Horse-riding in Ancient Ireland

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER XXIV....continued

3. Horse-riding.

Horses were put to the same uses as at present:—riding, drawing chariots, racing; and more rarely ploughing, drawing carts, and as pack-animals: all which uses are mentioned in our old literature. The horse is known by various names. Ech signifies any horse of a superior kind: cognate with Latin equus, and Greek hippos. Marc, another word for horse, is explained 'a steed or mare': hence the common word marcach, 'a horseman.' Capall, meaning a horse of any kind—a term existing in varied forms in several European languages—is the word now used among Irish-speakers. Gearrán, a hack-horse, in the modern form garron, is in general use at the present day in Ireland among speakers of English to denote a heavily-worked half-broken-down old horse.

From many passages in the Brehon Laws and other old writings it appears that horses were often imported, and that those from Wales and France were specially prized. In the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries, those Irish horses called hobbies were known all over Europe "and held in great esteem for their easy amble: . . . from this kind of horse the Irish light-armed bodies of horse were called hobellers" (Ware).

Giraldus Cambrensis tells us that in his time the Irish used no saddles in riding. Two hundred years later, Mac Murrogh Kavanagh, king of Leinster, had a splendid horse that cost him 400 cows, which he rode with wonderful swiftness without saddle down a hill to meet the Earl of Gloucester; and the custom must have been very general at a still later time, for laws were made to compel the Irish and Anglo-Irish to ride like the English—with saddles. Yet this custom prevailed among the English themselves in early times, as well as among the ancient Britons, Gauls, and Romans. But from the earliest times the higher classes of the Irish used a thick cloth called dillat, between them and the horse; which occasionally covered the whole animal, as in fig. 195.

Horseman in Book of Kells

FIG. 195. Grotesque representation of a horseman given in the Book of Kells. Man's cap yellow; cloak green, with bright red and yellow border; breeches green; leg clothed; foot naked. Dillat yellow. (From Wilde's Catalogue.).

This cloth covering gradually developed into a regular saddle, and the name was retained in the modern form dialluid [deelid], which is now the general Irish name for a saddle.

Two kinds of bridle having two different names were in use. The single-rein bridle, called srian [sreean] was used in horse-riding. This rein was attached to a nose-band, not at the side, but at the top, and came to the hand of the rider over the animal's forehead, passing right between the eyes and ears, and being held in its place by a loop or ring in the face-band which ran across the horse's forehead and formed part of the bridle-gear. This single rein was used to restrain merely: it could not be used to guide, which as we shall presently see, was done by a horse-rod. The two-rein bridle, called all or fall, was used with chariot-horses. The charioteer, who sat too far from the horse's head to guide by a horse-rod, had to use double reins, both to guide and to restrain, like those of the present day. The distinction between these two kinds of bridle—single-rein and two-rein—is clearly set forth in the law, and is always observed in the Tales.

Horseman in Book of Kells

FIG. 196. Grotesque representation of horseman, using horse-rod, given in Book of Kells. (From Wilde's Catalogue.)

The bridle was often elaborately and expensively ornamented. Among the royal tributes of the Book of Rights are "fifty steeds with costly bridles"; and in the old literature we find very often mentioned bridles mounted and adorned with gold, silver, and cruan or red enamel. Accordingly, special provisions were laid down in the Brehon Law for compensation to the owner of a bridle in case a borrower did not restore it; from five or six cows up to eighteen or twenty. In corroboration of all these accounts, portions of antique bridles and headstalls have been found from time to time, with enamelled ornamentation of beautiful workmanship, some of them now preserved in the National Museum.

The ancient Irish did not use spurs, but urged on and guided their horses with a rod having a hooked goad at the end, of which we find frequent mention in all sorts of Irish records. Horseriders often used a sraigell or whip. Horsemen rode without stirrups: and every man was trained to spring from the ground by an ech-léim or 'steed-leap' on to the back of his horse. This ready method of mounting continued to the beginning of the seventeenth century in both Ireland and Scotland:—

“No foot Fitz-James in stirrup staid,

No grasp upon the saddle laid,

But wreathed his left hand in the mane,

And lightly bounded from the plain.”

Lady of the Lake.

It was considered necessary that every young man belonging to the upper classes should be taught horse-riding: and so important was this that even the Brehon Law interfered, just as the law of our day requires children to learn reading.

That the ancient Irish protected the horse's hoofs by a shoe of some kind is plainly shown by the records. This shoe is called cru in the oldest Irish documents: the term is given with this meaning in modern dictionaries, and cru is still the living word for a horseshoe, not only in Irish, but in Scotch Gaelic and Manx. In old times in Ireland, horse-riding as a mode of locomotion in ordinary life was not very general. But nobles commonly rode, and were very proud of their steeds and trappings. Horses were also kept and carefully trained for sporting purposes, chiefly racing, which, as we shall see in next chapter, was a favourite amusement.

The ass hardly figures at all in ancient Irish literature, so that it cannot have been much used.

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