Stirrup Safety Tips
Horseback riding tip: Your stirrups aren't a foot rest.
By AQHA Professional Horsewoman Julie Goodnight in America’s Horse | July 23, 2018
Stirrups aren’t just a resting place for your feet when you’re horseback riding. That’s why appropriate stirrup length is important for safety, balance and correct riding skills.
There are many methods to judge the proper stirrup length, and there are many variables that affect the proper length, such as the rider’s build, the size and gait of the horse, the saddle and the activity in which the rider is participating. For example, dressage and saddle seat require the longest length because the rider is sitting back and is using lots of leg on the horse, while jumping is the shortest.
A lot of people use the “fist” method for determining the correct stirrup length. This measurement is taken by having the rider mount, then stand in his stirrups to see if he can fit his fist or the width of his hand between his seat and the seat of the saddle. Personally, I am not a fan of this technique.
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For one thing, it is not a great idea to put your fist in a place that it doesn’t belong. Secondly, unless the rider can properly stand in the stirrups, this measurement is useless. If the rider rises in the stirrup by pushing up off the stirrup, straightening the knee and lifting the heel (as most beginner through intermediate riders tend to do), there will always be plenty of room between the crotch and saddle. Only when the rider uses the correct rising technique and rolls onto his thighs while the legs and heels lengthen will this measurement be accurate.
If the saddle is not the right size for the rider and the stirrups will not adjust to the correct length, don’t compromise the safety of the rider by letting him ride because the rider relies more on those stirrups for balance.
To start with, the rider must be able to sit comfortably in the balance position of ear-shoulder-hip-heel alignment. If the stirrup is too long, no matter what discipline, the rider will have to reach with his toes for the stirrup, and this will cause the rider to ride in the heels-up position. No matter what the discipline, when the heels are up, the rider is not balanced, anchored on the horse or able to use his legs to communicate effectively with the horse. Furthermore, if the stirrup is too long and the lower leg hangs straight down, the rider’s calf is not on the horse; and the leg becomes ineffective as an aid to communication.
A Visual Check
Check the stirrup length visually from both in front of the horse and rider (with his feet out of the stirrups and saddle square) and from the side, perpendicular to the horse. Always make sure the stirrup length is equal on both sides.
My two favorite ways to judge proper stirrup length by eyesight are to 1. look at the angle of the rider’s leg between the thigh and lower leg, and 2. compare the angle of the rider’s thigh and the horse’s shoulder.
From the center of the ring, the thigh and lower leg should hang at equal angles so that both the upper leg and lower leg are at the same angle. If the angle of the upper and lower leg is not equal, it usually means that the rider’s stirrup is too long; and the lower leg is hanging straight down while the angle of the thigh is more or less at 45 degrees.
Looking from the center of the arena, the angle of the rider’s thigh should be more or less parallel with the angle of the horse’s shoulder (the line from mid-withers to the point of the shoulder).
A handy visual check is helpful for ensuring the best ride when the rider is mounted on a choppy horse. In general, the steeper the angle of the horse’s shoulder, the rougher the horse’s gait. When the horse is rough, the rider needs a longer-than-normal stirrup length to help anchor the rider onto the horse’s back. Conversely, if the angle of the rider’s thigh is high compared to the horse’s shoulder, it is easier for the rider to ride in a more forward position and get up off the horse’s back. This is important for riding jumpers or for roping.
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Another way to measure stirrup length, once the rider is up on the horse, is to have the rider relax his leg straight down and see where the bottom of the stirrup is in relation to the ankle bone. Ideally, the stirrup should hit right at the ankle. This will provide you with a ballpark figure, but fine-tuning of the length may still be necessary.
There are a few measurements that you can use to judge appropriate stirrup length. One is to measure the stirrup length compared to the rider’s arm from the ground. To do this, the rider puts his fingertips on the top of the stirrup leather where it attaches to the tree and pulls the stirrup into his armpit. The length of the stirrup should be about the length of the rider’s arm. It is best not to let the rider mount until the stirrups are at least in the ballpark of the correct length. The horse could turn into a 1,000-pound scared rabbit at any moment, and if the rider must rely on the stirrups for balance - which most riders do - the feet should be in the stirrups. The stirrup length might still need some fine-tuning when this method of measuring length is used.
When it comes to judging stirrup length, know what you are checking and know how to check it. You should understand that different disciplines and different types of riding may require different stirrup length. To ride correctly, your stirrups must be adjusted correctly.