The origin of stirrups is believed to be China. At least, that is where the earliest evidence of stirrups has been found, in the 5th century of our era. Their use gradually spread west, reaching Europe in the 700's.
As anyone who has ridden without stirrups knows, it is much harder to keep one's balance without them, let alone mount and dismount comfortably. Xenophon describes the process of mounting a horse in ancient Greece, which required the rider to place one hand on the horse's neck, grasp a spear with the other and leap onto the horse's back, somewhat like an Olympic pole vaulter. This certainly does not seem a secure way to mount, as the horse could shy or move away if not restrained.
Not only did stirrups make it easier to mount, they made the mounted soldier more useful than the foot soldier. A single mounted man was faster and more maneuverable than a chariot carrying two men. With his feet firmly secured, the mounted soldier could deliver forceful blows with his weapons without worrying about falling off. Tactics changed from melee to mass charge. Weapons changed from battle ax and javelin to longsword and lance.
The change affected not only the way Europeans fought but also the way they lived. The egalitarian muster of men on foot was replaced by a professional warrior class distinguished by wealth and specialized fighting ability. This class became the noblemen, who received the king's protection in exchange for pledging their service as mounted knights. The noblemen in turn needed others to farm their lands, since they had to devote time to honing their riding and weapons skills. King, aristocracy, peasant: the medieval hierarchy developed in large part because of the horse.
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1999-2009 Melinda Maidens