One of the most basic pieces of equipment used in riding is the stirrup. Whether attached to a back pad or saddle, the stirrup helps the rider stay balanced and aids in posting the trot and mounting. Stirrups are thought to have evolved from the needs of mounted soldiers who had to stabilize their balance to accurately aim and shoot lances, bows and other armaments. Many ancient images depict riders sitting in saddles without stirrups, but stirrups come in many different shapes and over history, their form has changed--from simple loops used in prehistoric times, and by the native peoples of North America, to the delicate metal slipper shaped stirrups used by ladies riding side saddle.
Stirrups have been made of leather, wood, metals and synthetic materials. They can be plain or decorative. More and more popular today is the safety stirrup, as one of the dangers of using stirrups is that it's possible to get a foot caught in one during an 'unscheduled dismount'. No matter what style of riding you choose there is a safety stirrup that not only looks great, but allows the rider's foot to slide out safely.
There are several types of English and western safety stirrups available and are called by different brand names. They are made to slide apart or open up if the rider takes a fall. Some, like my Mountain Horse stirrups look almost identical to regular stirrups. Others are designed on less traditional lines with curved or slanted sides. Which one you choose will depend on how you ride. If you only ride at home or on trail, then you can pick one that is comfortable for you without regards to looks. If you plan on showing, you’ll need stirrups that look more traditional.
The English stirrup has changed little over the last century. You may find very old stirrups with solid bottoms. But today's stirrup has an open oval where you rest your foot that is usually covered with a white or black stirrup pad (or tread). Some variations are angled in various ways to prevent ankle and leg pain. These are called offset stirrups. Others are turned where the stirrup leather loops through the top, so they sit sideways to the horse, rather than flat against the horse. This makes it easier to pick up your stirrup with your toe while riding and prevents the stirrup leather from sitting against your calf twisted. This stirrup is suitable for general riding and showing. A safe riding boot must be worn with this type of stirrup.
English Fillis Stirrups
Fillis stirrups are similar to common English stirrups, and are sometimes called knife edged stirrups. The are somewhat heavier than common stirrups because the area where your foot rests is thicker and the oval in the middle 'deeper'. These stirrups were designed by James Fillis, a French military and dressage trainer in the late 1800s. Most dressage riders use a Fillis stirrup. One advantage of the Fillis stirrup that I've found is that because they are heavier, they are easier to get your toe back in should you lose a stirrup while riding. I don't like them because they have no safety features. You must wear a proper boot with a heel to prevent your foot slipping through. (James Fillis' Book Breaking and Riding is considered a clssic treatise on dressage riding. Breaking and Riding is available for download in several different formats including epub, html and pdf.)
Endurance Trail Riding Stirrups
Endurance stirrups are great for trail riders who spend long hours in the saddle. One problem that endurance riders have is pressure across the bottom of the foot from a narrow stirrup. I know from experience that sole of your foot can become almost numb after posting a number of hours in regular stirrups during a long ride like a competitive trail or endurance ride. Endurance stirrups eliminate that by being very wide, and well padded under the foot. They hang straight, rather than sideways like traditional stirrups, to avoid chaffing by a twisted stirrup leather. They are made with very lightweight but strong materials, as one of the goals of most endurance riders is to keep tack lightweight. These stirrups may be hooded as well, so the foot doesn't slide through in case of a fall.
Western Bell Stirrups
These Western stirrups are called 'Bell' because of their shape. They are one of the most common western stirrups you will see. They are often made of wood, metal or plastic. Often they are made of bent wood, sheathed on the outside with a light metal that is left plain or may be engraved. Those made for showing may be very ornate.
English Peacock Stirrup
English peacock stirrups are a simple safety stirrup, most often used by children. If the rider falls, the foot will pull through the heavy elastic band that makes up one side of the stirrup. These thick elastic and the leather that holds them to the small hooks on stirrup are replaceable. Either plain or Fillis stirrups may be peacock stirrups as well.
There a few variations on the design. I have a pair of Mountain Horse safety stirrups that incorporate a piece of tubing, rather than the elastic, giving the stirrup a sleeker, non-safety stirrup look. The down side of peacock stirrups is that many are made for children and may bend over time if an adult uses them, unless they’re specifically made for an adult.
There is a safety risk with the common peacock stirrup. There have been incidents where the rider dismounts and catches a belt or other piece of clothing on one of the hooks that hold the elastic. In one story I heard, a young girl's belt was caught by the stirrup as she dismounted and she was dragged, causing serious injury. The recommendation is to pick up the stirrup and hang it over the opposite side of the saddle so it is out of the way when dismounting.
Oxbow Western Stirrups
Oxbow stirrups are another common western design. Named for their round shape, these stirrups can be plain or very ornate. Although I like the look of these stirrups, I can’t imagine riding with my feet resting in such a narrow area formed by the curve. These are a traditonal design, and I recall seeing them on a very old western saddle that dated from about the early 1900s.
Jointed English Stirrups
Jointed English stirrups are made with a joint or chain link in the upright part of the stirrup. This makes the stirrup more flexible and comfortable. The jointed area is covered by rubber sheath, as you can see in the photo. I see these stirrups used a lot by jumpers and eventers. The joint also helps the foot slide out of the stirrup easier in case of a fall. These aren’t really a safety stirrup though, and a proper riding boot should be worn when using them.
Curved Western Stirrups
Curved western stirrups come in many varieties and some are angled, all in an effort to make them more comfortable and safe. This is one of many designs used in different western disciplines. Reiners, trail riders, equitation riders, ropers or barrel racers will have a favorite (or faddish) type of stirrup common to the discipline.
Hooded Western Stirrups
Hooded stirrups or stirrups with tapedaros prevent the foot from sliding through the stirrup should the rider take a fall. They also provide some protection while trail riding as branches and brambles can't tangle with the rider's foot or in the stirrup. Fleece lined stirrup hoods can be found for winter riding. Removable safety hoods can be purchased for English stirrups, and these are great for riders that want safety out on the trail or while schooling, but need more traditional tack for showing.
Spanish or Moorish stirrups are common to those who ride breeds like Andalusian, Lusitano and other baroque breeds and some gaited breeds. They are made to hang sideways, not straight along the horse's side like regular English stirrups. Some are very simple, like an English stirrup with a rounder, wider foot rest. But they are often very ornate, in keeping with the tack used on these types of horses.