Hard to top invention of saddle

By Glenda Price: CNJ columnist

Can you guess what simple invention is considered one of the basic pieces of equipment involved in creating and spreading modern civilization?

I couldn’t.

It involves the horse…of course… and the saddle. Like most country kids, I learned to ride bareback. I still believe that’s how novice riders should begin because they learn to “feel” the horse and understand how he moves.

However, when the time comes to get some work done we put a saddle on the horse. I never paid much attention to that, until I learned about the specific parts of the saddle that made all the difference.

It’s the stirrups. Think about it. Without stirrups, riders — even excellent horsemen — are fairly easily unseated, so before stirrups were added to the saddles warriors rode their horses to the battle, then either were unseated or jumped off and fought on foot.

A rider, standing in his stirrups, could deliver a blow with his lance or other weapon using the full power of himself AND his horse.

With stirrups the rider could even wield a two-handed weapon (broadsword) or a lance with less fear of falling off his horse.

The first saddles were made in Asia, of wooden frames covered with felt, and they didn’t have stirrups. The Chinese figured out stirrups were a good deal, and they showed up on saddles across China by 477 AD.

Apparently, the first stirrup was a single one, used to help the rider mount up. The first documented representation of a rider with two paired stirrups is in a tomb dating from about 322 AD. Stirrups were adopted by horsemen of the Eurasian Steppes, and they reached Scandinavia early, but it wasn’t until the Middle Ages they showed up in Europe.

Lynn White Jr., in Medieval Technology and Social Change (1966) wrote, “Few inventions have been so simple as the stirrup, but few have had so catalytic an influence on history.”

White noted that we think of inventions as servants that solve problems we define. He added, “We are much less comfortable with the unintended consequences,” referring to redefinition of European society with the landed gentry — horseback with stirrups on their saddles — dominating.

How many times have we tried out a simple new tool and thought, “Why didn’t I think of that?” So I’ve been thinking and checking out all the tools around my place, wondering if I could maybe invent something to make them more useful.

I’m wondering if it would be possible to invent a contraption that would grab a hammer and guide it away from my thumb if my aim is bad (which it always is).

How about a bridle that automatically adjusts itself to fit whatever horse you put it on? Or, speaking of stirrups, some that automatically adjust to the rider — even a little kid?

I’ll let you know if I come up with anything, but so far nothing I’ve thought up can change the world — darn it.