Horse and Rider:

Such a vast array of equipment is available to the modern rider that the ability to list it all, in all of its forms, is unheard of. Even the casual rider must be familiar with the various trappings of bridles and saddles, boots for the horse, helmets, and appropriate attire. The Greeks, by contrast, had a much simpler set of basic accoutrements. The Ancient Greek rider was bereft of a saddle--and consequently, stirrups and other attachments to a saddle. Instead, he was expected to ride bareback or with a simple cloth spread over the horse's back. Riders today are still familiar with the challenge of riding in either way--indeed, some riders dismiss riding with only a cloth spread over the horse's back as dangerous due to the risk of that cloth or pad slipping. It is therefore no surprise that the development of riding in Ancient Greece took many centuries, and that one of the most important pieces of equipment was the bridle.

In Ancient Greek Horsemanship, J.K. Anderson describes several forms of bridle and bit, the variations on headstall and mouthpiece given birth through a rider's need to control his horse. In essence, the headstall of the Ancient Greek bridle was simple, consisting of cheekpieces, a noseband, a throatlatch, and sometimes a browband. Because the Greeks did not have the advantage of buckles, Anderson believes that each bridle was made with a specific horse in mind. The throatlatch would be permanently fastened on one side of the bridle; on the other, it would be secured by an easily released knot. In order to remove a bridle from a horse's head, a man would have to release this knot, and then draw the entirety of the headstall off. Reins seem to have come in a variety of styles, and Anderson describes the split rein--wherein a bridle is equipped with one rein on each side of the bit--as one of the more ill-advised designs, though fairly common as far as we can tell. Such reins can easily be lost when dropped, as opposed to attached reins or reins that are knotted together, which tend to rest on the horse's neck when dropped instead of falling to the ground. Anderson also describes a wide variety of bridles, some with complete nosebands, others with only half a noseband resting only over the front of the horse's nose. The rough bits of the Greeks, unlike smoother bits used by many riders today, were designed to keep the horse's jaws loose. There would have been little or no need for a noseband to closely encircle the entirety of the horse's nose, as this would serve to close the horse's jaws on the bit. Anderson also cites several overly complicated designs of bridle, some with as many as three cheekpieces to secure the bit and noseband. Certainly, the lack of a simple buckle played a role in the comparatively complicated design of the Ancient Greek bridle, as did the types of bits utilized.

Though modern riding has a vast array of bits, some decidedly harsh, Ancient Greek horsemen utilized mouthpieces that would be shunned by the modern rider. As Anderson points out, however, the Greek rider was without the benefit of an anchoring saddle or stirrups. Bits for the ridden horse were often quite harsh so that they might supplement the rider's limited control. Nevertheless, a vast array of bits seems to have been available; however, the Greeks never, it seems, developed the curb bit. The snaffle, which acts on the bars, corners and roof of the mouth was better suited to the Greeks, who favored high head carriage. Because of the upward pressure of a snaffle, it is more likely to incite a horse to raise its head rather than lower it; as such, the snaffle would be a Greek horseman's ideal means of control.

Early Greek horsemen, like many of their foreign counterparts, at first utilized pressure on the horse's nose as well as in its mouth to control their animals. This was accomplished by placing studs and spikes on the insides of nosebands and the sidebars of bits. The reins were designed to act on both noseband and bit when pulled, the goads aiding the rider in directing and controlling his horse. However, the early Greek rider also held an awkward seat, thus limiting his ability to direct the horse and explaining the greater popularity of driving. Goads against the horse's sensitive nose, as well as a bit in his mouth, would add some strength to his handler's commands.

Once horseback riding became a relatively common activity in Greece--something that did not happen until the classical period around 500 B.C.E.--the ridden horse could expect a variety of rough metal bits, though the role of the noseband as a directional aid had largely disappeared. Anderson cites this period as the beginning of the Greek use of spikes inside the horse's mouth. The sidebars of the bits were often still spiked, but like the modern bit, Ancient Greek bits could feature various external and internal forms. The pieces of the bit protruding from the horse's mouth could end in the sidebars--sometimes rendered in decorative forms such as animals--or in various types of rings. Longer sidebars with low-placed rein attachments would give the rider more leverage; the sidebars would also act on the side of the horse's nose with each pull of the rein. Rings tend to transfer more of the pressure onto the corners of the horse's mouth, and generally would be somewhat gentler than the rigid cheekpiece, though more apt to damage the delicate skin at the corners of a horse's mouth.

The majority of Greek bits appear to have been jointed snaffles, though very few specimens survive today. The Ancient Greek horseman, however, did not wish contact with the horse's mouth as most riders do today. Rather, he was expected to barely touch his horse's mouth at all; Xenophon points out that a rider should have slack reins the majority of the time. In order to keep the horse from closing his mouth on the bit, the Greeks adorned the interior mouthpiece with spikes, rollers and chains. The intent of the spikes was to discourage the horse closing his mouth down on the bit and to reinforce the rider's rein signals; the rollers and chains gave the horse something to chase in his mouth, further discouraging him from clamping his jaws about the bit.

As noted earlier, the Ancient Greeks did not have the benefit of saddles. At most, the serious horseman used a cloth that might be held on by a simple breastplate or, more rarely, a girth or crouper. The most that a horse might wear on its body, it seems, would be armor. Xenophon describes a cumbersome arrangement consisting of chest armor that wraps around the horse's front and then extends over its sides to protect the rider's legs, in addition to separate pieces of armor on the horse's vulnerable forehead, haunches and flanks. Foot gear seems to have been limited to occasionally tying cloth over the horse's hooves, and animals were dependent on everyday wear to keep their hooves rounded and short, as the Greeks had no farriers.

As for the Greek rider, there seems to have been no special riding attire beyond clothing for hunting or war. Generally speaking, the Greek rider went clad in a short chlamys and chiton (short tunic and cloak), with a broad-rimmed sun hat and boots to complete the outfit. Various types of armor are described for the cavalryman, generally divided into several sections or formed of leather and quilted linen to allow the rider mobility. The cavalryman was usually equipped with javelins and a sabre, though Anderson cites examples of mounted archers--both barbarian mercenaries and Athenians--and a disastrous cavalry encounter in 396 B.C.E. in which the Greeks utilized lances.

Horse and Rider | Equitation | Evolution | Uses | Bucephalus