“The bridle, the bit and the stirrup …”

““Some military inventions had cascading effects on cultural and social evolution,” explains Turchin, who conducted the data analyses in this study. “The invention of bit and bridle, for instance, made it easier to control horses, which led to advances in weapons or the appearance of mounted archers and knights, which again made it necessary to build better fortifications. According to our study, this bundle of military technologies was one of the most important factors leading to the rise of mega-empires and of world religions like Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam during the first millennium BCE.”

Turchin and colleagues define a ‘mega-empire’ as a society supporting tens of millions of inhabitants and covering millions of square kilometers of territory, which they say began to appear in different parts of Europe and Asia as part of a process of growing social complexity driven by the connection – and competition – between states with increasingly advanced and dangerous technology.

The scientists also found strong signs of the importance of agricultural productivity. “A certain level of food production may have been necessary for the subsequent development of new war technologies,” says co-author Dan Hoyer, who leads and organizes Seshat data collection. “To explore the role of agriculture for the evolution of military technology in more detail would be an interesting next research step.””

Comment: The authors do not mention stirrups, Before the 4th or 5th Century stirrups were unknown in Europe. They were invented somewhere out on the steppe in Asia and drifted westward down the “steppe gradient.”

Before stirrups cavalry was a minor part of western armies. The Roman Army had a small cavalry arm but it was mainly useful for reconnaissance. The problem was that without stirrups the horseman’s “seat” was not steady enough to enable the warrior to use the horse as a massive source of energy in attacking with a lance or indeed to be able to produce a steady, aimed, stream of arrow fire from horseback.

Stirrups changed all that and cavalry became a major shock arm on every battlefield. pl

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21 Responses to “The bridle, the bit and the stirrup …”

  1. dsrcwt says:

    As I remember, the stirrup hadn’t reached England by 1066, so the Normans had cavalry, while the English had mounted infantry who rode to the battlefield and then dismounted. This is, of course, all illustrated in the Bayeux Tapestry.

  2. Fred says:

    I agree about stirrups. I’m surprised the authors left their development out. I wonder what their take is on the impact of the horse collar? It distrubuted the load across the animals chest, allowing it to work more effiecently and thus do more work for the same effort.

    • JerseyJeffersonian says:


      Yes, the horse collar enabled horses to pull plows through the often heavy soils of northern Europe, permitting better crop yields. Before their advent, the way in which horses were harnessed to the plow likely cut off the free flow of air, so the draft horse could not exert its full strength in the task.

      • Fred says:

        If a horse ate 4-5 times more that a man but could do 8-10 times the work it would put a big dent in the incentive to own slaves in Northern Europe.

        • Pat Lang says:

          I have long claimed that slavery would have died out in the US because of advancements in farm technology. There were a lot of expenses and trouble in maintaining a subject work force. Contrary to the horseshit, you could not just beat them every day if you wanted to live.

          • Fred says:


            I agree.

          • Deap says:

            Not able to teach horses to pick row crops and cut cane was their biggest drawback. We absolutely picked the wrong crops for export – rum and tobacco do not even provide for human sustenance – just early American junk food. Too bad they were so lucrative. An early decision we can only now repent; but never undo.

          • Fred says:


            Are you for real? Repent? Keep the guilt trip.

  3. TTG says:

    Although the author quoted in the article didn’t mention stirrups, the full study does acknowledge stirrups as a key step in the development of cavalry.

    “The history of the military use of the horse went through several stages: the use of the chariot, the development of riding, the formation of light auxiliary cavalry, the development of nomadic riding, the appearance of the hard saddle, armored cataphracts, stirrups and, finally, heavy cavalry – a major branch of troops across Afro-Eurasian societies between c. 550 and 1400 CE. As a result, effective horse riding had far reaching consequences for the evolution of military technologies, and specifically armor, projectiles such as crossbows, and fortifications.”

    In addition to the steadiness of the seat aided by stirrups, they enhanced the ability of the rider to command and control the horse with leg movements and pressure. This freed the rider to use his hands to wield weapons and maneuver the horse without having to rely on the bit and bridle. When I read about cavalry’s effect on other technologies, including fortifications, I thought of Jan Zizka’s war wagons.

  4. Babeltuap says:

    True. The increase in force generated from a spear is enormous. The spear could puncture several people at a time easily. Devastating.

    My favorite though was Greek fire from ships. Nobody really knows the composition but trying to put it out with water made it worse causing the fire to spread even faster. Impossible to put out.


  5. Deap says:

    Credit has been given to Genghis Kahn and his merry band of marauding Mongolians for development of the stirrup, along with any number of surprising innovations like vast territorial administrative structures and paper money.

    Favorite line in a leading book about his life and his many unbeknown accomplishments claimed you could smell the arrival of the Mongolians, long before you saw or heard them.

  6. Eric Newhill says:

    Stirrups are great, but not totally necessary. The Comanche certainly were fantastic horsemen and could effectively hunt and wage war from horseback without stirrups.

    When I was transitioning from western riding to English style, SWMBO made me ride without stirrups to develop leg strength and finesse and a proper seat. Not easy at first, but eventually able to even jump without them.

    That said, with stirrups you can more quickly have a cavalry develop and the average rider can perform more consistently.

    • Pat Lang says:

      Yes, the plains Indians were great at riding without stirrups but true cavalry would not have developed without stirrups. Trust me.

      • Eric Newhill says:

        Col Lang,
        Totally agree with you.

        I was just adding a little extra color to the scene.

        Of course you can’t have stirrups until you have a saddle with a wooden frame to support the weight in the stirrup. Interesting that stirrups lagged the development of the saddle, but I guess before the internet ideas had to evolve organically in isolated cultural pockets until they caught on in some major civilization

  7. Travis says:

    Turchin is an interesting academic. He published a paper 10 years ago predicting that the 2020’s would see an increase in social and political unrest in the US. He took a rather dim view of the former president of Afghanistan’s book on fixing failed states when it was published.

  8. walrus says:

    …….and when you read the paper, their unvarnished conclusion is that the use of their statistical historical database and model doesn’t explain what factors drove military innovation. ie;

    ” While we found some empirical support for each of these hypotheses, no one theory alone accounted for the observed dynamics of military technology as well as a combination of the factors suggested by these various proposals. Our results not only explain why these theories have found support in previous studies, but also why a general understanding of the evolution of military technology has proven elusive.”

    = we don’t know.

    Comment: I believe a simpler hypothesis has been in existence for hundreds of years out of Oxford and Cambridge and probably many other places:

    “We have a surplus of young males + our neighbors have a surplus of food and women + we are good at making weapons and organising to fight and our neighbors are weak militarily”.

    The corollary; ” If you invent an iron plowshare that doubles food production, you had better invent an iron blade to keep someone from taking the food from you.”

  9. d74 says:

    Although the proto-Europeans did not know the stirrup, that did not prevent the cavalry.

    During the Gallic War, Julius Caesar was saved two times by his Germanic heavy cavalry.
    One author compares the modus operandi of this cavalry as that of a panzer division (!), about 4 to 5 infantrymen for one rider, all mixed up and all together. The cavalryman attacks, the infantrymen protect. In exploitation of the victory and pursuit, cavalry sabers the fleeing enemy remains.
    The Gauls, very primitive in tactics, had nothing to oppose to this fury, as in 1940…
    Thus, we became Celto-Roman, then with the stirrup, Gallo-Frank!

  10. Leith says:

    Those Afghan ponies that Special Forces Teams rode 20 years ago with Generals Dostum & Noor still had old wooden saddles and other horse tack that looks kind of primitive. Wonder how much of that was in use in Central Asia two millennia ago?


  11. Barbara Ann says:

    I’m with Walrus here, the principals driving the development of military technology do not need “..innovative quantitative methods of mathematical modeling and statistical analysis” in order to be understood. The moment the first proto human figured out that attaching a rock to the end of a stick could improve your chances in combat, Darwin’s principals applied to us as a technological species. The ‘fittest’ are those able to utilize superior military technologies. This includes MI tools & techniques and now also autonomous weapon systems (ones which disregard Asimov’s laws of robotics).

    What I find interesting is the point at which modern military technologies becomes a threat to mankind itself. In one sense we reached that point after WWII with the proliferation of thermonuclear weapons.

    I think the rise of AI and “intelligent” networked military technology is a more insidious existential threat. The future of warfare will be our AI driven robot swarms against theirs. The warlike technological species is now at the stage of designing (war) machines that can think for themselves. SkyNet is less and less in the realm of sci-fi. Rather than wonder if the plot from Terminator can play out for real, I would challenge; how will it not? If the fittest must have ever more intelligent & autonomous war machines, how long is it before Darwinism is fully transferred to them and the delicate fleshy things which brought them into existence, are forgotten?

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