If you have a classic “rider’s body,” you’re blessed. Not all of us do. I’m one of the non-blessed. From the top of my head to my toes, I measure 5’1″. Even if I had long legs for my size (which I don’t), I’d still have short legs.
And my legs will remain short no matter how long I make my stirrup leathers.
Because long leathers won’t, in fact, make anyone’s legs any longer. They may make them look longer (to someone who can’t see much) but they won’t make them longer. Leathers that are too long will, however, make anyone’s leg less functional, regardless of its length.
Unfortunately, all too many trainer/instructors insist on lengthening stirrups for shorter riders in the misguided belief that longer leathers equal longer legs. Not only don’t longer leathers give you longer legs, longer leathers don’t make it easier to ride. Just the opposite. And that’s why the top riders don’t do it (more on that later).
How do you know how long your stirrups should be? Well, there’s the classic “just above,” “just at” or “just below” the ankle bone when your leg is hanging next to the iron tangential to your ankle. That’s not bad for giving you an approximation. But exactly where you should buckle your leathers is dependent on more than that.
It’s somewhat dependent on your conformation — how long is your femur, how thick or thin are your thighs, what degree of flexibility do you have in your ankles. It’s also dependent on your horse’s size and girth. And on your saddle, where the stirrup bars are placed and where the blocks are (or are not).
It’s not a surprise that a lot of riders, regardless of their discipline, ride with leathers that are too long. Because, at first glance, that’s what gives riders an elegant leg. And if riding consisted of sitting in a saddle while your horse stands, that would be great. Once the horse starts moving, it’s a disaster.
When you’re posting or when you’re in your half-seat or riding in two-point, you need to be able to feel like you have hydraulics in your lower half — in your hips, but especially in your knees and ankles. If your stirrups are too short, your joints will lock in a closed position and you’ll lose that flexibility. If your stirrups are too long, your joints will lock in an open position and you’ll lose your flexibility in a different way.
It’s a little more obvious to hunt seat riders when the angles aren’t working, because they need to stay out of the saddle over fences. It’s harder for dressage riders to know when they’re riding too long (they’re seldom riding too short, unless they’re refugees from hunter land) because they seldom get out of the saddle (except to post, and some of them never do).
Among dressage coaches, Mary Wanless stands out in her attention to the joint angles necessary for proper rider biomechanics. You can see her most prominent protege, Heather Blitz, riding Mary’s way. Take a look at the angle of her knee (stop the video at 0:20). Take a guess where her iron would hit her ankle if she dropped her stirrups:
Heather and Paragon could definitely take a 3′ fence after their dressage test if they wanted and Heather wouldn’t have to bring her irons up.
Before you dismiss this as a Heather Blitz/Mary Wanless oddity, take a look at the two dressage riders that are often considered to have the best equitation on either side of the ocean — Steffen Peters and Edward Gal. Look at the angle of the knee, not at the length of the leg. And watch the movement in the joints of the hip, the knee and the ankle:
If you’re doing flatwork or dressage, it’s important that you have similar angles in your legs. If you have mirrors, take a look at your knees. Or take a photograph or video and compare.
If you’re a dressage rider and you think you might be ready to raise your stirrups, I encourage you to do so. If you’re a hunter/jumper and you’re riding on the flat, I urge you to aim for the same angle that you see in the dressage riders above. You can go up a hole or two or three when you’re ready to go over fences, depending on the height you’ll be jumping.
If you have leathers with half-inch holes, it will be much easier to determine your a perfect length. If your leathers have holes every inch, grab your hole punch or borrow one. Be adjustable. it’s what you want in your horse, isn’t it?
If you decide that you are riding too long and you raise your stirrups, let me know how it works for you. And if you start adjusting your stirrups based on whether you’re working on the flat or over fences, or riding different horses in different saddles, let me know if it helps you be more effective.
This has to do with Newton’s third law (every force has an equal and opposite force); in this case one force is the rider’s weight on the stirrup and the opposite force is provided by the stirrup and THE HORSE!! up against that rider’s weight. The vertical and horizontal components of those forces will always balance, and ARE ANGLE DEPENDENT. Nice physics here, lets do a free body diagram!!
Hi Liz – Excellent explanation of the true biomechanics of stirrup length. I’d love to do a free body diagram for everyone. [Everyone — this is my sister the physics teacher sharing her thoughts, now that’s REAL biomechanics!]
What is a body diagram?
This is part of why I like my webbers, it’s super easy to get the stirrup length I need for each horse I ride. Big barreled friesian gets one length, Coriander gets another, and Gwen gets them nice and short 😉
The term “free body diagram” actually has nothing to do with the horse or rider’s body in this case…that’s just a coincidence! It’s a diagram that maps out the relative magnitude and direction of all forces acting upon an object in a given situation.
I’m going to figure out with my sister how to post this for you and my other readers.
I do mental free body diagrams when I think about these things. Therefore, I now love your sister! 🙂 (But I am a rocket scientist.)
I have been riding with my stirrups too long since I got back into riding 2 1/2 years ago. I determine stirrup length by how short can I make them without affecting my ability to walk afterward, as I have knee problems – and the appropriate stirrup length left my knees non-functional. However, I have gradually increased flexibility in my hips and decreased fat in my thighs, so my legs are better able to hang/drape, and I actually had to put my stirrups down a hole! I found that I had too much weight in the stirrups and less on the saddle – they were in fact making me want to lift out of the saddle when I was reaching into them and using my legs in a more correct way. And my knees hurt afterward. I’m knock kneed, and more than my tendency toward a round backside and belly, short height plus short waist which makes my ability to move with my horse require I be more correct, I feel my knock knees are my biggest physical challenge.
Whether knock kneed or not, I have noticed that many riders who complain of their calves not getting near their horses’ sides have stirrups too long – a little bend helps the lower leg wrap and drape around the horse! I definitely change what the correct amount of bend and stirrup length is regularly as I continue improving. Work with a biomechanics instructor, pilates and yoga, regular lessons and massage/chiro/physical therapy for a back problem all combine to make me pretty aware of how stirrups affect me, when I used to be clueless!
Thanks for a wonderful explanation and elaboration on the issue! Great stuff.