Horses can, of course, be ridden without saddles. They were ridden that way for centuries and even today many riders will happily hop on their horse’s backs without a saddle for short trips (such as from the field to the stable). The key point here, however, is short trips. Saddles made it possible for horses and riders to travel for extended periods in comfort.
The invention of the saddle as modern riders would understand it arguably began with the concept of a surcingle. This was essentially a proto-girth and differed from a modern girth in that it wrapped completely around the horse’s body, whereas modern girths stop about halfway up the body. Very basic saddles consisting of a thick blanket held on by a combination of a surcingle, a breast strap and a crupper were in use by 700BC. These quickly became a means to show the owner’s prestige and soon were as much works of art as practical items. The next big step forward in saddle design was the invention of the tree sometime around 100BC. This device took the rider’s weight off the horse’s spine making it much easier for the horse to bear. As an added bonus, the development of the tree was a prerequisite for the development of modern, weight-tolerant stirrups, which can be hugely useful to a rider. It is known that load-bearing stirrups were in use in China around 300AD and had become commonplace there by the middle of the 5th century. Like all great inventions, it then spread quickly around the world.
By the arrival of the Middle Ages, cavalry-based warfare was a reality around the world. Common sense is enough to dispel the myth that armour was so heavy that knights had to be lifted onto their horses. The simple truth of the matter was that any knight who came off their horse had to be able to get up quickly and fight on foot or else they were, quite literally, a sitting target. It was, however, true that armour did add noticeably to the weight of a rider and it was also true that it was of huge benefit to a knight to be able to stay on their mount. With this in mind, improvements were made to saddles to make them stronger and safer. This meant improving the trees so that they could support more weight and also raising the pommel and cantle to make it harder for the knight to be unseated. Stirrups became an essential feature in saddles intended for use in war as they allowed knights to stand up out of the saddle when they wished to do so. This was also the period when people began to think about adapting saddles to different purposes. Horses for peacetime purposes did not need the heavy saddles used by knights in armour and so people continue to use and improve the lighter ones previously in use.
While the image of an elegant lady riding sidesaddle may seem quaint to those living in modern times, the development of the sidesaddle was a huge step forward in terms of independence for women. Although some women did ride astride in historical times, it was generally hugely frowned upon and until the development of the sidesaddle women in culturally-acceptable clothing (i.e. long skirts) were unable to control their mounts themselves and therefore either had to be led from the ground (by a man) or ride pillion behind a man. The development of the first sidesaddle in the 14th century was an impractical one in that it literally had the rider sitting to the side of the horse, thereby leaving her unable to use either legs or reins effectively and therefore still dependant on a man. It did, however, pave the way for a more practical design to be developed in the 16th century. The key change in the design was that it actually had the rider sitting on the horse and facing forwards. In other words if a person looked at the rider’s upper body from behind, the silhouette would be the same as for a person riding astride. This was achieved by the use of a pommel at the front of the saddle over which the rider hooked her leg. Although the design was impractical for jumping, women were at last able control their own mounts on the flat. It took until 1830 for women to achieve full equestrian equality with men. The addition of a second “leaping” pommel to the established design finally made the sidesaddle suitable for use for all pursuits, even the most active and therefore to be taken seriously as equestrians.
The 18th century saw saddle design branch into two separate directions, which might roughly be termed general riding and stock riding. Although horses were still very much a feature of warfare, the broadswords and lances of the middle ages had long been replaced by lighter weaponry carried by cavalry officers on lighter horses. More flexibility was demanded of both rider and horse and that included the ability to jump. This means riders need to be able to lean forward and so pommels and cantles had to come down. The result was a compact, relatively flat saddle, which became known as the English saddle. At the same time, around the world horses were being used by farmers as a means to manage their herds of cattle and/or sheep. For them, a saddle had to be comfortable for horse and rider over extended periods and had to be able to accommodate the equipment they needed for their work. The high pommel stayed and often incorporated horn on which to hang a rope. The seat was deep and ended in a high cantle for comfort and safety. These saddles have become known as Stock saddles and even though they are often significantly heavier than their English counterparts, the design spreads the weight across the whole of the horse’s body. This can actually make it more comfortable for long-term use for both horse and rider.