Sunday, June 7, 2015

Men’s Heels: The Stirrup, the Spur and the Boot? (Part 2)

Even if our ancestors seemed to be concerned less with safety features than we are, the notion of riding a horse everyday with a total disregard for sensible riding is illogical.  It is a mode of transportation with inherent risks, not a roulette wheel of conveyance. An overlooked use of a heel is that it provides a place to mount spurs. Riders attempt to move their mounts with leg pressure against the flank. Some mounts respond to this and others do not. Spurs provide an extra level of persuasion. Without going into the barbarity of the practice, a good rider uses spurs only to get the horse’s attention, not to drive steel into the side of another creature.  That being said medieval spurs are long pointed prongs and I would not want to be the horse under a knight.

Extended stirrup and long spur

So why did men begin to wear stacked heels in the in the 16th century? The connection to 8th through 14th century riders seems a bit spurious, no pun intended. However, a result of the transition from medieval hand weapon warfare to modern gun warfare might have included the evolution of riding tack--the stirrup, the spur and the boot. The spur has been in use in European riding for at least two millennia. Images of mounted horseman from the medieval period show heel-less or nearly heel-less riders using long stirrup straps. Two examples from the late 14th century provide a glimpse of spurs and foot placement for riders without heels. The Livre de Chasse commissioned by Gaston Fébus, Count of Foix and dedicated to Phillip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. Fébus was a renowned hunter so the depiction of riding positions and the accouterments of hunters would have been of vital importance to a sportsman of his stature. The rider’s boots appear to have no heels, but do wear spurs.   The other image illustrates a hunter with the standard riding position of the ball of the foot in the stirrup, but then he appears to be pacing, not pursuing.  In one of the images the huntsman in pursuit of the stag is riding with at least one foot in a ‘jamming it home” stance without the aid of heels.

These 14th century French noblemen for whom riding was a natural part of their existence, appear to be able to ride seriously without high-heels, but with the aid of stirrups. Although this is not an exhaustive study, these examples and other illustrations show medieval horseman riding with heel-less extended legs.  The length of the leg and the geometry of the human body determine the distance covered by this arc.  Due to the nature of the arc, a long strap stirrup may require a long sharp spur in order to compensate for an extended leg holding a stirrup in place rather than the effort going into the use of the spur itself.  From the extant images the size of the heel, if it existed, seems to be inconsequential to the medieval rider.
Chasse, Hunting Gait
Part of this extension may lie in the construction of medieval saddles, which brace the rider from the front and back, thus giving the rider a very secure seat with the stirrups providing a secondary means of balance. This longer stirrup configuration may partly explain the use of the long pointed spurs favored by medieval riders. With a leg in full suspension the spur needs to be longer in order to achieve contact with a horse’s flank. Think of the stirrup as a weight and leg as a pendulum shaft, any movement is limited and dependent upon contact between the two objects, leg and stirrup. The rider’s leg and foot apply pressure that moves the stirrup in an arc.

The next installment will examine the heel.

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