A little over a decade ago, the idea that a stirrup iron could ever be more than a stirrup iron seemed far-fetched at best. While bits, bridles, and saddles have long been topics of study and innovation, stirrup redesign is a relatively new concept—and when it comes to new concepts, that’s just what the FreeJump brand is all about.
“The idea of the company is really to [use] innovation in order to [improve] the technical aspects of the sport. It’s more comfortable for the rider, but more comfortable for the horse as well,” says Antoine Desbonnet, Director of FreeJump North America.
“[Our] stirrups absorb shock, so they’re better for the rider’s articulation—the knees, ankles, and the rider’s back—but it’s more comfortable for the horse’s back as well, because it absorbs the pressure [and impact] of the jump.”
(ph.) Courtesy of FreeJump.
Founded by French entrepreneur Yann Dubourg in 2001, FreeJump’s first creation was actually an elastic training aid or “collar” to prevent riders from pulling too much on their horse’s mouth while jumping—hence the moniker, “Free-Jump.” But Dubourg’s attention soon became fixated on stirrups, and how he might make their design safer for riders everywhere. His primary inspiration? Cycling.
“Yann wanted to adopt the concept of the [click-in] automatic release bike pedals,” Desbonnet explains. “So basically, you’d click the sole of [specially equipped] boots into the stirrup, and then you ride, and if you have a fall, it releases you.”
In 2005, that inspiration became the basis for FreeJump’s open architecture branch stirrup: the first, quick-release stirrup of its kind. “The only safety stirrups that were on the market [at that time] were peacock stirrups, with the elastics, and that material wasn’t good enough for adults to ride with,” says Desbonnet.
“[In general], it’s really difficult to manufacture an open branch stirrup, because of all the [pressure put on] the stirrup and the weight of the rider and the jump and everything—it’s very hard. But this market was created when we started.”
The first FreeJump stirrup model became an overnight success in terms of safety and innovation, but when it came to practicality, the design continued to be a work in progress. “We had top riders riding with them and they were perfect for the show, but then, when they have 10 horses to ride [at home] every day, it’s too much to click and unclick 20 times a day.”
FreeJump’s next iteration helped to streamline the process, removing the click-in system but maintaining the model’s open branch architecture. In 2012, the brand released their now-famous Soft’Up Pro model, a single branch stirrup with a flexible outer branch to release the foot in case of a fall.
“It’s very comfortable, because there is a spring steel branch on the inside, and spring steel in the material, which is very flexible, and it absorbs more shock than any other aluminum or composite stirrup material,” explains Desbonnet. “That stirrup has been a huge success and is the reason everybody knows FreeJump now.”
FreeJump’s early endeavors became the building blocks for their successful paddock and tall boot lines, as well as spurs and half-chaps, leading to the brand’s eventual expansion into 49 countries around the world. In 2016, FreeJump became the exclusive equestrian partner of the iconic Italian design and engineering company Pininfarina—the name behind such famous brands as Ferrari and Maserati, among others.
According to Desbonnet, FreeJump’s growth over the years is thanks to its enduring partnerships with some of the sport’s best riders, including Harrie Smolders, Kent Farrington, and Ludger Beerbaum.
“I myself go to the big horse shows very often to meet with the riders, because thanks to the discussions we have with [them], we are able to develop our ideas and improve our products,” says Desbonnet. “We have the ideas and we’ll talk about them… and they tell us, ‘This is a super idea, or no, [this is] bad, you should do it this way…’”
FreeJump is paying close attention to its ambassador partnerships in North America, particularly those in the hunter and equitation rings, where they’re working to introduce the new Soft’Up Classic model. Though the brand’s futuristic design may not be the obvious choice for America’s more conservative disciplines, Desbonnet says it’s a decision that should come down to safety—and common sense.
The Soft'Up Classic Stirrup in silver. (c) FreeJump
“In America, a lot of people still use these very traditional, heavy, iron stirrups. We see that, and we’re like, ‘Okay, you can’t use that anymore. It’s not comfortable. It’s not safe. The tread is very narrow—you ride five horses and then you get sore,” says Desbonnet. “It’s more about the education [aspect], because these markets are very traditional.”
FreeJump has already converted the likes of Louise Serio, Jimmy Torano and North Run, and the key to their success, Desbonnet says, is pretty simple. “We ask people to try the stirrups and if they like them, we’ll start a partnership together. If they don’t like them, fair enough, but so far, everybody likes them, which we’re quite happy about.
“We’re really close to the top sport. That’s what is very important to us,” Desbonnet continues. “We’ve been successful because we work hard every day to make the best products in the world.”