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What are Stirrups?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Stirrups are loops with flat bases which are hung from a saddle to support the feet of a rider. The rider's foot rests inside the loop and on the flat part while riding, allowing the rider to have greater balance, stability, and control. Historians often count the stirrup as one of the major inventions in warfare, because stirrups totally changed the function and role of mounted cavalry. The development of the stirrup also, of course, revolutionized riding; a wide variety of stirrups are used today by riders all over the world.

The basic stirrup design has not changed very much over the centuries. The loop can be made from wood, metal, or even plastic, and it is attached to the saddle by a strip of leather or nylon known as a stirrup leather or leather. Leathers can be adjusted to accommodate the rider's leg length, and for specific styles of riding; jockeys, for example, ride with very short leathers which allow them to perch over the horse's center of gravity for increased efficiency. Western riders tend to use more broad stirrups and leathers, while English riders use narrower stirrups, sometimes called irons.

India appears to be the home of the stirrup, with the earliest evidence of stirrups dating to around 500 BCE in India. By the first century CE, stirrups were in wide use in Siberia, and the Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans picked up the innovation shortly afterwards. In around the sixth century, stirrups crept into Scandinavia, and a century later, stirrups swept through the Middle East and into mainland Europe.

The stirrup is so ubiquitous today that it may be hard for many to imagine riding without it. Prior to the development of the stirrup, riders had to grip their horses with their legs, and their balance and control were compromised. Mounted warriors usually dismounted in the battlefield, using their horses primarily as a mode of transit. When warriors could stay in the saddle while using swords, axes, and other weapons, they gained a significant advantage.

Modern stirrups take a number of forms, as do leathers. When riding, it is important to make sure that the leathers are adjusted appropriately; if the stirrups are too low or too high, the rider lacks control. It is also important to wear proper footwear; riding boots are specifically designed to fit well with stirrups, protecting the rider's leg without sliding through the stirrup, which could potentially be dangerous if a rider falls.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Sports n' Hobbies researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By kentuckycat — On Sep 27, 2011

@Emilski - From experience riding I can honestly say that you are right in your assessment. A saddle is nearly worthless without good stirrups and they are a necessity to have while riding. The strange thing though is a saddle that is a bit worn is more comfortable than a saddle that is new. A new saddle is a little stiff and has not been broken in on a horse, but good stirrups are needed while riding.

If I were to go out and buy a saddle I would need very good stirrups on it and I would probably be looking for a used one, as long as it is not ancient, from someone that was about the same size as me. A good worn saddle would be perfect for someone that intended to do some serious riding, but totally worthless without some good stirrups.

By Emilski — On Sep 26, 2011

@matthewc23 - Well it would depend what kind of saddle you have and what you are looking to get out of it. Most saddles that are sold are going to be used for riding and would need to have good stirrups. So if you were made an offer so someone could use the saddle for riding then you need to replace the stirrups.

However, some saddles that are rare are worth a lot of money to just be used for display purposes. If this is the case then you need to keep the original stirrups intact and look to sell it to a museum or something. Odds are this is not the case and you are only going to sell it to someone looking to use it for riding. What I would do is buy a pair of stirrups, which if you shop around they can be fairly affordable, and let people know you have a saddle for sale. If someone makes a really good offer and wants to use it for riding you can simply tell them you have stirrups ready and can easily replace them. This may even get you a little more money out of them because the stirrups are new.

By matthewc23 — On Sep 26, 2011

@Emilski - I have a saddle at my house and have been looking to sell it. I have never used it and only have it because it was given to me and I thought it would be a neat thing to have. I have seen how much saddles are worth and have been looking to sell the saddle but have had a problem that you have mentioned, the stirrups are very worn.

I have thought that the saddle would be worth more with the original stirrups intact, but they are so worn that if someone were to actually use it they would not be able to more that long and would probably end up replacing them anyway. So my question is would it really be better to simply get rid of the old stirrups?

By Emilski — On Sep 25, 2011

I am not at all a cowboy but I do know the value of saddles. When someone is looking to sell a saddle to a collector or have it appraised the first thing that anyone is going to look at is the wear on the saddle and to do this they will first look at the stirrups.

Most of the time someone can tell how much a saddle has been used by looking at the wear on the stirrups, as this will give an indication as to how much the saddle has been used in riding. If it is very worn it is show and the value of the saddle will be heavily decreased.

From experience it is almost better for someone to replace the stirrups on a saddle if they are looking to sell it than to have the original stirrups still in place.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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