From Hooves to High-Tech: The Evolution of Horse Racing Equipment 

Horses in History Set | High Resolution | Royalty free stock Illustratio | rawpixel

By Ryan Biddix

              Horse racing, a sport as old as time, has enchanted spectators for centuries with its speed, strength, and elegance. Within the athletic feats and adrenaline-charged races lies a narrative of technological progress that has significantly influenced the sport. From humble beginnings to cutting-edge innovations, the evolution of horse racing equipment has been vital in improving safety, performance, and overall experience for jockeys and horses alike. As we gear up for Steeplechase 2023, let’s delve into the intriguing and expansive history of horse racing equipment.

Early Days: Bareback Racing

              It comes as no surprise that the sport of horse racing dates back thousands of years, with its earliest recording in Central Asia around 4000 B.C. In the early days of horse racing, jockeys rode “bareback,” relying solely on their skill and balance to traverse the racecourse. In these Bronze Age races, the horses were equipped with minimal equipment, nothing more than a cloth (known as a girth), and a simple rope looped around the horse’s neck for control. These races showcased the raw power and grace of both horse and rider, despite the lack of advanced equipment.

Emergence of Saddles, Stirrups, Bridles, and Bits


              Over the next millennium, the modest cloth turned into a pad, and the thickness of that pad would increase over time, providing more comfort for both parties. These padded seats allowed jockeys to maintain better balance during high-speed races. However, the first “true” saddle was not present until around 500 B.C., found in Eurasia, this saddle included leather cushions, a cantle, and a pommel. These early saddles were a significant advancement from the cloth, but they were still missing another instrumental piece of equipment – the stirrup.


              There is sufficient speculation over the advent of the stirrup. However, evidence shows that the first recordings of stirrups were found in China around 300 A.D., where only one was in use as a mounting aid. These stirrups significantly improved the rider’s posture and ability to exert greater control over their mounts.

Bridles and Bits

              Bridles and bits were created long before the presence of saddles and stirrups. Evidence from ancient artworks shows that bridles and bits were used by most ancient civilizations, including but not limited to the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. This invention was the earliest means to control horses and allowed the owner to use them to transport goods and participate in militaristic excursions. In their earliest form, bridles and bits were made out of bone or hardwood. Over time they began to transition to metal, which provided better control and security over the horses.

Advances in Tack Technology

              Saddles, stirrups, bridles, and bits stayed similarly stagnant until the Middle Ages, during the rise of knighthood and medieval militaries. Knights often wore heavy, metal armor which means the horses needed to be much larger and stronger to accommodate that weight. With the development of selective breeding, this became possible. Controlling a larger horse meant that more equipment was required. This is where we see the first appearance of long-shanked bits. These long-shanked were placed in the mouth of the horse to create pressure and ensure easier control over the horse.

Over the last two centuries, there has been a distinctive split in the styles of tack technology. These two styles can be defined as Western Riding and English Riding. There are significant differences between these two styles of tack technology.

The main difference between the two styles is in the design of the saddle. In English riding, the saddles are designed to allow closer contact between the jockey and the horse. This gives the horse more freedom and range during the dressage and race.

Western riding can be traced back to the 19th century, in the era of Western expansion and cowboys. Equine equipment evolved to meet the needs of ranchers who spent long hours on horses’ backs. Western saddles were often larger and heavier to provide comfort throughout the day, as ranchers herded cows.

Horse tack, for both English and Western riders, has remained consistent for the last half-century. Most of these saddles are still made in traditional black or brown leather. Within the last 20 years, however, there has been a tremendous expansion in options for personalized gear. Nowadays, it is possible to get your saddles, stirrups, bridles, and bits in any color or design you desire. Unfortunately, some contest that this has affected the quality of the equipment, due to cheaper materials and mass production.

The evolution of horse racing equipment mirrors the progression of the sport itself. From the early days of bareback riding to modern-day Western saddles, tack technology has evolved to prioritize safety, improve performance and enhance the overall experience for both participants and spectators. As we eagerly await Steeplechase 2023, it is worth acknowledging the evolution of horse racing equipment, which has elevated the sport and prioritized the welfare of its noble athletes.