Breakaway stirrups are stirrups which are designed to detach from the saddle if a rider falls, ensuring that the rider will not be dragged if his or her foot is caught in the stirrup. These stirrups greatly increase rider safety, saving riders from serious injuries and even death. Most companies which supply tack carry breakaway stirrups in a range of styles suitable for all riders; these stirrups are highly recommended for novice riders or riders working with nervous horses.
When a rider falls from the saddle, being trapped in the stirrups is a major concern. Assuming that the rider is wearing a helmet to protect the head, as long as he or she can roll away from the horse, the risk of injury is fairly minimal. However, if the rider's boots or shoes are tangled in the stirrups, the horse will drag the rider until it decides to stop, and the dragging may panic the horse, causing it to run even further than it would have otherwise. In addition to being rather humiliating, this can also be very painful; the rider will be chafed, and he or she runs the risk of being kicked or dragged over obstacles, which can be very dangerous.
If a rider is using breakaway stirrups, when he or she falls, the stirrups detach, allowing the rider to roll away from the horse while the animal runs free. The stirrups can be easily re-attached to the saddle once the horse has calmed down and come to a stop. Depending on the conditions of the fall, the ride can resume, or it can be put off until horse and rider feel less upset.
These stirrups work in a number of ways. Some are simply attached with sturdy rubber bands which hold up during normal riding conditions, but give way under intense strain. Others are designed with hooks which rotate out of the stirrup leathers if the stirrups move out of normal riding position, as would be the case if a rider fell with a boot in the stirrup. In some cases, the stirrup and the stirrup leather both break away from the saddle.
When purchasing breakaway stirrups, it is a good idea to understand how they work, and to buy stirrups which are appropriate for the kind of saddle one uses. For people who show their horses, it may be advisable to check on whether or not breakaways are permitted in the show ring, and if they are, if there is a particular style which should be used. Like all tack, breakaway stirrups benefit from regular maintenance, which includes cleaning, oiling of metallic parts to prevent rust, and checks for damage which could cause the stirrups to break or fail.