The mystery of the Roman cavalry saddle: Did it ever have a wooden tree?

A front view of the alternative saddle reconstruction suggested by Moira Watson. The saddle is uncovered as it is awaiting “stiffeners” being crafted by a blacksmith. Photo: Moira Watson

Fresh research in Britain calls into question whether the saddles used by first-century Roman cavalrymen had a wooden tree.

The question of how Roman cavalry saddles were constructed has not received much academic attention since Peter Connolly introduced his ideas of a wooden tree saddle in 1984, based on the evidence and dimensions provided by archaeological finds of leather saddle covers and bronze saddle horn reinforcers.

Researcher Moira Watson questioned 40 riders who regularly participate in Roman re-enactments on the stability and effectiveness of the Connolly Roman saddle.

“The riders were stable in walk, trot, canter and gallop except for the less experienced riders, who experienced difficulty in trot, ” Watson reported in the journal Experimental Archaeology.

However, the use of weapons by the riders – swords, lances and bows – reflected an overall lack of confidence in the saddle’s stability.

This led Watson down a path to explore whether the Roman cavalry saddle never had a wooden tree at all. And, if a Roman saddle could be made without wooden elements, how would it perform?

Watson, in her dissertation, set about comparing modern saddles of varying flap design with the flapless Roman saddle which uses horns in front of and behind the rider on each corner of the saddle seat instead of stirrups.

Side, front and rear views of the alternative reconstruction. Photo: Moira Watson
Side, front and rear views of the alternative reconstruction. Photo: Moira Watson

Fifteen participants in this follow-up project rode on a mechanical horse in four different saddle designs at the walk, trot and canter, the Connolly saddle being one of these.

“The Roman saddle compared favourably with the three modern saddles, but comments given by the participants of the saddle study referred more to the rigidity of the Connolly design rather than their ability to ride the horse.

“The main comment made was that the wooden side boards of the Connolly reconstruction prevented the riders from wrapping their leg around the horse and thereby influencing their stability.”

The feedback led Watson to construct a Roman saddle without wood, with the aim of improving the rider’s ability to wrap the legs around the horse, thereby boosting their stability in the saddle.

The tree was constructed using the technique for Vaquero saddles traditionally used for light cavalry, cattle working and bull fighting, with thatching straw stuffed into linen. Pig skin was used for the panels and goat skin for the saddle horns.

The thatching straw is stuffed into the linen as seen in Vaquero saddles. Photo: Moira Watson

The unwashed woollen fleece was used to stuff the panels and the horns, and wool felt was used as a cover for the tree.

The fleece was unwashed to maintain its waterproof properties. An experiment wrapping the thatching straw in the fleece showed that, although over three weeks the straw absorbed the lanolin, its structural integrity was not compromised – that is, it did not soften.

The completed saddle was inspected by a British Master Saddler and passed fit for form and function. “This means that the saddle conformed to the principles of saddle design for the requirements of correct fit for the comfort of the horse,” Watson said.

The saddle was then tried on a mechanical horse in a comparison test with the Connolly saddle.

A volunteer male rider rode at the walk, trot and canter in each saddle.

The thatching straw wrapped in unwashed fleece, tied inside (dyed) deerskin to test the effects of lanolin on the straw. After three weeks, the straw had not been softened by being wrapped in the fleece. Photo: Moira Watson

“It was noted that the contours of the new reconstruction’s panels were better at moulding themselves to the horse and there was no ‘bridging’ of the panels, a feature to be avoided in modern saddle fitting.

“This bridging effect is where the panels do not conform to the horse’s back causing discomfort and riding problems. This bridging was present in the Connolly saddle and could only be rectified by adding a saddle pad with shims to level the saddle on the horse’s back.

“The rider also commented that the Connolly saddle held him in place like a cradle whereas the straw/fleece reconstruction did not fix him in place. The wooden horns of the Connolly saddle – which are known to break – were also uncomfortable after a period of cantering.”

During the riding trials it was found that the new reconstruction’s horns were too flexible and highlighted the case for “stiffeners” – the bronze saddle horn covers found in the archaeological record.

“This was also noted when the rider adopted a light or half seat, that is rising out of the saddle from the strength of the thighs only as if making a sword or spear thrust.”

A six-foot-tall rider sits in the saddle. Photo: Moira Watson

Watson said the requirement of bronze “stiffeners” to reinforce the wooden construction produced by Connolly has been questioned. However, it was clear from her reconstruction that, without wood, they would be necessary for the stability of the rider.

Watson says the new saddle construction weighs less than the Connolly saddle yet retains rigidity, which is seen as a positive for the horse since it must also carry an armoured and armed rider.

“There is a need for further research to optimise the new reconstruction for girth placement and “stiffeners” before field trials can be conducted with live horses,” she said.

Watson said a saddle cover has not yet been made to complete the reconstruction as she is sourcing a blacksmith to make “stiffeners” so that further experiments can be conducted.

Alternative Reconstruction of a First Century AD Roman Cavalry Saddle. Moira Watson. Experimental Archaeology Journal, Issue 2021/1

The paper, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

Side, front and rear views of the Connolly reconstruction. Photo: Moira Watson

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