Origins of the True Stirrup

Jessica Hemming


In this section we will be concerned primarily with the origins of the true stirrup—made of iron, set in pairs, and capable of supporting the full weight of a rider. At various times and in various places, stirrup-like items of horse equipment, made of leather or rope or wood, have been used to aid mounting (in which case only one is needed) or to provide some basic rest for the feet. Some of these constructions are simple loops in which to place the big toe (obviously, the rider must be barefoot); others are open platforms. Both kinds of supports are known from parts of India from at least the 1stand 2nd centuries CE. It is likely that they also existed elsewhere and earlier. The modern terms stirrup in English and étrier in French both derive from Germanic words for ropes or leather straps, suggesting simple mounting aids in perishable materials (Old English stigrāp “climbing rope,” a combination of stigan “to climb” plus rāp “rope”; Old French estr(i)eu from Frankish *streup).[1]

The iron stirrup is another matter. From a technological point of view, its prerequisites are (1) sophisticated metalworking techniques that produce a quality of iron that stands up well to stress and (2) a robust saddle with a wooden framework inside it called a “tree.” While it may seem obvious that only a culture that rides horses extensively would invent stirrups, it must be observed that a great many equestrian cultures managed very well without them for centuries. In fact, the greater a rider’s skill, the less need he or she has for the assistance of stirrups. This creates something of a paradox in the search for the peoples responsible for their invention.

The earliest firm evidence for stirrups comes from China and adjacent parts of Korea: a ceramic figurine of a riderless, saddled horse with paired stirrups was unearthed near Nanjing and has been dated to c.322 CE; actual sets of stirrups have been found in several graves of the 4th and early 5th centuries, although these all seem to have been made of composites of wood with metal plating (mostly bronze, which is not as strong as iron).[2] By the 5th century stirrups appear to have become widespread over the entire the region, most likely including Japan as well.

Drawing of a horse with a stirrup
Figure 7.2 Ceramic figurine of horse with stirrups from a tomb near Nanjing, China. Dated c.322. Drawing by Jessica Hemming after Dien, “The Stirrup and its Effect on Chinese Military History,” 

However, in their adoption of cavalry more generally, the Chinese had been profoundly influenced by the nomadic cultures of the Eurasian steppe with whom they came into regular contact (and conflict) particularly to the north and north-west. The steppe peoples were supreme equestrians; they were also highly mobile and interacted with all the ancient, settled civilizations that bordered the steppe zone. At various times such groups actually replaced—at least temporarily—the ruling elites in some of these great civilizations (this happened, for example, in Korea, China, and Persia, and then later in northern India and on the Anatolian Peninsula).[3] Remarkably, ancient Chinese records indicate that an official policy decision was made in 307 BCE by the ruler of the northern state of Zhao to train soldiers to ride horses like the northern nomads—and to shoot arrows from horseback like them too, as steppe horsemen were famous for their mounted archery.[4] This is well before the stirrup, but gives a sense of the Chinese awareness of the advantages of adopting certain military skills and technologies from their “barbarian” neighbours. Prior to this time horses were used in China to pull the chariots of elite warriors, but not for riding.[5] We also know that Chinese rulers imported quality horses extensively from Central Asia, for use in the military and to improve their own breeding stock. Interestingly, there is some evidence that well into the medieval period the Chinese still considered horseback riding to be the special expertise of the steppe peoples, to the extent of depicting grooms in paintings as dressed in Central Asian style.[6]

What we do not know for sure is whether the iron stirrup was developed by the Chinese, around 300 CE or so, in order to compensate for the fact that their soldiers were not as accomplished in the saddle as were the steppe nomads, or whether it was invented on the steppes and then eagerly adopted in China and elsewhere. The wooden saddle-tree (one of the prerequisites for heavy-duty stirrups) appears to be a steppe innovation; plus, the steppe cultures had excellent ironworking skills from an earlier date than did China. These facts would tend to suggest a steppe origin for iron stirrups, except that this leaves open the question of why they were not invented much earlier. Certainly, the nomadic equestrian peoples whose cavalry skills were recorded in writing by the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Persians were devastatingly effective riders without stirrups, specializing in exceptional mounted archery. On the other hand, later nomadic groups that came into Europe in the medieval period—from the Avars in the 6th century to the Mongols in the 13th — were using stirrups: why did they use them if they were such good horsemen? One recent suggestion, which accommodates all the complex evidence, is that the largescale adoption of stirrups in their cavalries was driven by the needs of the later steppe empires to field much larger numbers of soldiers than they ever had in the past. Stirrups, it should be recalled, are an aid for riders who cannot reliably hold their seat in difficult situations without the extra bracing. The provision of stirrups as standard cavalry kit allows commanders to get many more fighters onto horseback even if they are not the very best riders.[7] In any event, once invented the iron stirrup spread rapidly and was found all across central Eurasia by about 500 CE and then across the entire continent from Western Europe to East Asia by about 800 CE,[8]

Media Attributions

  • Nanjing horse drawing initialed © Jessica Hemming is licensed under a CC BY (Attribution) license

  1. In fact, all the Germanic languages share this same “climbing rope” word. Variants occur in Old Norse (a Scandinavian language), Old High German, Old Saxon, and Middle Dutch. See the complete Oxford English Dictionary under “stirrup.” The comparable authoritative French dictionary is the Larousse.
  2. Albert E. Dien, “The Stirrup and its Effect on Chinese Military History,” Ars Orientalis 16 (1986): 33-56 (33-34); Mark E. Lewis, China between Empires: The Northern and Southern Dynasties (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 60. Dien’s article includes photographs of the riderless horse figurine and of additional early 4th-century figurines of horses and riders (some with stirrups), all now in the Nanjing Museum, China.
  3. Pamela Kyle Crossley, Hammer and Anvil: Nomad Rulers at the Forge of the Modern World (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).
  4. Victor H. Mair, “The Horse in Late Prehistoric China: Wresting Culture and Control from the ‘Barbarians’,” in Prehistoric Steppe Adaptation and the Horse, ed. Marsha Levine, Colin Renfrew, and Katie Boyle (Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 2003), 174.
  5. Chauncey S. Goodrich, “Riding Astride and the Saddle in Ancient China,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 44, no. 2 (1984), 280-82.
  6. Mair, “Horse in Late Prehistoric China,” 183.
  7. See Pamela Kyle Crossley, “Flank Contact, Social Contexts, and Riding Patterns in Eurasia, 500-1500,” in How Mongolia Matters: War, Law and Society, edited by Morris Rossabi (Leiden: Brill, 2017), 129-46 (esp. 130-31). She is mainly discussing types of saddles here but applies the same argument to stirrups (pers. comm., May 2020).
  8. Crossley, “Flank Contact,” 134. Crossley credits the “nearly invincible Tang [dynasty, 618-907] imperial cavalry” of the Chinese for diffusing the stirrup across the remainder of Asia in this period (Hammer and Anvil, 16).


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

The Ancient and Medieval World Copyright © by Jessica Hemming is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book