In the saddle

Horse sculpture, Marble Arch
Still Water (2011, bronze) by Nic Fiddian-Green

Term 5

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.

Line drawing of tattoos on Scythian man (from the British Museum blog)
Line drawing of tattoos on Scythian man (from the British Museum blog)



Body use old and new

Making chainmailSummer holidays

Tense shoulders, strained eyesight and sore backs are not an invention of the modern world.  This became clear when I time-travelled back to the Middle Ages at a French village festival recently. Watching demonstrations of medieval crafts and pastimes I saw how easily these everyday activities could lead to poor body use.

The village was a stronghold for Knights Hospitaller from the 12th century onwards, so the first person to catch my eye was the maker of chain mail.  He let me feel the weight of a square he was constructing.  This really was heavy metal – ten to thirteen kilos per suit – and hot, absorbing the heat of the sun when outside.  Each suit took three months to make, working eight hours a day.  Foot soldiers were protected from head to hips, but the full metal jacket for knights on horseback weighed more heavily, extending as far as the knees.







In the history of metalworking, chainmail preceded full body armour. It was cheaper to make and allowed more flexibility. But with all that weight it would have been difficult to keep upright and breathe without restriction. Using a sword was hard, according to my knight in shining armour, as the padding under the mail restricted movement in the wrist.







I moved on, taking in the breezy walk of a man carrying a large leg of ham, while the signwriter patiently finished his work before the tavern opened. The blacksmith wielded her hammer with balanced ease in the heat of the portable forge, and I dodged down a side street to watch the patient skills of the lacemaker.

Carrying a leg of ham

Tavern signwriter







Blacksmith at work

Wearing glasses and working confidently in bright sunshine, she talked through the complex and colourful pattern she was following. The local buildings have thick stone walls and few window openings, and I saw that without daylight or electricity the process of lacemaking would take its toll on the eyes. I saw how easy it would be to peer ever closer, worrying about mistakes and increasing tension in the arms and hands.

Lacemaker at work






Of all the people I observed that day, the falconer seemed most at ease.  A professional rather than a villager dressed up, he seemed at one with the birds of prey, perhaps because he used his voice and body carefully to keep the hawks calm and show them what he wanted.

He moved quietly and quickly, ahead of the birds, ducking through the crowds to give excited spectators the experience of an owl swooping silently over their heads. He put on a show while keeping a watchful eye on the mood and hunger of each bird as he called them back to his comfortably outstretched arm.

Stallholder on phone






There were few phones, screens or laptops on display at the festival. But I saw plenty of opportunity for peering, straining, making excess effort and pulling down rather than standing tall, moving freely and looking up and out. I realised it’s not the activities we do that create tension, it’s us.





Black mirror walk

Sheila Ghelani summons us from scrying with her black orb
Sheila Ghelani summons us from scrying in the square with her reflective black orb

Summer holidays

I’ve been on two nature wanders, as I experiment over the summer with looking and walking in different ways. The first, with performance artist Sheila Ghelani, complements the Wellcome Collection’s latest exhibition on nature.  Twenty of us, one barefoot, set off on an overcast afternoon into the roar of London’s Euston Road. Holding small round black mirrors Sheila had made for us, we wondered how to find nature so close to one of the capital’s most polluted streets.

Sheila was one step ahead.  She had determined our route in advance by placing her own black mirror on a map, drawing round it and picking ten places to pause.  We would be walking through hidden green spaces under the shadow of the mirror. No going beyond the edge.

Map for a black mirror walk
Map for a walk under the shadow of a black mirror

Black mirrors, or Claude glasses, are practical and mysterious.  They have been used by landscape painters and travellers to frame and appreciate views – their dark reflection saps colour, giving an abstract quality to what you see.  John Dee, the 16th century mathematician and astrologer, kept his in a sharkskin case, and would ‘scry’ or foretell the future by peering into its depths.

Sheila Ghelani's photo of John Dee's scrying mirror
Sheila Ghelani’s photo of John Dee’s scrying mirror

Under a threatening sky we held up our mirrors like 19th century tourists, contemplating the view behind.  In a garden square we paused to sketch like landscape painters, drawing obliquely through the glass.  And we walked backwards in the damp grass, holding mirrors up to check the path behind, noticing the quality of our steps, the uncertainty but also the freedom from our usual walking habits.

Hiroshima memorial tree
Hiroshima memorial tree where we scryed for foresight

Close to the end of the walk we paused by the Hiroshima memorial tree to look more deeply into our Claude glasses and ‘scry’ into the future, pondering ageing, mortality and change.  I still have my mirror, in its velvety drawstring case. It will travel with me for reflection and new perspectives.

My second walk was briefer, with haiku poet Annie Bachini.  Ginko or haiku walks are an integral part of the Japanese haiku form of poetry.  You go out into nature, alone or with others, notebook in hand, and take a short walk to observe, listen and draw inspiration from your surroundings.  Despite the rain, our brief trip into another of London’s garden squares was surprisingly fruitful and we came back with a starting point for our first haiku.

Reflecting in water
Our barefoot walker had not worn shoes for 30 years