I’ve sat on a saddle more times in the past eighteen months than I have in the rest of my life. It doesn’t move – its purpose is to release leg muscles and improve balance and poise as part of my Alexander training. I mention this only because I’ve just discovered who invented the saddle. According to curators at the British Museum, it was probably the Scythians, nomadic warriors living over 2000 years ago in southern Siberia.
The saddle helped both rider and horse, spreading human weight better so the horse was more comfortable, could travel further and live longer. The Scythians used this to full advantage. Unlike me, they were anything but static in the saddle and were feared as agile fighting horsemen far beyond their homeland.
I have something else in common with these nomads. Our weekly tai chi session includes a movement known as ‘drawing the bow’. We do this slowly and thoughtfully, able to put aside the martial origins. But for Scythians the action was all too real, the bow their weapon of choice. As well as firing poisoned arrows, they developed a short curved bow of layered wood and sinew. This gave extra tension and energy and was easier to use from the saddle. They became feared opponents who really did eat, shoot and leave, appearing out of nowhere on horseback, firing deadly arrows at their enemies and swiftly returning home.
Horses were at the heart of their culture – they bred them for speed, used the hides and drank fermented mares’ milk. Once they perfected light durable saddles and riding gear, they moved fast and far, extending their territory. Even the clothes they wore on horseback had special belts for quick access to weapons in a sudden attack.
Most of this we know from burial mounds preserved in the Siberian ice and permafrost. They were not a writing culture and, as nomads, left no buildings. Their beloved horses came with them to the grave, buried and decorated with special saddle cloths and head ornaments, becoming mythical animals riding into the afterlife.
I sit quietly in the saddle atop my wooden horse, and later move slowly to draw my tai chi bow. I think of the Scythians able to do both things at once, in balance at speed, turning easily in the saddle, two hands on the bow and arrow, yet still able to direct the horse, take aim, and dodge their opponents.
Even though the Scythians are long dead, the exhibition at the British Museum conveys a strong sense of modernity, movement and life. It’s not just the mobility of their nomadic lifestyle and horsemanship. A wooden mallet and ladder used in making one of their deep graves seem to have been cast aside only moments before. I can almost smell the wood through the glass. Furs and embroidered textiles retain colours still bright from their time in the permafrost. Golden jewellery and ornaments show craftsmanship and a deep understanding of animal forms real and mythical.
The wind of Siberia whistles through the exhibition soundtrack. A piece of tattooed human skin preserved in a grave catches everyone’s attention and the queue slows down so we can all take a look. The sinuous animal shapes are no longer visible to the human eye, but are brought to life through imaging to reveal designs we could easily see on tattooed bodies today.