The stirrup is a ring with a flat bottom fixed on a leather strap, usually hung from each side of a saddle by an adjustable strap to create a footrest for a person using a riding animal (usually a horse or other equine, such as a mule), used as a support for the foot of a rider when seated in the saddle and as an aid in mounting. It greatly increases the rider's ability to stay in the saddle and control the mount, increasing the animal's usefulness in communication, transportation and warfare. It is considered one of the basic tools used to create and spread modern civilization. Some argue it is as important as the wheel or printing press.
The English word "stirrup" stems from Old English stirap, stigrap, or Middle English stirop, styrope, i.e. a mounting or climbing-rope.
The stirrup, which gave greater stability to a rider, has been described as one of the most significant inventions in the history of warfare, prior to gunpowder. As a tool allowing expanded use of horses in warfare, the stirrup is often called the third revolutionary step in equipment, after the chariot and the saddle. The basic tactics of mounted warfare were significantly altered by the stirrup. A rider supported by stirrups was less likely to fall off while fighting, and could deliver a blow with a weapon that more fully employed the weight and momentum of horse and rider.
The invention of the solid saddle tree allowed development of the true stirrup as it is known today. Without a solid tree, the rider's weight in the stirrups creates abnormal pressure points and make the horse's back sore. Modern researchers have done thermography studies on "treeless" and flexible tree saddle designs have found that there is considerable friction across the center line of a horse's back.
In Asia, early solid-treed saddles were made of felt that covered a wooden frame. These designs date to approximately 200 BC. One of the earliest solid-treed saddles in the west was first used by the Romans as early as the first century BC, but this design also did not have stirrups. The first dependable representation of a rider with paired stirrups was found in China in a Jin Dynasty tomb of about A.D. 322. The stirrup appeared to be in widespread use across China by 477 AD.
Stirrups reached Sweden in the 6th century, leading to the establishment of mounted Thegns during the Swedish Vendel Age. Rich graves from this period held the remains and regalia of mounted elite warriors, which include stirrups. The importance of the horse during this time is reflected in the later Norse sagas, where the 6th century Swedish king Adils is said to have been a great lover of horses and to have had the best horses of his days. Interestingly, all accounts of this king's warfare describe him as fighting on horseback, although the later Vikings rarely did so. A 6th century writer, Jordanes, claimed that the Swedes had the best horses beside the Thuringians, reflecting the importance of the horse during this time.
By the 7th century, primarily due to invaders from Central Asia, such as the Avars, stirrups spread across Asia to Europe. By the 8th century, they appear to have been adopted by the Europeans. Among other advantages, stirrups provided greater balance and support to the rider, which allowed the knight to use a sword more efficiently without falling, especially against infantry adversaries. Contrary to common image, stirrups do not enable the horseman to use a lance more effectively (cataphracts had used lances since antiquity), but a cantled saddle does.
Charles Martel recognized the military potentialities of the stirrup,and distributed seized lands to his retainers on condition that they serve him by fighting in the new manner. Later, Charlemagne ordered his poorer vassals to pool their resources and provide a mounted and armed knight, though the system proved unworkable, and instead the system of distributing land to vassals based on a knight's service was developed.
On an English saddle, leathers are quite thin, only about one inch wide. On a western saddle, they are very heavy, three to four inches wide on the side closest to the horse, and even wider, expanded into a decorative "fender" on the outside (which also protects the rider's legs from the sweat of the horse). Stirrup leathers on other saddle designs fall in between the extremes represented by the English and western saddles.
Stirrup leathers are usually manufactured so that the smooth side of the leather faces the wearing surface, as the smooth side wears less quickly than the rough side. There are also modern alternatives to leather, including nylon, plastic covered nylon (biotane being one example) or leather over a nylon reinforced core. These new "leathers" may last longer and also resist stretching. On the other hand, they may chafe and rub the leg, and poorly-made products may break more easily than leather.
As the rider's whole weight must be carried at one side when mounting, on an English saddle, one stirrup leather often becomes stretched longer than the other, usually the left one, because most mounting occurs on that side. While a simple adjustment of the leather can even up the stirrups, to preserve the integrity and longevity of the leathers, they should be switched to the opposite sides from time to time. On a western saddle, with a heavier, permanently installed fender and stirrup leather that cannot be switched, stretching is slower and less extreme, though it also occurs in this type of saddle. Any uneveness in the leathers can be managed by adjusting the stirrup length, and if necessary, by adding extra holes in the leathers to allow them to be buckled at an intermediate point between the existing prepunched holes provided by the saddle manufacturer.
There are two basic methods of using stirrups, a shorter stirrup to allow more mobility and a longer stirrup to allow greater control. The stirrup itself is similar, but the length of the stirrup leather is different. In each case, the stirrup length allows the rider to remain over the center of balance of the horse for the average speed characteristic of the discipline; the faster the horse travels, the more forward the rider must be positioned, and hence the shorter the stirrup.
Long stirrups allow the rider to ride with a long leg, with the knee relaxed and only slightly bent, allowing a deep and stable seat in the saddle. When riding a long stirrup, the rider has excellent control of the horse and the greatest ability to feel and communicate with the horse via the riding aids. This provides a sturdy base for activities where precision is required or when the rider is at risk of being unseated. For both reasons, long stirrups were thus the choice of heavy cavalry such as the medieval knights, who fought in close quarters and used weapons such as the lance and long, heavy swords. Historically, this type of stirrup adjustment and the riding seat it produced was called la brida. Today it is the choice for dressage and many types of western riders.
Shorter stirrups require a rider to keep the knees bent at a greater angle. When riding in a short stirrup, the rider has the ability to partially stand up and get the seat clear of the saddle. This allows more mobility than a longer stirrup would, but at the cost of having less feel of the horse and less security. It is a position designed to help the horse achieve greater speed, and also allows the rider greater physical mobility in the saddle. When riding with short stirrups, the rider often adopts what is known as a forward seat, thus inhibiting the horse's balance and athletic maneuverings as little as possible. In the past, this style was preferred by light cavalry. These fighters required speed and needed the flexibility to turn their own bodies in any direction to use light weapons such as the bow, javelin, short swords, and later, the rifle and pistol. The horsemen of Central Asia, such as the Mongols, used this type of stirrup, as did the islamic Bedouin and Moors of the Middle East and North Africa. Historically, this type of stirrup adjustment and the seat it produced was called la jineta. Modern Jockeys, eventers, and show jumping riders use this type of stirrup, as do some cowboys when performing certain jobs that require a forward position to allow agility of horse and rider, such as calf roping
While an inexperienced rider may feel more secure with a slightly too-short stirrup, in reality, it is actually easier to be thrown from the horse because the rider's legs act as a stabilizing agent, much in the same way the long pole of a tightrope walker balances the acrobat. Obviously, a stirrup leather so long that a rider cannot reach it is useless, and a stirrup length that does not allow a rider with a properly positioned leg to keep the heel lower than the toe is also easily lost. However, shortening the stirrup until the rider feels they will not lose the stirrup is counterproductive; the goal of correct equestrianism is to make maximum use of the leg. Lengthening the leg creates a more secure seat, while shortening the stirrup is done only to accommodate the needs of the horse to perform athletic movement. Thus correct stirrup length creates a balance between control and mobility that fits the discipline performed.
There are a spectrum of stirrup lengths, which the rider may chose depending on the purpose. For example, in dressage, the longest possible stirrup length is used in order for the rider to have complete control over every nuance of the horse's movement. Likewise, a very long stirrup is used in the western sport of cutting, where, though the rider relinquishes control to the horse, requires maximum security to stay in the saddle during the rapid stops, turns and bursts of speed the horse uses when maneuvering cattle. For a comfortable ride over long hours at slow speeds, the long stirrup is also preferred by trail riders.
Riders jumping low fences may wish for an intermediate length stirrup that can allow the horse some freedom of movement, while supporting the rider over the fence, and still providing enough leg for excellent communication. A rider travelling rapidly cross-country, over varying terrain while fox hunting or endurance riding, will also have an intermediate stirrup, needing to strike a compromise between mobility for the horse and the need of the rider to not be unseated. In the western rodeo sport of calf roping, a moderately short stirrup is also required to help the horse to sprint quickly from the box, and to allow the cowboy the freedom to swing a lariat.
A show jumping rider will have a shorter stirrup than other English riders, in order to maximize the jumping effort of the horse. However, the rider also has the challenge of staying on over the fence and controlling the horse through rapid changes of pace and direction, so still needs some length of leg for stability.
Jockeys must be completely off their horse's backs, balanced well forward over the withers, to allow their mount optimum speed in a long, galloping stride. Therefore they have the shortest possible stirrup length. The cost for maximum speed is minimum control and security. Jockeys must be in superb muscular condition and possess outstanding balance; they cannot achieve the finesse of leg aids needed in other equestrian sports, and must rely primarily on the use of their seat and a crop for speed, and on their arm strength for directional control or slowing down. Their relative lack of control is clearly demonstrated by the use of "pony" horses to lead the race horse and jockey to the track, the use of assistants at the starting gate to load the horses, and the availability of outriders (all with much longer stirrups) to assist the jockey at the end of a race or in the event of an accident. If the horse does anything but run in essentially a straight line with long gradual curves, or if anything goes seriously wrong, jockeys can easily be thrown, as their high rate of injury so amply illustrates.
One reason riders can become hung up is due to improper stirrup sizing. If the stirrup is too large, the foot can go through the stirrup opening and be caught. If the stirrup is too small, the foot can become trapped more easily as the foot cannot free itself. (see Fitting the stirrup, below). Proper stirrup placement, on the ball of the foot, instead of jammed "home" clear up to the arch, also lowers the risk of a rider being dragged.
Modern English saddles are designed with a stirrup bar that allows the stirrup leathers to fall from the saddle if the rider starts to be dragged. Some English stirrups are also designed with breakaway sides or non-standard designs intended to make it easier for the foot to come out of the stirrup when necessary.
Western saddles have significantly wider stirrups, particularly at the tread, to minimize this risk. Sometimes, they are equipped with tapaderos, leather covers over the toe that close each stirrup from the front. A tapadero prevents the rider's boot from slipping through and also prevents brush encountered while working cattle on the open range from poking through the stirrup, injuring or impeding the horse or rider. However, the tapadero is not common in modern times and is not allowed in most show competition.
The second design flaw of the stirrup affects the health of the human foot. The rider's whole weight is at times supported entirely by the stirrups. During these periods, excessive pressure can be exerted on the Peroneus Tertius tendon which runs along the lateral side of the foot. In extreme cases, stirrups have been found to cause damage to the tuberosity of the 5th metatarsal bone. Over long periods of extreme use, this can cause various medical conditions ranging from simple impaired walking to severe pronation or supination of the foot. Normal riders, however, generally have no related problems, even over a lifetime of riding. Disciplines that require long hours in the saddle, such as endurance riding and some types of western riding on a working ranch, often use a wider stirrup to provide more support to the foot.
For the comfort of the horse, all stirrups require that the saddle itself be properly designed. The solid tree of the saddle distributes the weight of the rider over a greater surface area of the horse's back, reducing pressure on any one area. If a saddle is made without a solid tree, without careful engineering, the rider's weight in the stirrups and leathers can create pressure points on the horse's back and lead to soreness. This is especially noticeable with inexpensive bareback pads that add stirrups by means of a strap across the horse's back with a stirrup at each end.
Footwear such as a tennis shoe or a hiking boot is considered inappropriate for riding both because the shoe has little or no raised heel and because the heavy tread that provides traction for athletic endeavors can cause the foot to catch in the stirrup and become trapped. Modern synthetic materials have allowed the design of riding boots that will slide from a stirrup but are also comfortable for walking, with a sole using varying hard and soft materials that provides reasonable traction with a minimal amount of raised tread.
One of the most dangerous problems with the stirrup is the fact that the rider can get a boot stuck in it in the event of a fall, which would result in the person being dragged. Several different designs have been developed to allow the stirrup to break away, fall off or easily release the foot if the rider falls. Other modern stirrup designs have changed the angle or orientation of the tread, either permanently or by added hinges, supposedly to help the rider flex the ankle and get weight into the heels. Other experimental improvements have included a swivel feature at the top of the leather to keep the stirrup turned out to face the rider's foot.
Stirrups used on English saddles are usually made of metal. Though called "irons," they are no longer made of iron, as a rule, but instead stainless steel is the metal of choice, due to its strength, though when weight is an issue, such as for a jockey, they may also be made of aluminum. Inexpensive stirrups may be made of nickel, which can easily bend or break and should be avoided. Stirrups may also be made of synthetic materials and various metallic alloys. There are many variations on the standard stirrup design, most claiming to either be safer in the event of a fall or to make it easier for a rider to maintain a proper foot and leg position.
Some variations include:
The stirrup of a western saddle is more difficult to remove or replace than the English stirrup and therefore, unless damaged, the same stirrups usually are kept on for the life of the saddle itself. The tread is mostly flat, but may be curved at the sides to some degree. The branches are wide at the bottom and narrow at the top, where they are joined by a heavy dowel of wood, or rod of metal. The stirrup leather loops under the rod and a "keeper," a strap with a buckle that wraps around the front and back of the stirrup leather, keeps the stirrup in place. Many western stirrups are made of leather-covered wood, others of steel, aluminum, or even very strong fiber-reinforced plastic.
Western stirrups are designed to parallel the use intended by the design of the saddle itself; a trail riding saddle will have a wide, comfortable stirrup, a saddle for saddle bronc riding will have a narrow tread, to avoid being easily lost by the rider. A saddle for barrel racing or reining will have stirrups of a medium width, narrow enough to not be lost when a horse is moving at high speed, but with enough width to remain comfortable for a few hours. Stirrups on a saddle intended for western pleasure may be highly ornamented with silver. Stirrups on saddles used by people who use horses for hunting game in the forest are sometimes made of blaze orange for visibility to other hunters, and, because much big game hunting in the American West takes place late in the year when it is very cold, some "winter boot" designs are deliberately made extra large with an especially smooth bottom so that a person can wear heavy winter boots with a raised tread without as much risk of getting them caught up in the stirrup.
Additionally, the rider's boot should have a heel (both English and Western-style riders).
In general, the stirrup is placed on the ball of the foot, allowing the rider to let his weight flow down the back of the leg into the heel by way of the flexible ankle. This provides the rider with the support of the stirrup while still allowing for him to easily absorb the shock of the horse's motion. If the stirrup is too far forward, on the toes, the rider risks losing if he pushes with too much pressure (forcing it off the foot) or too little (allowing it to simply slide off).
Some riders ride with the stirrup more "home," or shoved toward the heel. This is seen most often in sports such as polo and eventing, where the speed and sudden changes of direction of the former, and the great change in terrain and solid fences of the latter, make the rider more likely to be jarred loose from the saddle and increases the risk of losing a stirrup. However, this placement actually puts the stirrup on the arch of the foot, in a weaker position that leads to tension in the leg, stiffness in the knee and decreases the flexibility of the ankle, and therefore the shock-absorbing ability of the rider; paradoxically increasing the risk of a fall. Additionally, it increases the chance that the rider's foot will become stuck in the stirrup during a fall, a very dangerous situation. This placement is often counterproductive and should not be used if it is not an absolute necessity. The "home" position has some value in saddle bronc riding, as a lost stirrup will almost inevitably result in the rider being thrown from the bucking horse, but because riders are thrown from the horse at a high rate even under normal circumstances, this event also has a high rate of riders being hung up in their stirrups and injured in the process.