MSc Equine Behaviour, Performance and Training graduate, Moi Watson has published fascinating research into an alternative reconstruction of a first century AD Roman Calvary Saddle. Moi was able to conduct research for this study using equipment and facilities at University Centre Sparsholt’s Equine Centre such the Racewood Simulator, in the Rider Performance Studio .
Moi originally began the project by finding that the reconstruction of a First Century AD Roman cavalry saddle has not been investigated 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. This alternative reconstruction, not using wood, was designed to address the written and practical evidence for the lack of rider stability in Connolly’s (1986) reconstructed saddle.
Supported by the lack of archaeological evidence for a wooden tree, this reconstruction demonstrated that a design of straw and lanolin-rich fleece provided a viable alternative for the stability of the rider on a mechanical horse. The need for the bronze “stiffeners” for the horns of the saddle were found to be required for the necessary rigidity of the saddle construction to support the rider without compromising the comfort for both horse and rider.
As part of the MSc in Equine Behaviour, Performance and Training at University Centre Sparsholt, UK, the Moi had conducted a Pilot Study via a questionnaire survey of 40 Roman re-enactor riders on the stability and utility of their reconstructed Roman saddle of the Connolly design (wooden tree). The results of the questionnaire found that the riders were stable in walk, trot, canter and gallop except for the less experienced riders who experienced difficulty in trot. The use of weapons by the riders (sword, lance and bow), however, reflected an overall lack of confidence in the saddle’s stability, leading to a reduced range of motion in the use of the weapons i.e. confidence in leaning out of the saddle to use the weapons to best effect.
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 completed reconstruction 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. The saddle was then tested for rider comfort and utility on the mechanical horse in a comparison test with the Connolly saddle.
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.
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 (Curle, 1911, p. 177). 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. The requirement of bronze “stiffeners” to reinforce the wooden construction produced by Connolly has been questioned but it is clear from this reconstruction without wood that they would be necessary for the stability of the rider.
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. A saddle cover has not yet been made to complete the reconstruction as the author is sourcing a blacksmith to manufacture “stiffeners” so that further experiments can be conducted.
Lorna Cameron, Teaching Fellow at University Centre Sparsholt said: “It’s been fantastic to see Moi’s research come together beyond her postgraduate degree and for the Rider Performance studio to be used as key resources in data collection. This is an area of equine history where there is still so much left to explore, and we can’t wait to see where Moi’s further research takes her next.”