Photo by Ross Hecox.

A Solid Base: Selecting the Right Stirrups

Stirrups that fit your feet and riding discipline enhance comfort, position and performance in the saddle.

It used to be when you bought a saddle, you rode the stirrups that came with it and there weren’t many styles from which to choose. As the horse industry became more specialized, so did stirrups. Today, varieties abound to meet a rider’s specific fit, function and comfort needs, while still expressing some personal flair.

Flatbottom stirrup with aztec design in the wood made by Ronnie Nettles.
Where once there were few options for stirrups, now there are many. Today, stirrups like this Nettles Country Flatbottom are handcrafted to improve comfort and performance while also expressing style. Photo by Katie Frank.

Riding in stirrups that don’t fit your feet can be as uncomfortable as wearing a pair of ill-fitting boots. It also can affect your balance, position and effectiveness in the saddle, as well as strain joints and become a safety hazard.

When National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA) Hall of Famer Ronnie Nettles built his first pair of stirrups for himself 31 years ago, he was looking for something more functional and comfortable for the many hours he spent in the saddle each day.

“The pressure of the stirrups against his legs rubbed them raw, and he was fighting foot fatigue,” his wife, Gala Nettles, recalled. “He wrapped his legs with Vetrap each morning.”

Combining more than three decades of experience in the saddle with innovation and carpentry skills, Ronnie designed a pair of stirrups that fit him and improved his position in the saddle, thus eliminating painful pressure on his feet, legs and joints. When other riders saw his custom stirrups, they started asking him to build them pairs to alleviate problems they were having.

While continuing to train horses, Ronnie taught his son, Robby, the art of building stirrups. Today, Nettles Country in Madisonville, Texas, is a leading manufacturer of handmade stirrups and offers a myriad of styles that can be customized to fit each individual’s needs.

“Everything we make came about because someone asked for it,” Nettles said. “A stirrup should be more than a place to put your foot. The slightest [adjustment] can make a big difference in its fit and function.”

Sizing Up Stirrups

Visalia stirrup with leather lining and cross design on the outside.
These 5-inch Visalia stirrups by Aaron Fandek are made from red oak, lined with leather and covered in stainless steel. This shape is most popular with Great Basin cowboys who are in the saddle for long periods of time. Photo by Katie Frank.

Many aspects of stirrup selection come down to personal preference, but size is critical to comfort and safety. There are three important stirrup measurements to consider: the width (or depth) of the base from front to back; the width inside the stirrup from side to side at the widest point; and the height from the top of the bolt to the bottom of the stirrup.

Foot size and the type of boot worn when riding are two factors that influence stirrup selection. In general, a wider base offers a larger surface area for the foot, and provides more comfort and support for those who spend a lot of time in the saddle or ride long distances. A narrow base provides more control and allows riders more freedom to use their feet for reining, cutting and other competitive disciplines.

Before buying a pair of stirrups, Nettles recommended trying them out with the boots in which you ride or show because boot width can also influence stirrup size.

“Boots vary in width, and you want to make sure you can slide your foot in and out of the stirrup easily,” Nettles said.

When ordering custom stirrups, she recommended measuring across the widest point of the boot or tracing the outline of the boot onto paper and sending it to the maker to ensure a proper fit. Even an eighth of an inch can make a big difference in a rider’s comfort and ease sliding feet in and out of the stirrups. Most manufacturers offer youth sizes for small feet, a regular size that fits the majority of riders, an oversized option for wider feet and an “overshoe” for riders who wear packers or snow and muck boots during the winter.

Chet Nicholas, of Idaho, and his father, Kelly, in Utah, own Nicholas Stirrups. They purchase basic wooden stirrup “blanks” from Nettles and add their own metals to the design. Their average stirrup width is 5 3/8 inches, and their overshoe stirrups measure 5 7/8 inches.

Oxbow stirrups are used by many colt starters.
Some traditional colt starters and cowboys use oxbows. The narrow base makes it easy to slide their feet in and out, and they can more effortlessly use their feet for control and stability. These brass oxbows from Big Bend Saddlery have a “kick bar” that keeps the stirrup from flipping forward when a rider gets on. Photo by Katie Frank.

“Some guys buy two sets – an overshoe for winter and a standard size for the rest of the year,” Nicholas said.

Twenty-five years ago, a barrel racer asked the Nettleses if they could make a smaller stirrup for women. That led to the petite size that is shorter and narrower, measuring 4 1/2 inches high and 4 7/8 inches wide. The shorter stirrup sits lower on the rider’s leg, so it doesn’t bang on or rub the shins of riders with shorter legs. The narrower width fits a smaller foot size. When people ask Aaron Fandek, owner of Fandek Saddles and Stirrups in Pinedale, Wyoming, what size stirrups they should order, he tells them they should be able to slide their feet into the stirrups all the way through to the heels of their boots. The stirrups should also be wide enough
they can ride on the balls of their feet.

“The center bolt on a stirrup acts as a fulcrum, and if you get a stirrup that’s too wide, all of your weight is behind the center bar and the stirrups want to dump your feet out of the back,” he explained. “It also makes you sit back on your pockets with your feet pushed out in front [out of alignment] so you can keep your feet in the stirrups.”

Selecting a Basic Shape

Like most traditional covered-stirrup manufacturers, Fandek, Nicholas and Trina Weber, of Idaho, offer three primary stirrup styles: Visalia, moran and bell. Viewed from the side, the Visalia has a straight profile, whereas the moran has more tapering at the top and the bell has the most tapering at the top, which gives it its bell shape. While these basic shapes don’t necessarily affect function, Fandek and Nicholas both find style and width preferences vary by region and discipline.

Straight Time Stirrups are a patented design that is angled and offset to help with balance.
Straight Time Stirrups feature a patented design that is angled and offset for stability and comfort in the saddle. The base of the stirrup stays parallel with the ground and keeps the foot balanced on the tread. Photo by Katie Frank.

“The Visalia with 5- and 6-inch treads are popular with the Great Basin buckaroos who want a wide base for comfort when riding all day,” Nicholas said. “The sleek look of 2- and 3-inch bells is seen more in cutting, reining and barrel racing.”

Oxbow stirrups, which are round and narrow in shape, have traditionally been popular with colt-starters and cowboys who wear boots with high, underslung heels.

“We sell a lot of oxbows, usually to younger guys riding lots of colts or horses that might [buck],” said Gary Dunshee, owner of Big Bend Saddlery in Alpine, Texas. “They’re rounded and usually narrow, which makes them easy to hold because you can put more weight in one place. They’re hard to lose, because the narrow bottom will catch on a rider’s heels.”

However, some makers today have noticed a trend toward 1 1/2- to 3-inch flat-bottomed stirrups over oxbows. When the Nettleses started their business, oxbows were popular, but today they make up only about 10 percent of their business. Through the years, horses have been bred with milder dispositions and less buck, and boot styles have changed, so now the Nettleses sell more of their “Halfbreed” stirrups than oxbows to colt-starters.

“The Halfbreed is a marriage between our flat-bottomed stirrup and the oxbow,” Nettles explained. “It’s available in 1- to 3-inch tread widths, and the extra roundness and width [across the foot] makes it a comfortable stirrup for a rider wanting freedom from the stirrups’ sides in the saddle. You don’t feel anything on the side of the foot.”

A Different Angle

Angled and offset stirrups, along with a combination of those, have also revolutionized the stirrup industry and helped riders of all disciplines spend more time in the saddle, because the ergonomic designs reduce joint strain. The angled stirrup adds length to the outside of the stirrup but keeps the base level and parallel to the ground. In turn, a rider’s whole foot makes contact with the entire base, not just the outside edge. The rider is also less likely to lose a stirrup because of the weight distribution.

These stirrups made by Ronnie Nettles are self adjusting.
“The Leveler” is a self-adjusting device that can be added to the throat of any Nettles Country stirrup to help keep it level while freeing the stirrup to move horizontally and vertically with ease. Photo by Katie Frank.

“As you put your foot around the barrel of a horse, the fender of your saddle rotates your stirrup [inward] at an angle, raising the outside of the stirrup, and the only part of your foot that actually touches the stirrup is the outside,” explained Joseph Godoy, owner of Straight Time Stirrups. “When you put weight in the stirrup, it stresses your joints and can cause pain after a day of riding.

“Our patented design has a tapered hanger rod [the bar at the top of the stirrup] and offset shape that increases stability and comfort. Tapering the hanger rod makes the stirrup tread nearly parallel to the ground, which allows a rider’s legs and feet to hang in natural alignment,” he continued. “Offsetting the centerline outward gives the stirrup a proper center of gravity and keeps the edge of the stirrups away from your shins. When you put weight into the stirrup, the hanger rod hobbles or restricts the movement of the stirrup, giving you better balance.”

Don Orrell, of Fordland, Missouri, grew up riding cutting horses and now makes angled, offset and angled-offset stirrups out of a variety of woods. He said while angled and offset stirrups aren’t for every rider, they have become especially popular with those who experience pain when riding and have difficulty keeping their heels down in hard stops.

“The offset stirrup is a conventional flat-bottomed stirrup, but instead of putting the bolt in the center of the stirrups, we moved it off center [from the base of the stirrup when viewed from the side] a little bit,” he said. “This creates a hinging effect so when you put your foot in the stirrup, your heel naturally drops.”

Nettles offers two offset styles designed with S-shaped sides that help redistribute a rider’s weight back into a heels-down position. The “Trailblazer” is an offset style that has cushioned pads atop the treads, while the 75 model has regular leather treads.

Recognizing that an unlevel stirrup causes a rider’s foot to tilt, resulting in discomfort and strained joints, the Nettleses developed “The Leveler,” a metal roller-bar mechanism that can be added to any Nettles stirrup to bring the base level with the ground.

“If you stand up and roll your feet inward just a little, you will notice how the outside of your foot comes up,” Nettles explained. “This is how a normal stirrup places your feet, so your body is out of alignment. It can cause knee, ankle and even hip pain if you ride in that position for long periods of time. We developed The Leveler to replace the bushings in the throat and make the stirrup level again.”

Material Matters

Stirrups are made from different metals, like steel, copper, brass and aluminum, as well as wood and plastic. Stirrups covered in metal, leather and rawhide are also available. Wood stirrups are known for their natural shock absorption and timeless beauty. “You can’t feel [the shock absorption] when you’re riding, but at the end of the day when you take off your boots you can tell the difference,” said Orrell, whose stirrups are made from six to seven layers of wood coated with polyurethane. “We have 13 different types of hardwood, from red oak to exotics like Bocote. Ranchers usually like a stained red oak stirrup over an exotic wood, because they ride in the brush and their stirrups take a beating. [Show horse competitors] usually opt for something exotic or a highly figured gunstock walnut.”

Don Orrell's design for laminated wood stirrups with a bell shape.
Don Orrell’s experience training cutting horses came in handy when he started building stirrups more than a decade ago. Today, he uses quality materials for his products, like this natural red-elm bell-shaped stirrup made with six layers of laminated wood, two coats of polyurethane and a leather tread. Photo by Katie Frank.

Nettles developed the first laminated stirrups. The Premier line has six high-quality, hand-selected woods that go through four grading processes to ensure quality, consistency and durability. In addition to the lamination, the treads are cut from tough, high-quality leather. Their economy line, called “The Duke,” has five layers of wood, treads cut from belly leather, and fewer bells and whistles. This versatile stirrup, with tread width from 1 1/2 to 5 inches, is perfect for training and working horses or for someone just starting out.

Straight Time Stirrups come in plain and polished aluminum, copper plated, leather covered with lacing, sewn hand-tooled, powder coated in different colors or hand-engraved. Godoy said there are about 18 different versions of each stirrup available.

Aluminum is often a lighter material for stirrups, which makes it appealing to anyone wanting to decrease the weight of their gear. “Our aluminum is cast in one solid piece so you don’t have bolts that can come loose or break,” Godoy said. “We use heat-treated, aircraft-grade aluminum for durability.”

Metal-covered stirrups, like those made by Fandek, Nicholas and Weber, appeal to working cowboys because the metal adds strength to the wooden blank. They are typically covered with one of several different types of metal.

“We take wooden blanks from Nettles and cover them with stainless steel, brass or copper,” Nicholas said. “Stainless steel is by far the hardest of the metals and keeps them from getting mashed up when [your stirrups] bang on gates and corrals.”

Fandek makes his own wooden blanks out of a single piece of red oak and covers them with stainless steel, brass, copper or nickel for a traditional look. He said a quality wood stirrup is steamed and treated, and shows no cracks or breaks.

“Metal adds strength to stirrups by binding the metal to the wood,” he explained. “The rivets not only secure the metal to the stirrup but also hold the wood together. I use 24-gauge metal that is strong, yet light enough I can roll the edges over.”

Weber started making stirrups in the early 1980s for her father, bit- and spur-maker Elmer Miller. She uses Nettles blanks and covers them with brass, copper or stainless steel. Metal covered stirrups are collectively referred to as “monels,” she explained, because during World War II stainless steel was being used for the war efforts and monel became the alloy used to make stirrups. Monel is composed of mostly nickel and copper, with small amounts of manganese, iron and silicon. Today, stainless steel is used most frequently because it’s a harder metal and more economical than many others.

Size and material influence the weight of stirrups. Some riders seek to lighten the weight of their saddles, so they look for the sleekest and lightest stirrups they can find. The wider the stirrups, the more wood or metal used and the heavier they become.

“A lot of people don’t think about stirrup weight,” said Nicholas, whose wide covered stirrups weigh around 3 1/2 pounds each. “The heavier the stirrup, the easier it is to find them if you lose them or a horse starts bucking. Lighter stirrups can be harder to get back into.”

Orrell’s wooden stirrups average 1 1/4 to 1 ½ pounds each, depending on the type of wood.

“Performance horse riders want heavier stirrups because it’s easier to find them if they lose one,” he explained. “I also prefer wooden stirrups if I’ll be carrying a saddle any distance, because they are easier on your shins [if they bang against them].”

Finishing Touches

For every stirrup there are options, such as leather lining, treads, heel blocks and personalized inlays, overlays or laser cutouts, that increase function and improve aesthetics.

Leather lining can be added to the inside of the stirrups for both look and a layer of protection from wear; however, the added leather can affect a stirrup’s fit, so factor in an extra eighth of an inch or so when selecting stirrup width.

Ornately covered metal on a wood based stirrups.
Ornate coverings, like the one pictured on this two-tone bell stirrup by Trina Weber, give riders the opportunity to personalize their stirrups. Photo by Katie Frank.

Some riders prefer to add leather or rubber treads to their stirrups for cushioning and traction, while others would rather ride on bare wood or metal.

“I prefer to ride on bare wood,” said Nicholas, who spends a lot of time horseback on a cow-calf and yearling operation in Blackfoot, Idaho. “I ride in leather-soled boots and have a more refined feel of the stirrups, and can make better contact without treads.”

Fandek and other makers can add heel blocks to stirrups. A heel block is a strip of wood or layers of leather, a half-inch or less high, fastened to the base of a stirrup to help keep the foot in the stirrups.

“What it does is give you an oxbow feel with a wider base to stand on and helps keep your feet in the stirrups,” Fandek said. “The block catches your heel and keeps your foot from slipping all the way through. It’s not something you want if you ride with treaded boots, though, because the tread could catch on the block.”

With so many shapes, sizes, innovative designs and options available, today’s riders can find a fit that keeps them comfortable and safe for anything they do horseback. Nettles advised riders try several different stirrups to determine what size, material, weight and additions fit their needs.

“It’s like trying on boots,” she said. “What people think they want and what they leave with are often two different things. You can’t ride a stirrup correctly if it’s not going to perform with you. You shouldn’t have to think about your stirrup if it’s working for you.”

This article was originally published in the March 1, 2018, issue of Quarter Horse News.