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While it is hard to say with any certainty when the horse was first ridden in China, it is felt that the Chinese had acquired a form of the saddle by the seventh century BCE, and that cavalry first appeared during the Warring States period of the Eastern Zhou dynasty (475-221 BCE). By the Han dynasty mounted cavalry had become the dominant military use of the horse. However, riding astride had been practiced along the northern border and in several of the Eastern Zhou feudal states long before the adoption of mounted warfare. The most important Chinese appropriation from its nomadic neighbors, however, was riding and mounted warfare. The similarity of saddles and bridles shown on cavalry horses of Qin Shi Huang’s “terracotta army” and of those found at the southern Siberian site at Pazyryk (fifth century BCE) demonstrates the Chinese debt to the mounted tribes of the Eurasian steppes. This holds true not only for the technology of riding astride, but also for the riding gear that made this practical.

The Chinese quest to maintain adequate equestrian forces to combat the nomadic raiders became a common thread throughout the imperial period. Massive military campaigns were waged in search of superior “blood-sweating horses” from the Ferghana or Dayuan (modern Turkestan) far to the west. These sojourns, while tremendously expensive in terms of resources and manpower, not only helped to improve the quality of Chinese horses, but also led to the establishment of major contacts between East and West and the opening of the famous Silk Roads.

Chinese genius produced three of the most significant inventions in equestrian history: an effective harnessing system based on the breast-strap, the metal stirrup, and the horse collar. Their harnessing system was the first to effectively utilize the horse’s power without hampering its ability to breathe. It allowed for the development of first shafted horse-drawn vehicles far more advanced and efficient than those of their counterparts in the West. In fact, it would be more than a millennium before the breast-strap harnessing system would arrive in Europe. The invention of the full metal stirrup was equally important and meant that for the first time mounted cavalry had a secure platform from which to fight.

First Metal Stirrups – 322 AD

The earliest known stirrup is a simple loop through which the rider placed his big toe. It appeared in India in the first century BCE. The first metal stirrup may well have been developed not to increase the stability of the rider, but to provide him with an easier and safer method for mounting his horse. The mounting stirrup did not come in pairs, and was attached to only one side of the saddle. The earliest documented example of a mounting stirrup was discovered on a pottery figure of a cavalryman in a Western Jin dynasty (265-316) tomb dating from 302 near Changsha.

The earliest depiction of a pair of riding stirrups was discovered on a pottery horse at a tomb near Nanjing dating from 322 AD. The stirrups shown on the Nanjing horse were triangular in shape and provide the world’s first known representation of a pair of riding stirrups. The first actual stirrup was discovered in a Xianbei site near Anyang in 1974. This was a single stirrup thought to date from the fourth century AD.

From the fourth century onward, the stirrup had spread to North China, northeast Asia, farther south into Korea, and even into Japan. In all of these locations, stirrups were oval and flat, and with a rather long handle, with either a wooden core covered by gilded bronze or iron plate or forged entirely from bronze or iron.

The expertise in metal casting which the Chinese had mastered over the previous millennium made it possible for them to cast the stirrups at a prodigious rate, thus speeding their spread throughout China and beyond.