The Western Saddle: Stirrups

Stirrups give a rider much more security in his seat than bareback riding. The stirrups are used to balance. By inserting his foot into the contraption at the bottom of the saddle fender, the rider gains stability and the ability to alter his center of gravity over the horse’s back. They also give some measure of relief to a rider’s “bum” when you’ve just plain been in the saddle too long.

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There are two or three considerations for saddle fenders and stirrups. The fenders are the wide leather that drops down from under the jockey, over the skirt and ends with the stirrup. It is meant to protect the rider from the sweat of the horse. The stirrup leathers are the actual weight-bearing leather attached to the tree at the top and the stirrup at the bottom – sewn either behind or on the front edge of the fenders. Standard width is 3″.

saddle stirrup leathers

The placement of stirrup leathers and fenders is important. The stirrup leathers sewn to the back (or front edge) of the fenders should be attached to the saddle a little behind the rider’s knees to get a more free-swinging stirrup as well as proper balance for the rider. If they are placed too far forward, they will create more weight over the horse’s shoulders than is optimum. Too far back, they will also adversely affect the rider’s center of balance.

The length adjustment of the stirrup should be easy to change and should be absolutely even on both sides. If the stirrups become uneven (stirrup leathers can stretch), the saddle gets uneven pressure and begins to warp to one side or the other, destroying the even weight distribution of the tree and causing a sore back.

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The length of your stirrups is adjusted according to your need for speed, mobility, control and stability.

Shorter stirrups are used by riders who need more speed or agility from their horses. Short stirrups sacrifice both communication with the horse (control) and safety for the rider (stability). However, a shorter stirrup moves the rider’s center of gravity up and forward over the withers for more speed. Witness the race horses and jockey riding nearly on the horse’s neck.

Jumpers (who move mostly in straight lines but need agility) use shorter stirrups than cutting horses but longer than race horses. Jumpers need enough communication with the horse to use leg aids but not so long that they inhibit his ability to lift. Again, the rider’s center of gravity is more forward than a simple pleasure riding seat.

Cutting horses make very abrupt turns and stops, toppling a rider who does not have a secure seat. While the rider communicates with the horse very little during the actual exercise, longer stirrups afford much more stability for a whiplashed rider.

At the end of the fenders and above the actual stirrup is the stirrup hobble. They keep the stirrup from turning sideways in the fender and trapping the rider’s foot. They are an essential safety feature.

The hobble strap also helps set the stirrup leathers so that the stirrup turns out at a 90 degree angle to the fender, making it easy to find the off-side stirrup when mounting and also relieving pressure on the knees while riding. This is also helped by storing your saddle with a broomstick through the stirrups from one side to the other under the saddle, forcing the stirrups to stay turned.

There are several shapes of stirrups, depending on the type of riding. The roper stirrup is the most common, but the trail stirrup is gaining in popularity for trail and endurance riding, and the sloped stirrup is also becoming popular because of the added comfort of the slant.

Oxbow stirrups require that the the boot be pushed deep into the stirrup (all of the way up to the heel of the boot) so that it places the stirrup tread under the arch of the boot. The boot needs a good steel arch to distribute the rider’s weight. The roper stirrup is best when only the ball of the foot is placed over the tread. The trail stirrup allows more of the rider’s weight to be distributed over the entire foot.

types of western stirrups leathers

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It is important that you dress properly for riding. Riding boots (both English and Western) are designed to have pointed toes, slick soles, and deep heels. All of these features are for safety. The pointed toe is easier to get in and out of the stirrup. The slick sole slides in and out readily. And the heel prevents the boot from entering too far into the stirrup. Never ride in tennis shoes, mountain boots, mud boots or other gripping shoes. There is far too much danger of being unseated and not being released from the stirrup.

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