While there is evidence of horses in Japan in the prehistoric periods, it is not until the Kofun era (250 to 538 CE), that archaeologists have evidence of horses being used for riding. This evidence comes in the form of terra cotta models uncovered in the mounded tombs of this period. These models show harnesses and saddles that are nearly identical to those used in Korea. This suggests that the horses, and the way in which they were used, came to Japan from Korea.
At the present time, genetics show that Japanese horses derived from the small sturdy Mongolian horses. In Japan today, eight horse breeds are recognized and all of these are small in stature—averaging 13 to 14 hands. Since there is relatively little pastureland in Japan, horses were generally stabled when they were not being ridden.
During the Heian period (794 to 1185), the era in which the concept of the samurai arose, horses became an essential part of every noble warrior’s equipment. This was an era in which power was centralized around an imperial court based in Kyoto. While it is common to assume that the sword was the soul of the samurai, the samurai’s primary fighting skill was horse-mounted archery. The samurai was the way of the horse and the bow.
During the Heian period, warfare was sometimes based on ritualized duels between mounted archers. At the beginning of the battle, warriors would issue challenges before charging each other, shooting their arrows, and then wheel their horses around to return to their lines. This ritual can be seen in today’s yabusame performance which Ian Bottomly, in his essay on horse accoutrements in The Art of Armor, describes this way:
“During these displays, a series of riders gallop along a prepared track (baba) about 260 yards (240 m) long. Along the left side are three cedar-wood targets, spaced such that the rider has just sufficient time to nock and release an arrow as he passes.”
The early Japanese regarded the horse as the possessor of magical powers. Equestrian culture—horse riding, iron weapons, and armor—played a crucial role in establishing the Yamato state in the sixth century. The Japanese used their horses for warfare rather than for transportation, cultivation, or food.
The bow and arrow also have deep associations with spiritual powers. The sound of the bow could be used to summon friendly spirits as well as warding off evil.
The samurai made sure that their horses would always be treated with the utmost care.
In Japan, the use of horse armor was a relatively late development: it came into use around 1600. The horse armor was made from small squares of lacquered leather which was sewn to a hemp lining. The lacquer enhances the durability of the leather.
Shown above are horse masks intended to protect the front of the horse’s head without covering its eyes. These were made out of boiled leather that was molded and lacquered to represent dragons or caricatures of horses.
Traditional saddles and stirrups were designed to provide a stable platform for archery. With regard to the manufacture of saddles, Ian Bottomly, in his essay on horse accoutrements in The Art of Armor, reports:
“It was the custom for a saddle maker to bend oak saplings into a U shape so that his son or grandson would inherit trees whose grain followed the contours required for making the curved pommel and cantle of the saddle.”The use of leather in Japan was restricted because of Buddhist prohibitions about killing animals, and thus the old form of the girth was folded cloth. Later, strong hemp cords sewn together were used.
The saddle and stirrups shown above date to the late Edo era in the nineteenth century. The saddle is made from wood, and the stirrups are forged iron.
Stirrups, such as those shown above, were usually forged from thick sheet iron. The sole had a raised rim to hold a wooden sole plate in position.
Painted screens often display mounted Samurai warriors.
In the scene shown above, a samurai demonstrates his skill for the shogun. According to the display:
“Pressing his stallion in a gallop, he stands in his stirrups and aims at a small wooden target. During a run of 280 yards, he will shoot at three targets.”
In 2012 the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Museum: The Samurai Collection was created in Dallas, Texas. A fraction of the holdings from this collection were presented in a special exhibition at the Portland Art Museum. All of the photographs in this diary were taken at this special exhibition.