The point at which horse cloths gave way to shaped saddles is lost in the mists of time. The scanty evidence suggest that earliest fully shaped saddle was in use in Europe from the second century before the Common Era. Evidence becomes much more prevalent in the first century CE in the Roman Empire, showing four horned saddles, which, despite their lack of stirrups, are highly effective in military use.
The evidence for these saddles is primarily pictorial, but those are supplemented by archaeological finds of leather pieces from saddle coverings, bronze plates used to face the horns,1 and a piece of wood which has been plausibly identified as a saddle arch from Carlisle.2. Very recently, excavations of a stable in Pompeii produced conclusive evidence on the matter, as the skeleton of a horse was found accompanied by a saddle, which, when sectioned, revealed a wooden tree.
The limited quantity and quality of evidence means that any reconstruction of such a saddle demands a lot of conjecture. As a point of fundamental philosophy, it should never be assumed that there was only one way of doing anything, even in a single culture over a limited period, let alone over the vast geographical spread of the earlier Roman Empire, and the hundreds of years until horned saddles were supplanted by stirrup-bearing saddles.
The katafraktoi (Greek) or clibanarii (Latin) of ancient Iran (Parthians and Persians - what did they call those troops?) were much more heavily armoured that Roman cavalry of the early imperial era. Riding armoured horses, they took the fight much more directly to the enemy. Hence, their saddles were designed to be even more enclosing and stable than Roman ones, with the front horns being shown in the artworks as arching over to enclose the thighs. Riding on this saddle demands a subtly different leg dynamic than any Roman saddle I have used, and one that is both even more stable and less strenuous. See the Ribchester Roman Festival 2017 page for more on this saddle in use.
Stirrup-bearing saddles were carried into Europe in the later fifth and early sixth century by the migrating tribes who overran the Western provinces of the Roman Empire. Their original form having low arches was never superseded, although as cavalry developed as a primary military mode, low saddles were relegated to civilian riding in the West, although continued in military us in the East until influenced from the West during the era of the Crusades.
Copyright: Timothy George Dawson 2017