Iron, Oxbows, and Dog Houses: The History of the Stirrup

Have you ever tried riding without your feet in the stirrups, perhaps to practice on balance or leg position? While it can be useful to practice form and position if done safely, there is no doubt that when you take the stirrups away you begin to realize just how much you might depend on them when you do have them. At Dennis Moreland Tack, we know the importance of having quality, dependable stirrups, which is why we find the history of stirrups so interesting.

Check out the information below written by one of my good friends and tack historian, Phil Livingston, on the history of the stirrup:

Stirrups are a relatively new innovation in the history of horsemanship. No one knows exactly when, or where, stirrups were first used. The first stirrups were probably rawhide loops at the end of rawhide straps and used by the horseback herders/warriors who wandered the plains.

When Hernán Cortés invaded Mexico in 1519 his small group of cavalry men rode the war saddle of Medieval Spain. The stirrups they used were cast iron, often worked in engraved designs. One style was similar to the present English stirrup, although the tread was broader and slightly curved. The other was large, weighing some ten pounds each, and shaped to form a Christian cross. It was called the Cuneiform pattern.

 

With the introduction of cattle to Mexico after the conquest, huge ranches developed. Cowboys were needed to handle these cattle and where you have cowboys, you have saddles and stirrups. The prevailing stirrup pattern, circular in shape, was cut from a 2” thick block. A small half circle was in the center just large enough to provide a “toe hold” for the rider. The style was to prevail for some two hundred years, ridden by Mexican and Californio vaqueros, mountain men and early-day Texas cowboys.

Another style of stirrup appeared in Mexico in the late 1800s. A wide (up to 6 inches) length of wood was steamed or baled until it became flexible, then bent and lashed around a form until it dried. A halt was invented at the top of the U-shaped box to hand the stirrup from the leather. The style quickly gained popularity since the rider could insert his foot all the way to the boot heel and gain more security. This “box stirrup” is still seen today on Mexican charro saddles.

Early Texas cowboys modified the box stirrup by narrowing the top to accommodate the three-inch stirrup leathers on their saddle. Called the “Dog House”, thousands of these stirrups hung from saddles following Texas Longhorn cattle up the trails to Kansas and beyond.

Following the gold rush of 1849-1850 the population of California exploded. Many turned to the cattle industry, either as a rancher or a cowboy. The need for riding equipment boomed. Saddle trees were improved and a new stirrup which gave more “foot room” was devised. Named the “Visalia” for the town where it was developed, these stirrups rapidly replaced the old, carved wooden ones which had come from Mexico. The Visalia stirrup is still the most popular western stirrup and is used by riders of all disciplines.

Saddles by Phil Livingston

Another stirrup which appeared in the 1870s was the Oxbow. It was named because the curved bottom resembled the shape of an ox yoke. The pattern quickly became popular with rough-string riders because it was easier to hold on a pitching horse. Like the Visalia, it was built of bent wood with a galvanized iron binding.

Rodeos had become more than just a cowboy past time sport for cowboys by the 1930s. The old Oxbow stirrup, standby with several generations of bronc riders, was slimmed down to a ¾” tread to fit the bottom of the boot better. Timed event contestants wanted a stirrup which supported them when they stood to rope but were also easy to get out of. The old Texas Dog House was revived, usually covered with leather to add weight.

Stirrups are the result of “form follows function” and, in spite of numerous style and material modifications, continue to do the same job that the first rawhide loop did for a primitive horseman.

Phil Livingston is the author of War Horse and The Driftwood Legacy, among many other books.

Dennis Moreland Tack builds hand-crafted flat bottom and oxbow stirrups. Call or text 817-312-5305 or email dmtack@vrfmail.com to discuss your stirrup needs.

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