Why do dressage riders opt for longer stirrups?

Dressage riding requires a unique balance and connection between the rider and the horse. One key aspect of achieving this harmony is finding the right stirrup length. While there are varying opinions on the "correct" stirrup length for dressage, it is crucial for riders to understand the factors that influence their choice.

Dressage rider with safety stirrups on arabian horse

This article explores the reasons why dressage riders often opt for longer stirrups and provides guidelines for determining the appropriate stirrup length based on different riding disciplines.

Factors influencing stirrup length

When considering stirrup length in dressage, several factors come into play. These include the rider's leg length, the horse's barrel size and shape, the rider's skill level, the type of saddle used, and personal preference. By evaluating these factors, riders can determine whether shorter or longer stirrups will enable them to ride more effectively.

Short stirrups: indications and considerations

Using safety stirrups that are too short can create several issues for dressage riders. Some indicators that your stirrups are too short include:

  • Forward knees: if your knees are pushed forward against the knee roll even when your heels are slightly down, it suggests that your stirrups may be too short.
  • Heels pushed down: when your heels are forced down excessively while your knees are in a proper position, it indicates that your stirrups are too short.
  • Leg pinching: consistent pinching of the upper or lower leg against the horse can be a sign of stirrups that are too short.
  • Inability to reach around the horse: if you struggle to get your lower leg around the horse's barrel, it may be due to stirrups that are too short.

However, it's important to note that shortening stirrups can be beneficial in certain situations. For young, green, spooky, or rough-gaited horses, shorter stirrups allow riders to make better contact with the horse's sides without lifting their heels.

Additionally, riders with long legs relative to the horse's barrel may find shorter stirrups helpful in maintaining effective leg contact.

Long stirrups: indications and considerations

On the other hand, using stirrups that are too long can also pose challenges for dressage riders. Signs that your stirrups may be too long include:

  • Heels not down: if your heels are not down even when your thighs are stretched downward, it suggests that your stirrups may be too long.
  • Difficulty clearing the saddle: when posting, if you struggle to clear the front of the saddle, it may be an indication that your stirrups are too long.
  • Frequent stirrup loss: if you frequently lose a stirrup, especially during the sitting trot, it could be a result of stirrups that are too long (if you have trouble keeping your stirrups on, you might want to try magnetic safety stirrups).
  • Toe reaching: having to reach for the stirrups with your toes pointed downward may signify that your stirrups are too long.

While longer stirrups are generally more suitable for dressage riding, it's essential to find the right balance. Stirrups that are excessively long can cause the leg to swing and make it challenging to maintain a proper position.

Evaluating stirrup length

To determine the appropriate stirrup length for dressage riding, riders can follow a few key steps:

Stretch and relax

Start your ride by spending a few minutes without stirrups. This allows you to stretch and relax your leg muscles. Lift your knees away from the saddle for a few seconds and then let them fall into a deeper position. Concentrate on each leg individually and then both legs together. This warm-up helps prepare your legs for a deeper position and makes it easier to assess the correct stirrup length.

Check stirrup position

After stretching and relaxing, check the length of your stirrups. The bottom of the iron should ideally be between the ankle bone and the heel. Adjust the stirrup length accordingly to achieve this position.

Consider horse and rider factors

Take into account the specific factors related to your horse and your own physique. For example, if you're riding a young or green horse, or if you have a shorter leg relative to the horse's barrel, you may need shorter stirrups. Conversely, if you're riding a more experienced horse or have a longer leg relative to the horse's barrel, longer stirrups may be necessary.

Discipline-specific stirrup lengths

Stirrup length can also vary based on the specific discipline within dressage riding. Here's a breakdown of the recommended stirrup lengths for general riding, jumping, and dressage:

General riding

For general riding, such as trail riding or riding in an arena without a specific focus on jumping or dressage, a good guideline is to have stirrups at ankle length. To achieve this length:

  • Feet hanging test: take your feet out of the stirrups and let them hang down against the horse's side. The stirrup bar should align with your ankle.
  • Armpit test: before mounting the horse, you can perform a simple test. Touch the stirrup bar with your fingers and raise the stirrup iron with your other hand. The iron should land at your armpit. However, slight adjustments may be necessary once you're mounted.


When it comes to jumping, slightly shorter stirrups are generally preferred. Shorter stirrups help riders get their weight into their heels and maintain a more secure position while jumping. To determine the appropriate jumping length:

  • General riding length: start with your general riding stirrup length.
  • Two holes shorter: shorten the stirrups by two holes compared to your general riding length. This adjustment provides a solid starting point for jumping.
  • Personalization: as you gain more experience and start jumping larger fences, you may find that further adjustments are necessary to find the ideal stirrup length that suits your style and comfort.


For dressage riding, longer stirrups are typically preferred to accommodate the specific requirements of the discipline. Longer stirrups allow for a long dressage leg and a deep seat. Here's a recommended approach to finding the right dressage stirrup length:

  • One hole longer: begin by setting your stirrups one hole longer than the ankle position. This starting point allows room for adjustment and personalization.
  • Bottom of boot: ultimately, your stirrups should be level with the bottom of your boot. This position supports the long leg and deep seat necessary for dressage riding.
  • Initial challenges: initially, longer stirrups may feel uncomfortable, causing your leg to swing or making it challenging to maintain stability. With practice, your leg will become more accustomed to the longer stirrup length.

Customizing stirrup length

While the above guidelines provide a starting point, it's important to remember that stirrup length can also be influenced by individual variations and specific horse and saddle combinations. Consider the following additional factors when customizing your stirrup length:

  • Saddle fit: ensure that your stirrup length is suitable for the saddle you're using. Your knee should fit comfortably in the fold of the knee flap without extending beyond it.
  • Horse size: adjust your stirrup length based on the size of the horse you're riding. For smaller ponies or horses, you may need to go slightly shorter than the general guidelines indicate.
  • Personal comfort: ultimately, your comfort and security are paramount. While adhering to the recommended stirrup lengths is beneficial, it's important to find a length that makes you feel confident and balanced in the saddle.

Seeking professional guidance

If you're struggling to find the optimal stirrup length or feel unsure about the adjustments you're making, seeking guidance from a qualified instructor can be immensely helpful. An experienced instructor can provide personalized feedback and assist you in finding the stirrup length that works best for your body type, riding style, and horse.


In dressage, stirrup length plays a vital role in achieving balance, connection, and effective communication between the rider and the horse. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, understanding the factors that influence stirrup length and following general guidelines can help dressage riders find their optimal position in the saddle.

By evaluating their leg length, saddle fit, horse size, and personal comfort, riders can customize their stirrup length to enhance their performance and overall riding experience. Remember, finding the right stirrup length is a continuous process that may require experimentation and adjustments over time. Embrace the journey and enjoy the rewards of a harmonious partnership with your horse.