What Is A Stirrup? Types Of Stirrups & When They’re Used

There are many types of stirrups used in many types of riding. Why are there different stirrups? And why do they have different names in English and Western?

What Is A Stirrup?

A stirrup is a piece of equipment that is attached to the saddle by stirrup leathers or fenders. Stirrups are the things that horseback riders put their feet in to make it easier to ride the horse. Stirrups can be made of metal, plastic, or wood and come in all shapes and sizes.

History Of The Stirrup

Stirrups have been used when riding horses for centuries. The first stirrup ever know to be used was actually a toe loop in India around 200 BC. Riders would use toe loops or tuck their feet in the horse’s girth for better support. Other than this, horses weren’t really ridden using stirrups.

Around 200 and 300 AD, people had begun to use a single stirrup as a mounting aid so they could mount a larger horse without help. Later, the saddle tree was invented making a more solid saddle and the Chinese added two stirrups to better support the rider. The use of two stirrups was soon seen all throughout Europe and Asia.

During the Middle Ages, the stirrup was a significant tool that helped people gain better balance and stability when astride a horse. This meant that when warring other kingdoms, more people could ride horses into battle because less skill was required to stay on the horse. The use of stirrups also made the rider more secure and they didn’t need to focus on staying while fighting making them more dexterous with a sword. Knights all over began to be seen using stirrups to ride their noble steeds into battle.

Today the stirrup is seen in nearly every kind of discipline, all of which vary in size, shape, and material.

Types of Stirrups

Stirrup Irons

Stirrup irons are what English stirrups are called. As you might imagine based on the name, these stirrups are usually made of metal. One of my friends, however, actually used heavy duty plastic stirrup irons as opposed to the classic metal ones that my other friends and I use.

I personally prefer the classic metal stirrup irons over plastic or another material because they are easier to find, more durable, and are competition acceptable.

Stirrup irons are used for eventing, dressage, showjumping, hunter pleasure, and country English pleasure or flat saddle riding.

Peacock Stirrups

This child is riding with a peacock stirrup. You might notice that they didn’t put a rubber band on the hooks of the stirrup.

Peacock stirrups are most commonly seen used by children. This is because children typically aren’t very advanced riders and might not have very good balance or foot position. Peacock stirrups are designed to ensure that the rider doesn’t get their foot stuck in the stirrup if they were to fall off.

These stirrups are usually metal all the way around except for one side that is open. The peacock stirrup looks very similar to the stirrup iron other than this missing side.

On each of the ends of the open side of the stirrup there are hooks where a heavy duty rubber band type thing is hooked into place, This makes for a closed stirrup, so the rider doesn’t constantly loose their stirrups, but also if the rider were to fall, the rubber band would break off freeing the rider’s foot if it were stuck.

Peacock stirrups can be used in youth hunter English, youth jumping, and basically any child riding competition.

Western Stirrups

Western stirrups are significantly larger than English stirrup irons. These stirrups sit against the rider’s arch of their foot as opposed to the ball of the foot as seen in English. These large stirrups are seen on all western saddles and are often made of plastic or wood, before being covered in leather or rawhide. These stirrups are wider and taller than English stirrup irons.

These are used in every western sport and discipline including barrel racing, pole bending, roping, trail riding, mounted shooting, ranch riding, reining, cow horse, western pleasure, saddle bronc riding, cutting, and western dressage.

Endurance Stirrups

Endurance stirrups are a mix of English and western stirrups. They are in a similar shape as an English stirrup being shorter and rounder at the top. Though they are in the same shape as an English stirrup, they have a wide and long area for the foot to sit like in western stirrups.

Endurance riders ride for hours and hours so having a large place to put the foot may be more comfortable for the rider than a smaller English stirrup iron.

These stirrups are really only used in endurance riding.

Stirrups With A Tapadero

The tapaderos seen on some stirrups are more common in Mexican and Hispanic riders as opposed to the American cowboys.

Tapaderos on stirrups are basically foot covers at the end of the stirrup that cover the toe of the rider’s boot.

Often these leather covers are decorated and punched with designs.

Stirrups with a tapadero are mainly used in working cows and trail riding.

What Are The Benefits To Using A Stirrup?

There are several benefits to riding with stirrups including improved balance, better communication with the horse, better stability, and increased confidence.

How Do Stirrups Improve Balance?

Stirrups improve the rider’s balance by offering the rider a place to plant their feet. With the feet planted, the rider can use their feet to push into the stirrups and their legs are better held in place. When comparing riding with ans without stirrups, without stirrups the rider needs to rely on their leg strength entirely to hold them in place.

At the canter, the rider without stirrups has nowhere to put their feet and press down on so there is no offered support on the feet. Without stirrups, it is also nearly impossible to post at the trot so sitting the trot may be required. Inexperienced riders or experienced riders who are riding horses with a very rough trot can loose their balance quite easily if it is hard to find rhythm with the horse.

Having a type of footing makes a drastic difference in the ability for the rider to stay centered and balanced on their horse.

Riding without stirrups can also improve your balance. I’ve ridden bareback or stirrup-less meany times and it really does improve my riding. Using no stirrups forces me to find rhythm with my horse, which helps me ride better in the future.

How Does Using Stirrups Allow For Better Communication With The Horse?

If a rider uses stirrups, they are better able to use their legs to communicate with the horse rather than just focusing on staying on. If you are not using stirrups, your legs are likely squeezing the horse to stay on making it difficult to ask the\ horse to move as your leg isn’t as free. With stirrups, you are better able to use your legs as they aren’t being used so much to keep you onboard.

How Do Stirrups Offer Improved Stability?

Stirrups offer improved stability by making the rider able to stand and press into the stirrups. Because the rider isn’t so focused on trying to stay on, they are more stable overall with their seat and balance.

An example you could look at would be showjumping. If you are to jump with stirrups, it would offer you better stability and a place to stand up on as you two-point over the jump. Jumping without stirrups would mean that you would need to use your legs to push you up to a sort of a two-point. Landing the jump would be very difficult without stirrups as well because there wouldn’t be anything to land on besides the horse’s back.

How Can Stirrup Use Be A Confidence Booster?

Using stirrups can boost your confidence because they allow you to be a better rider that is overall more balanced, stable, and a better communicator with your horse.

Riding bareback can be very difficult and may be extremely difficult for someone who doesn’t have the rhythm of the horse’s gait down yet. Using stirrups can help them with this through offering them extra support to better learn how to ride.

If you are able to see that using stirrups is easier than without stirrups and you are significantly better when riding, it can help you to feel better about your riding abilities and move onto more difficult techniques as you improve.

How To Tell How Long Your Stirrups Should Be


To get the proper length for your stirrup, sit on your horse and let your leg relax and dangle next to the horse. The bottom of the iron should hit just above your ankle. If it isn’t at that level, adjust it higher or lower until it is correct.

The rider in the photo above needs to lengthen her stirrups a lot. Her legs are so scrunched up making it hard to communicate with the horse, hard to keep her heels down, and causing her to rely too heavily on her hands.


In western riding, you do something similar to English riding to get an accurate measurement of where your stirrups should be. Sit on your horse and dangle your leg down next to the horse’s side. When your foot is near the stirrup, the bottom of the stirrup should hit just below your ankle. If it doesn’t adjust it to the right level.

Hailey Sipila

Horses have been my passion ever since I can remember. At school, I was known as that weird horse girl, and I would read horse encyclopedias for fun. Over the years since those days, I have only learned more. My experiences with horses of a variety of breeds have taught me a lot. Now I want to share what I know with you!

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