Posts from the ‘High Stepping Horses’ Category

I need a farrier… is there a farrier in the house?

I have been thinking about the hippo sandal for months now and we have come up with a number of interesting theories.  What we need to explain is what it was used for… We know that it was a piece of horse tack worn on the hoofs the key problem is that we also know that modern horses can not get on with them.  A reconstruction for time team shows a very unhappy horse wobbling about on a set of hippo sandals looking uncomfortable.

This blog has seen a number theories about the hippo sandal, was it a training shoe? was it a hobbling device? was it protection against caltrops? or was it merely an emergency horseshoe?

So I did some reading, and read something interesting on Wikopedia…

“When a horse has certain types of lameness, the farrier may use the frog for support, using specialized shoes that help keep correct pressure on the frog so that less force is transmitted to the wall and sole of the foot or to the navicular bone, coffin bone, and deep digital flexor tendon.”

Now one of the interesting things about the Hippo sandal is how rare it is given that the centrality of the horse in the ancient world, especially in war.  It has always haunted me that an item that should be so ubiquitous should be such a rare find.  We should see a lot more of them even if horse shoes are so hard to find after they have been thrown.

So any explanation should account for this.  Now my new idea is that the hippo sandal was not a horse shoe, not a tactical tool but rather an ancient example of one of the above mentioned “specialist shoes” designed to correct the pressure on the frog.

So if any of you lovely readers is a farrier then please get in touch.

Another theory about the Hipposandal…protection from Caltrops

Right so this is a running theme of the blog… what in the name of Jupiters divine posterior was this thing for.  So far we have theorized that it was a hobbling device  a training device to get horses to highstep but not quite dismissed the idea that it was a temporary horse shoe… well not all of us.  The most exciting thing was talking to Amanda (thus avoiding having to actively participate in a little girls birthday party) and discovering that a similar design is currently being marketed and sold to equestrians (that means horsey people).

So guess what I did today…I was in the museum looking at the artifacts.  First I looked at the hippo sandal then the Caligae and then a caltrop.   Then I looked back to the hippo sandal and then the caltrop then the sole of the Caligae.


The Caligae are an important piece of kit for the ancient Roman soldier.  They have thick soles reinforced with hobnails.  The Roman soldier had the best footware in the ancient world… maybe only rivaled by modern boots.  These were boots that enabled him to march over difficult ground and protect his soles spikes, caltrops and sharp stones not to mention a terrible weapon that enable the legionary to stamp a downed enemy into jelly.  But the caltrops held my attention.

Caltrops, known to the Romans as a tribulus, are a area denial weapon sown onto a battlefield to cripple men, horses and extreme cases elephants (and in the modern age tanks).  The enemy would stand on them and express their discontent in a loud manner before trying to get the thing out of their foot.  A charge of foot men is impossible, horses are rended lame and elephants go bonkers but the last thing the Romans would want is for their own horses to be denied the same area.  In fact a charge of light horse would change a faltering charge into a rout ,without the heavy infantry from even having to draw their gladius, in no time but they would need to protect their own horses frogs (the soft bit of the foot) from the caltrops.

What caught my attention was the “sole” of the shoe which is completely covered.  This iron base would be sufficient to squash any spike down allowing the horsemen to ride over caltrops with complete contempt… and of course anything else which was on the battlefield.

More on the Hippo sandal

Prancing horses from the Trajan Colum

Artistic licence or trained high stepping Roman cavalry

Further to my previous blog on this mysterious exhibit at the Lunt Fort …. I was speaking recently to a visitor who happened to be a horse breeder. She was fascinated by the Hipposandal and readily agreed that it would have worked as a temporary hobbling device – but also put forward another possibility. She suggested that it may have been a TRAINING device, and felt that it would have been used to train a horse to HIGH-STEP.

That Roman cavalry mounts were able to high-step is easily supported by evidence from funeral monuments – and especially from Trajan’s Column. Three examples from the Lunt frieze are included here. They show horses high-stepping, and high-cantering. Horses need specific training to do this.
The next question is WHY? Are we dealing here with an artistic convention – or was the high-step a ceremonial ornament …… or was there a practical use in warfare for a horse able to high-step its forelegs?
More questions. However, one thing is certain – Hipposandals are never found in quantity. This would fit well with the notion of them being training devices.

The Lunt Hipposandal

The  Lunt  Hipposandal

Of all the finds from the Lunt dig which now reside in our cabinets – the HIPPOSANDAL has to be among the most intriguing.

In archaeological reports such objects are normally described as “temporary horseshoes”. That is exactly as our specimen is described in the Final Report of the Lunt excavations. On the face of it this seems a reasonable explanation. Yet there is far more to this question than meets the eye.

Why would the Roman cavalry need special “ temporary horseshoes”? Well, the obvious answer would seem to be that in the case of a thrown shoe a temporary replacement would be fitted by the rider. This, of course, presupposes the routine use of modern-style nailed on shoes by the Romans. Despite ample evidence to the contrary, there are those who will have us believe that the Romans knew nothing of such things. I think that “normal” horseshoes were widely used, especially in Northern Europe where soft, wet ground would often cause problems for unshod mounts.  In more arid areas of the Empire horses may well have remained quite happily unshod. But I hear the cry “Where is the Evidence?” It is undeniable that finds of Roman horseshoes (and hipposandals!) are rare. Why? Because iron was a precious commodity, and all worn shoes would have been automatically melted down for re-use. A horseshoe is a difficult object to lose – unlike a coin!

So, if we entertain the existence of normal horseshoes in the Roman cavalry (particularly in units stationed in Britain) – then how can a hipposandal be used? You only have to glance at our hipposandal on display to realise that it is a somewhat curious contrivance. The hook apparently passes under the “heel” of the hoof, and the base-plate with its side-wings are somehow lashed to the fetlocks. It is very different to a nailed-on shoe. So different, in fact, that it seems unreasonable to expect any horse to run on three “nail-ons” and one hipposandal.  Therefore, it would seem that hipposandals must have been used to shoe all four hooves.

However, there is a slight problem here. HORSES CANT WALK IN THEM.  Well, they can  –  but they teeter along as if wearing high heels. And a reluctant, faltering walk is all you are going to get. Forget about trotting, let alone galloping!

We know this for a fact. Modern reconstructive experiments have conclusively shown that horses will not accept the hipposandal. Lets face it, they don’t look as if they are going to work. You don’t need to be a horse expert to sense that. So what on earth is going on? Why strap on a shoe that the horse cannot walk on?

I was discussing this question the other day with Dominic Russell, here at the fort. He made a very interesting point which deserves further consideration. Could the hipposandal be an intentional HOBBLING DEVICE?

Hobbling a horse simply means immobilising its legs – most simply achieved by tying them together. However, fitting a single hipposandal OVER a nail-on might possibly produce a very useful state of semi-mobility, meaning that a horse could graze if left for a protracted period, without wandering very far. Fitting two hipposandals would totally immobilise. Its easy to imagine tactical situations where either option might be useful.

The archaeological evidence at the Lunt points strongly to the deployment of a “Cohors Equitata” here. This implies a part-mounted cohort, composed, very roughly, of 300 light infantry auxilia and 200 cavalry. The way in which such a mixed force would have deployed in battle presents a good opportunity for a future blog, so without going any further into this question now – suffice it to say that battlefield tactics would have  certainly covered scenarios where the cavalry were required to dismount, possibly moving off to support the infantry contingent. The horses, each hobbled with a single hipposandal, would not go far, and could be supervised by, perhaps, only one or two men. Not needing  to detach men to hold horses would mean a 12.5% increase in the potential manpower available for “dragoon”-style tactics. This assumes that one trooper  might  hold eight horses – though  more men would be needed if the mounts  were excited or frightened.

Its certainly a beguiling idea – but the “tactical hobbling” theory has one nasty fly in the ointment. A cavalryman, operating as a dragoon, needs to be able to dismount, secure his horse in some manner, and move quickly on foot to his battle position. But even more importantly, he needs to be able to RETRIEVE his mount with the utmost speed. His life may regularly depend on this ability. A soldier holding the horses is certainly the most effective means of quick release for each mount as its rider returns. The reins are passed, the rider vaults into his saddle (no stirrups!) – and away! In contrast, a trooper racing back to his hipposandalled mount will have to stop……and fiddle for agonising moments.  It has to be quick and easy. Are there straps with quick release buckles? Lets hope so – because there certainly isn’t going to be time to start untying knots! Or does he cut the straps or thongs? Whichever way – vital time is disappearing.

It’s a pity that the whole business of re-mounting rather spoils a neat theory explaining the purpose of the hipposandal. To me, at least, it remains inexplicable.

Anyone got any thoughts on this?                                                           Rob

P.S.        “Hippo”  Greek for  Horse      (nothing to do with dancing hippopotami  – that was Walt Disney)

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