It seems like such a simple idea. Why not add two pieces to the saddle, hanging down on either side, for your feet to rest in while you ride a horse? After all, humans seem to have domesticated the horse around 4500 BCE. The saddle was invented at least as early as 800 BCE, yet the first proper stirrup probably came about roughly 1,000 years later, around 200-300 CE.
Nobody knows who first invented the stirrup, or even in which part of Asia the inventor lived. Indeed, this is a highly controversial topic among scholars of horsemanship, ancient and medieval warfare, and the history of technology. Although ordinary people likely do not rank the stirrup as one of history's greatest inventions, up there with paper, gunpowder and pre-sliced bread, military historians consider it a truly key development in the arts of war and conquest.
Was the stirrup invented once, with the technology then spreading to riders everywhere? Or did riders in different areas come up with the idea independently? In either case, when did this happen? Unfortunately, since early stirrups were likely made of biodegradable materials such as leather, bone and wood, we may never have precise answers to these questions.
First Known Examples of Stirrups:
So what do we know? Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi's terracotta army (c. 210 BCE) includes a number of horses, but their saddles do not have stirrups. In sculptures from ancient India, c. 200 BCE, bare-footed riders use big-toe stirrups. These early stirrups consisted simply of a small loop of leather, in which the rider could brace each big toe to provide a bit of stability. Suitable for riders in hot climates, however, the big-toe stirrup would have been no use for booted riders in the steppes of Central Asia or western China.
Interestingly, there is also a small Kushan engraving in carnelian that shows a rider using hook-style or platform stirrups; these are L-shaped pieces of wood or horn that do not encircle the foot like modern stirrups, but rather provide a sort of foot-rest. This intriguing engraving seems to indicate that Central Asian riders may have been using stirrups circa 100 CE, but it is the only known depiction from that region, so more evidence is needed to conclude that stirrups were indeed in use in Central Asia from such an early age.
The earliest known representation of a modern-style enclosed stirrups comes from a ceramic horse figurine that was buried in a First Jin Dynasty Chinese tomb near Nanjing in 322 CE. The stirrups are triangular in shape and appear on both sides of the horse, but since this is a stylized figure, it is impossible to determine other details about the construction of the stirrups. Fortunately, a grave near Anyang, China from approximately the same date yielded an actual example of a stirrup. The deceased was buried with full equipage for a horse, including a gold-plated bronze stirrup, which was circular in shape.
Yet another tomb from the Jin era in China also contained a truly unique pair of stirrups. These are more triangular in shape, made of leather bound around a wooden core, then covered with lacquer. The stirrups were then painted with clouds in red. This decorative motif brings to mind the "Heavenly Horse" design found later in both China and Korea.
The first stirrups for which we have a direct date are from the tomb of Feng Sufu, who died in 415 CE. He was a prince of Northern Yan, just north of the Koguryeo Kingdom of Korea. Feng's stirrups are quite complex. The rounded top of each stirrup was made from a bent piece of mulberry wood, which was covered with gilded bronze sheets on the outer surfaces, and iron plates covered with lacquer on the inside, where Feng's feet would have gone. These stirrups are of typical Koguryeo Korean design.
Fifth-century tumuli from Korea proper also yield stirrups, including those at Pokchong-dong and Pan-gyeje. They also appear in wall murals and figurines from the Koguryeo and Silla dynasties. Japan also adopted the stirrup in the fifth century, according to tomb art. By the eighth century, the Nara period, Japanese stirrups were open-sided cups rather than rings, designed to prevent the rider's feet from becoming entangled if he or she fell off (or was shot off) of the horse.
Stirrups Reach Europe:
Meanwhile, European riders made do without stirrups until the eighth century. The introduction of this idea (which earlier generations of European historians credited to the Franks, rather than Asia), allowed for the development of heavy cavalry. Without the stirrups, European knights could not have gotten on to their horses wearing heavy armor, nor could they have jousted. Indeed, the Middle Ages in Europe would have been quite different without this simple little Asian invention.
So where does this leave us? So many questions and previous assumptions remain up in the air, given this somewhat scanty evidence. How did the Parthians of ancient Persia (247 BCE - 224 CE) turn in their saddles and fire off a "parthian (parting) shot" from their bows, if they did not have stirrups? (Evidently, they used highly arched saddles for extra stability, but this still seems incredible.)
Did Attila the Hun really introduce the stirrup into Europe? Or were the Huns able to strike fear into the hearts of all Eurasia with their horsemanship and shooting skills, even while riding without stirrups? There is no evidence that the Huns actually used this technology.
Did ancient trade routes, now little remembered, ensure that this technology spread rapidly across Central Asia and into the Middle East? Did new refinements and innovations in stirrup design wash back and forth between Persia, India, China and even Japan, or was this a secret that only gradually infiltrated Eurasian culture? Until new evidence is unearthed, we will simply have to wonder.
Azzaroli, Augusto. An Early History of Horsemanship, Leiden: E.J. Brill & Company, 1985.
Chamberlin, J. Edward. Horse: How the Horse Has Shaped Civilizations, Random House Digital, 2007.
Dien, Albert E. "The Stirrup and Its Effect on Chinese Military History," Ars Orientalis, Vol 16 (1986), 33-56.
Sinor, Denis. "The Inner Asian Warriors," Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 101, No. 2 (Apr. - June, 1983), 133-144.