A while ago I posted an image on Instagram about correct stirrup positioning for English riding. This post caused a little controversy as different riders had different opinions on where exactly to place their foot in the stirrup, and what they (or their coach) preferred for a particular purpose or discipline.
It is the purpose of this article to educate riders on the most stable and effective positioning of the foot in the stirrup according to biomechanics and anatomy. Of course, all individuals are entitled to their opinion and preference.
When correcting any positional fault, trial and error is encouraged to find out what works for you, your anatomy, your horse’s conformation, your type of saddle, and your style of riding.
To this date, and to my knowledge, there are no scientific journal articles reviewing the optimal foot-in-stirrup placement and therefore we cannot say that one position is better than the other in terms of evidence presented. We can, however, use knowledge of anatomy and biomechanics to hypothesise an optimal position.
It is generally accepted that the most correct position for the foot in the stirrup is where the “ball of the foot” is in the centre of the stirrup tread.
The best place for your foot in the stirrup is to have the balls of your feet in the centre of the stirrup tread where we are naturally designed to place weight.
You want the stirrup and toes to be facing forward so that your hip and knee are in alignment, and your leg is in a neutral position.
You want equal weight across the balls, so that you can distribute pressure evenly through the metatarsal heads, and maximise your weight-bearing surface (and therefore stability).
You want equal weight between the left and right stirrups, so that you are placing even pressure across the saddle, horse’s back, and your musculoskeletal system.
The “balls of the feet” is a non-technical term for the padded areas of the sole between the toes and the arch of the foot, underneath the metatarsal heads (end of the long bones of the foot).
The balls of the feet are where you want to be weight-bearing in the stirrup. You want even pressure across the balls of the feet in the stirrup. From a biomechanical perspective, the balls of the feet are going to be a more stable base to bear weight through when compared to the toes or the arch of the foot.
During the human gait cycle we predominantly weight bear through the heel and the metatarsal heads (ball of the foot).
Stirrups allow only a small area of weight bearing, and so we must choose the most stable part of our foot anatomy in order to weight bear. This position must also allow the ankle to dorsiflex (move into a heel down position), so it can act as a shock absorber. The position must also be one where we can safely eject your feet from the stirrups in the event of a fall.
The best position to satisfy these criteria is where the ball of the foot is in the centre of the stirrup pad.
Some riders prefer to have the stirrup slightly slanted towards the horse, meaning that only some of the metatarsal heads are bearing weight. This position could reduce the ankle’s ability to dorsiflex (heels down), therefore inhibiting the shock-absorbing function of the ankle during riding. This potentially could put more stress on the hips and knees of the rider. I can see how this slanted stirrup position could be beneficial in the event of a fall.
Some riders prefer to just put their toes in the stirrups (think jockey style). Whilst this might have safety and streamline benefits for racing, it does not provide the most stable base of support.
Placing the foot too far in the stirrups means that the rider will be weight-bearing through the arch of her foot- which it is not designed to do. This will feel unstable for the rider, as well as interfering with the ankle’s ability to flex and absorb shock. Furthermore, this position will make it more difficult to release the foot in the event of a fall.