Western Stirrups


Welcome to Western Stirrups

A site dedicated to enlightening the novice horse owner about Sitrrups and other saddle considerations

Stirrups seem like a straight forward piece of horse tack. Nearly every saddle has two.

It is fairly obvious that stirrups are used to facilitate mounting your horse.

But the easy part ends there. There are several types of stirrups that should be understood, depending on your riding style and terrain. Which type of stirrups is best for what purpose is important to know.



The stirrup consists of the tread (the U-shaped piece) with a roller across the top that is bolted on both sides. The bolt wear leather covers the bolt and allows the stirrup to swing from the stirrup leathers of the saddle. There are frequently wear leathers (sometimes rubber) on the bottom of the tread to give traction to the rider's foot.



The first saddles had no stirrups. Eventually, Asian soft stirrups became Spanish wood-carved stirrups. Then the steam-curved wooden stirrup evolved into a metal-covered wooden stirrup used by our western horsemen. Eventually new metals, materials, and designs have brought us the western stirrups of today.

The military has a crucial role in the development of many technologies. So it is with the lowly stirrup. Because the stirrup gave a rider more stability and allowed the rider to lean further to the left and right in horse-mounted battles, it was crucial to the art of war. Today it is a definite part of the safety equipment of every saddle.



Depending on what activity you and your horse will engage in, the type of stirrup you want will be different.

Different shapes require the foot to inserted differently or weight to be spread differently. If you will spend considerable time in the saddle, the new wide-bottom endurance stirrups with padded treads will be a huge benefit. You certainly would NOT want a bronc stirrup which has a rounded bottom and is used almost exclusively in the rodeo arena. It is intended for short-term use, no bulk, and ease of dismount.

Some newer features that make a stirrup more comfortable include a swivel at the top of the stirrup so that it is allowed to swivel to a right angle to the horse's side.(Heavy western saddles are often stored with a broom stick through the stirrups under the saddle to "teach" the stirrups to rotate outward). That is the more natural angle of your foot, and hours of riding with a saddle whose stirrups are stiff and won't come around can put a lot of uncomfortable pressure on your ankle and your knees.

Other stirrups have a slanted bottom, again to mimic the natural seat of your foot.

And still others - particularly western stirrups - have wider bottoms altogether than English stirrups to spread the pressure over more of the foot.

Most saddle manufacturers today will add a stirrup to their saddles that is intended for the use for which the saddle was intended. For instance, a trail riding stirrup is usually broader at the bottom and more comfortable. A pleasure riding stirrup is often broad but decorated for eye-appeal. Barrel racing stirrups usually have a moderate tread width - wide enough for some comfort, but narrow enough to not be lost at high speed. However, nothing says you cannot replace the original stirrups with those that fit both your foot and your activity. In fact, if they are not a good match, it is important that you do so if you want to stay safe and comfortable.




Where you place your foot in the stirrup impacts your safety as well as your ability to absorb shock up your leg. Generally speaking, the foot is placed in the stirrup so that the ball of the foot is over the tread leather. This gives good support but sends shock through the flexible ankle to be dissipated before it reaches the knees and back. A foot that is more "home" or shoved further into the stirrup increases the risk of being hung up in case of a fall and also puts more pressure on the arch of the foot - a weak structure that decreases flexibility in the ankle and tends to send shock through the more rigid knees.

The exception to the "ball-of-foot" rule is the Oxbow stirrup, which is designed to be ridden with the arch of the foot over the tread. The Oxbow stirrup is an old style and has a rounded bottom as opposed to most of today's "box" style stirrups with flat bottoms. With the Oxbow, the foot is inserted all of the way to the heel. This type of riding style requires a good steel arch in the boot to dissipate the arch pressure.



Speed, Mobility, Communication, Stability, and Comfort dictate how you adjust your stirrups. Control and security are decreased in direct proportion to the length of the stirrup. The shortest stirrups offer least control but give most speed and mobility. Longest stirrups give most communication and control but impede speed and agility.

The faster the speed at which you ride, the more forward you must be positioned over the center of balance of the horse and the shorter the stirrups should be adjusted. Thus, race horses use a VERY short stirrup, allowing the rider to practically ride the neck.

A long stirrup allows the legs to be just slightly bent, the seat to be deep, and give the rider the most communication with the horse through leg signals. The deep seat is most stable. Again the military took full advantage of long stirrups for heavy cavalry who needed stability when fighting. Shorter stirrups were more common in light cavalry who needed speed and agility and adopted a more forward seat.

Pleasure riders generally use a long stirrup so that they can relax back and enjoy the ride. Additionally, rough terrain may toss a rider too and fro, and longer stirrups provide a more secure seat. Longest stirrups are used by dressage riders who want the most control over every nuance of their horse's movement. Cutting horse riders also use a very long stirrup for maximum security as their horses make very abrupt turns and stops.

Riders of other sports generally adjust the stirrup length to maximize whichever attribute they need or to strike a balance among the needs. For instance, Endurance riders usually prefer an intermediate stirrup length that provides security against being unseated but also gives the horse a little more mobility. And calf ropers need a little less stirrup to sit forward when the horse leaves the chute in a quick sprint but to have enough security to swing a lariat.

ALWAYS check to be sure that your stirrup leathers, buckles and other tools are in good condition. Also be especially careful that the stirrups are adjusted evenly. Because most people have one leg slightly shorter than the other, many stirrups adjustments done by feel are improper. The rider weight distribution will always lean toward the shorter stirrup and can cause saddle sores and poor performance.



While stirrups greatly add to the safety of riders, helping to prevent becoming unseated, they also add a dimension of danger in the case of a fall. There are various ways a rider's foot can become trapped in a stirrup. If a stirrup is too wide, it can allow a rider's foot to slide all of the way through the stirrup and trap it there. If the stirrup is too small, the rider's foot can become trapped in the small opening, failing to release when the rider goes down.

Many novice riders fail to place their feet properly. The proper way to ride most stirrups is using only the ball of the foot on the tread. If the foot is jammed all the way into the stirrup ending up with the tread under the arch, it is much harder to get out of it. It is also dangerous to the rider's foot structure to spend hours with weight centered on the arch of the foot.

Novice riders also ride in poorly-planned footwear. Mountain boots, tennis shoes, or other gripping and heavy-soled shoes are dangerous. Cowboy boots and riding boots became a popular type of footwear for equestrian use as a safety feature. The pointed toe makes it much easier to extricate the foot from the stirrup. The raised heel helps keep the boot from slipping through the stirrup and the smooth sole slides in an out easily. Watch for these features when purchasing riding boots. Many western boots today are made with gripping soles and broad toes.

Some new types of English stirrups have been developed to "break-away" if a rider is being dragged.. Other designs that help protect your own feet from damage include stirrups with wider treads and padded treads.

The stirrup should be fitted to the individual rider's boot size. It should be neither more narrow than nor wider than 1" wider than the widest part of the rider's boot.