I see and get to experience a lot of tack – different styles, makes, quality and materials. Today’s blog post is all about stirrup leathers, and my humble opinion.
Plain, standard leather stirrup leathers are the ones we grew up with. They’re easy to punch extra holes in, and are usually easy to adjust the length because the holes are large and the buckles fairly chunky. They come in a good range of lengths – narrower children’s ones, long men’s leathers, and average ladies length. However, they are renowned for stretching. As a child I religiously removed my stirrup leathers and swapped them over when I cleaned my tack so they stretched evenly, and I just had to put extra holes in after a couple of years. Mounting from a block or not using the stirrup to mount is also a good way to minimise stretching, as well as being better for the horse’s back. The pairs that I bought for my ponies must have been good quality, they definitely had a good thickness of leather, because the stitching stayed in good condition for many years. Cheaper leathers tend to need restitching at the buckle sooner. One of my annoying habits when I help people mount, or indeed run down the stirrups for myself, is to check the stitching – I think that is due to being in charge of tack at a riding school. One of the main criticisms people tend to have of the bog standard stirrup leather is that they are bulky beneath the thigh, so reducing the close contact the rider has with the horse. Part of me rolls my eyes because the depth of the stirrup leather compared to the saddle you are sat in is unparalleled. Yes, a new leather will be a bit bulky, but they soon mould to the shape of the saddle and buckle. Personally I don’t notice a huge difference in them compared to other designs.
Calfskin leathers are the step up from Bog Standard Barry’s stirrup leathers, and are marketed as non stretch. They lie. They do stretch. Maybe not as much as plain leather leathers, but they still need the same alternating technique. These are stronger, so they tend to be a bit narrower, but I find them more bulky that plain leather. They are harder to punch holes in because most of them have some sort of internal webbing, and it’s harder to increase the size of the hole with the pin of the buckle if you were a bit mean with the hole punch. I think for that reason my leathers have strands of webbing peeking out of well used holes. Calfskin leathers are softer, for those sensitive calves, but can be stiffer to adjust, especially when shortening the leather length. I find I have to take my foot out of the stirrup and give a good pull to draw the buckle away from the stirrup bar – not very BHS, who advocate keeping your foot in your stirrup. Personally I have this type on both my saddles and am quite happy with them. Because they are a step up from the plain leather they look a bit more professional so give a better impression. Or so I like to think!
The next type of stirrup leathers I’ve come across a handful of times are a recent design, and feed off the criticisms of traditional leathers being bulky under the thigh. T-bar stirrups are so called close contact because there is only one piece of leather hanging from the stirrup bar, and the length is adjusted by your calf using a t-bar fastening. I used this type of stirrup leather a few months ago and I really wasn’t impressed. Before that I had wondered about them being my next leathers on my dressage saddle. Firstly, it’s not a case of simply running up or down your stirrup, you have to untwist the t-bar and put it either onto the top hole, or if you are running it down, onto your relevant hole. Logical if a different person rides every day, but for me it seemed like an effort. When riding I also found that the metal T either stabbed me in the calf or scratched the saddle, despite the little sleeve of leather I put over it. I also can’t say that I noticed it was less bulky under my thigh. As an aside, have you ever noticed how many dressage saddles are full of rolls to hold you in place yet people still choose stirrup leathers 5mm thick instead of 10mm?
The other problem I noticed with t-bar stirrups is that they are tricky to adjust. Forget about keeping your foot in the stirrup, with this design you have to lift the stirrup iron into your lap and drop your reins in order toslide and twist the leather to the correct length. So overall I wasn’t that impressed, but perhaps they’re more suited to individual riders who don’t change stirrup length mid-ride.
The bane of my life are synthetic stirrup leathers. They should be used with synthetic saddles so that the harder wearing leather doesn’t damage the saddle flap. However, especially with cheap ones, they are so unbelievably stiff and difficult to adjust I have been known to school without stirrups instead of changing the leathers. With true leather you can oil then to soften them, and when they get warm they mould to your shape. You can get webbing leathers which chaff your calf, but the holes are easily recognisable and used. Cheap synthetic ones tend to break, or the outer covering deteriorate so the plastic scrapes your saddle and leg. They are getting better in quality as the years go on, but I would always recommend getting the most expensive you can afford if you have to have synthetic. I wouldn’t be able to recommend a make because I’m not satisfied with any that I would purchase and use.
I guess from all of this I ama trasitionalist, who likes a bit of quality!