Stirrups are loops with flat bases which are hung from a saddle to support the feet of a rider. The rider's foot rests inside the loop and on the flat part while riding, allowing the rider to have greater balance, stability, and control. Historians often count the stirrup as one of the major inventions in warfare, because stirrups totally changed the function and role of mounted cavalry. The development of the stirrup also, of course, revolutionized riding; a wide variety of stirrups are used today by riders all over the world.
The basic stirrup design has not changed very much over the centuries. The loop can be made from wood, metal, or even plastic, and it is attached to the saddle by a strip of leather or nylon known as a stirrup leather or leather. Leathers can be adjusted to accommodate the rider's leg length, and for specific styles of riding; jockeys, for example, ride with very short leathers which allow them to perch over the horse's center of gravity for increased efficiency. Western riders tend to use more broad stirrups and leathers, while English riders use narrower stirrups, sometimes called irons.
India appears to be the home of the stirrup, with the earliest evidence of stirrups dating to around 500 BCE in India. By the first century CE, stirrups were in wide use in Siberia, and the Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans picked up the innovation shortly afterwards. In around the sixth century, stirrups crept into Scandinavia, and a century later, stirrups swept through the Middle East and into mainland Europe.
The stirrup is so ubiquitous today that it may be hard for many to imagine riding without it. Prior to the development of the stirrup, riders had to grip their horses with their legs, and their balance and control were compromised. Mounted warriors usually dismounted in the battlefield, using their horses primarily as a mode of transit. When warriors could stay in the saddle while using swords, axes, and other weapons, they gained a significant advantage.
Modern stirrups take a number of forms, as do leathers. When riding, it is important to make sure that the leathers are adjusted appropriately; if the stirrups are too low or too high, the rider lacks control. It is also important to wear proper footwear; riding boots are specifically designed to fit well with stirrups, protecting the rider's leg without sliding through the stirrup, which could potentially be dangerous if a rider falls.