeed price edicts do suggest cheaper saddles being used alongside the more expensive military saddle or scordiscum. Pads are clearly depicted on some iconography and would be fine for everyday use. Indeed after the mid 4th century simple saddle pads seem to dominate period iconography, suggesting perhaps that the four-horned saddle was no longer in use.

Saddle pads in the Roman Virgil.

The size of the horns are in part dictated by the surviving copper alloy horn plates, possibly acting as stiffeners to help strengthen the horn. The holes found in these plates could be used to nail the plate directly to the frame. However some plates are of a surprising thickness perhaps suggesting they are for protection and should be sewn externally to the cover.

Lettering is visible on the copper alloy horn stiffeners.

The fact that individual names have been found scratched or punched on to the stiffeners has been used as evidence that they were used externally where they would be easily visible, or internally where they would be visible when the cover was lifted off the frame. Of course not all saddles may have used copper alloy plates. These protectors or stiffeners do not give an absolute indication of the angle of horns which can be derived from sculptural evidence.

So far the perfect frame construction has frankly escaped us. The secret probably lies in the use of various materials to provide both strength and flexibility. We can learn something from the construction of later saddles and the balance of materials used. Connolly used laminated birch to build the frame and metal brackets and bolts to help hold the horns securely to the frame. Such brackets may have been used by the Romans but we lack the evidence. Yet in some cases laminated cantles have split with use and age. But most saddle reconstructions use steamed plywood to make the sideboards, an easy strong option.

It seems that a large variety of woods were used in Germanic and Anglo-Saxon saddles, and hard archaeological evidence survives. Our saddles use solid beech for the cantles, re-enforced with brackets. The 1859 McClellan saddle was partially held together using rawhide as were many older saddles and I suspect that rawhide would also have a role to play in securing the joints in Roman saddles. As it dries and shrinks it would hold joints together while providing an element of flexibility. I find it hard not to see these saddles as very organic, made of wood, goat skin, rawhide, sinew etc.

I have not mentioned the nature of saddle covers, but will point out that the triplet straps are used in our reconstructions to secure the leather cover to the frame - a practical use for them as well as using them to suspend decoration or your enemies' heads. Most modern leather needs considerable work to make it suitable for saddle covers. When making such saddles for sale there is a tension between the customers wish for a saddle that will last forever and fit any horse or backside, and an accurate reconstruction using the correct materials.

Many riders, myself included, are probably larger and heavier than the average presumed Roman rider. So production saddles have to be durable and tough to handle any weight and mishandling. Dropping saddles may deform the wooden frame and even break horns, and riders generally request the unbreakable saddle. Making the saddle work on the horse takes time and patience, in the same way it takes time to make personal kit work on horseback. And there is a safety aspect to consider. Our girth attachments are sewn to nylon webbing which is attached to the frame. The nylon is far stronger and less likely to stretch than leather or linen.

The girth and other tack can vary between reconstructions. A split girth holds the saddle in place more securely. The saddles do not fit as securely as modern saddles, and breast and breaching straps help hold the saddle in place. A surcingle, a simple strap around both horse and saddle, can be used to fasten the saddle more securely if needed. Reconstructions of tack from the 1st and 2nd centuries are generally highly decorated with copper alloy fittings, often tinned or silvered, based on archaeological finds. Few such fittings date from the 4th or 5th centuries. However throughout the Roman period there was large scale use of amulets on horse tack made from the bases of shed antlers. The denticulated edge is no more than the natural coronet of the burr, channelled and perforated by the presence of blood vessels in the velvet during growth. One or more holes drilled in the disc allowed for suspension from the harness. The most common design is the phallus, perhaps to ward off the evil eye, and the use of antler may suggest that it had some special talismanic significance. Triplet straps hanging from the front and rear of the saddle are very useful for securing equipment, and may have helped secure the leather cover to the wooden frame. The horse is directed by weight distribution, leg pressure, verbal commands and primarily the bit in the horse's mouth held by the reins and bridle. Every horse needs different degrees of direction. Romans used either the snaffle bit of Celtic origin not unlike a modern bit, or the potentially severe curb bit. The idea of using a simple piece of leather as a curb attached to the cheek piece, shank or bit is probably as old as the bridle itself. But the first true metallic curb chains are first used in the Roman period. The Romans could also use the hackamore to increase leverage on the horse's jaw. Various metal examples have been discovered, yet many more could have been made of leather or even dried grass. A simple hackamore would have no bit, and the 1st century tombstone found in 2005 in Lancaster seems to show a bitless bridle. This system is useful for young horses, or those with sensitive mouths, but is generally not associated with Romans. Today metal hackamores could be covered with sheepskin for the horse's comfort, and it is possible that some Roman hackamores would have been covered also. The rider has to learn to neck rein, using one hand to control the horse by exerting pressure on the horse's neck with the reins, or even at times his shield.

In the 2nd and 3rd century AD we possibly see the first evidence of the martingale, a strap running from the saddle to the horse's breast strap to the bridle. A relief carving of Asadu and Sa'dai from around the 2nd or 3rd century AD from Dura, now in the National Museum in Damascus, show typically Palmyrean costume as well as a possible martingale. But it may just be a typical horse hair decoration from the bridle hanging downwards towards the breast strap.

Roman vets could use hipposandals, metal boots secured by leather thongs. They wear out quickly and are hard to secure, yet are useful in protecting a hoof and holding a poultice in place. In damp conditions hooves may be liable to splitting and it does seem as if horse shoes originate in northern Europe during the Roman period. Horse shoes are a good indicator of horse size through history, and despite massive developments in technology have remained remarkably unaltered.

The issue of just how Romans mounted their horses is unresolved. Contemporary books mention mounting from either side of the horse. Fences and infantry are both good mounting blocks, and in armour it is just possible to mount while stationary with the assistance of a spear. Rope attached to the spear and used to carry the weapon over the shoulder can make a simple mounting step. A strong loop of rope over the front horns can also make a useful "step" for mounting, but there is no evidence of such devices.

Comitatus the late roman re-construction group have been putting on Roman cavalry shows for years and are the primary source of information. Once again the rider has to ride with a relatively long leg for stability. When riding over difficult terrain or when jumping the legs can be brought up against the front horns to hold the rider in the saddle, and the rear horns help hold the rider in place. But if the legs are used too often to lock the rider in position cramp can result. Lots of equipment can be carried from the horns and the saddle gives a stable platform for using a range of weapons.

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