As some of you may remember from a few months ago, curiosity drove me to perform a little experiment, pitting my beloved Royal Riders irons against the more traditional looking MDC irons. I also had a pair of regular fillis irons lying around, so I included them in the showdown as well, although they are not pictured below. The two MDC models I tried were the Sport Classic and the S Flex. For comparisons sake, my Royal Rider irons are the Flex model.
To provide a little background, I rode in fillis irons as a kid but always had problems with my legs burning and feet going numb. Come to find out (many years later), I have pretty significant compartment syndrome in my lower legs, so my blood flow is very easily compromised. From 1998-2007 I used Herm Sprenger 6 way irons, which helped tremendously with the pain but I also felt like they made my lower leg quite unstable. I didn’t realize exactly how unstable until I got my Royal Riders – it was an instant difference. I’ve ridden in the Royal Riders ever since and had very few complaints with them, functionally. I’ve never really been a big fan of the look though, and couldn’t ever decide how I felt about the lightweight composite. I also wasn’t sure if the wide footbed was what made such a big difference for my leg pain or if the flex contributed as well. I had always looked at the MDC irons and wondered how they would compare. After talking to Martin at MDC, he recommended that I try the Sport Classic and the S Flex.
To draw fair comparisons I used each pair of irons on each of my saddles, for both dressage rides and jumping rides. When I originally got the MDC’s I was pretty certain that I would like the Classics more than the Flex…. mostly because the physical appearance of the Flex irons reminds me of the Herm Sprenger, which I have such negative memories about. The Royal Rider irons, while they do have some flex to them, are not nearly as “bendy” as my old HS irons were, which is why they felt so much more stable. I was concerned that the MDC Flex irons would be too flexible as well, but in a side by side comparison the amount of flexion was very similar between the Royal Rider Flex and the MDC Flex. Enough to provide some “give”, but not enough to seem unstable. The MDC had perhaps a bit more flex, but not a significant amount. The other obvious difference between the irons is the top. The MDC Sport Classics have an adjustable top that allow you to change the angle at which the stirrup hangs – the traditional position, a 45 degree angle, or a 90 degree angle. The Royal Riders obviously hang in the traditional position, as do regular fillis irons. The MDC S Flex hang in a fixed 45 degree position.
Without further ado, here were my opinions of each iron, in reverse order of preference.
Traditional Fillis Irons
When I started this experiment, these were the irons I had on my dressage saddle. They were ok on that, although I did sometimes find myself losing a stirrup. I switched them to my jumping saddle for one ride just to make sure that my old opinion of them still stood, and boy did it ever. Within 5 minutes my ankles were on fire and within 10 minutes my toes were going numb. I also didn’t think they felt particularly supportive under my foot (when I sunk into my heel I felt like the irons wanted to “escape” toward my toe) nor did I have a particularly easy time keeping my feet in the irons, with standard rubber pads. I spent the entire ride focused on and fidgeting with my feet, instead of actually focusing on riding my horse. The verdict: I still hate fillis irons. There is a lot to be said for the traditional look, but for me the functionality is almost nill.
After we get past the fillis irons, which I hate with every fiber of my being, the other 3 are really closely matched.
MDC Sport Classic
It was hard for me to decide where to rank these, because I liked them the most for dressage but not as much for jumping. The Sport Classics just weren’t the right irons for me over fences, and in my world the needs for jumping trump the needs for dressage, so that’s ultimately how I decided to rank them. Although I liked these irons light years more than regular fillis irons, I just didn’t like them quite as much for jumping as my top two. I tried them in all 3 positions – traditional, 45 degree, and 90 degree (LOVE that feature, by the way) and on both saddles. I actually liked them a lot on my dressage saddle, especially in the 90 degree position. Coming from h/j land it’s difficult for me to let my leg drape in the correct dressage position, but these irons really seemed to hang well on their own and encourage my leg to do the same. I also liked the traditional look – from the side they look like fillis irons. The only reason these lost out for me a little bit was because on my jumping saddle I experienced the same feeling of the stirrup wanting to move a bit forward when I tried to sink down into my heels. Definitely not as much as the regular fillis iron, but a little bit. I’m guessing this is likely due the extreme lack of flexibility in my ankles, but a few times I found myself fishing to reposition them correctly while jumping. I did not experience any of the burning or numbness in my feet however, which now makes me think that the wide footbed is really the key for helping me with that issue. Ultimately I was sad that I could only afford to keep one pair of MDC’s, otherwise these would still be on my dressage saddle.
Royal Rider Flex
Honestly, I think that my physical issues just necessitate an iron with some flex. That’s the complete opposite of what I thought I would find from this experiment, but really good to know. When I have a little bit of “give” in my iron I seem to be able to keep my feet under me a little better, and the iron seems to stay more securely in place on my foot, so that’s why these got the nod over the Sport Classic’s. I still like my Royal Riders as far as comfort and function go, although I remain pretty “over” the cheap black plastic look and am still unsold on the lightweight composite. For safety reasons I really prefer something with a little more weight to it. Which leads me to…
MDC ‘S’ Flex
These are the irons that Martin predicted I would like when I spoke to him on the phone about my issues, but I have to admit I thought he was wrong, and I have to then subsequently admit that he was right. When I took these out of the box I immediately thought NOPE because they reminded me of my old Herm Sprengers, but it was a mistake to judge them purely on looks and past prejudice. I’ve had these on my jumping saddle for a couple months now and have tested them in every scenario – flatwork, hacking out, the jumping ring, and cross country. With the kind of spring we’ve had I’ve also used them a lot in the mud and the rain. The grip is superb (never would have thought these would be as grippy as the slice-your-finger-open cheesegrater pads on my Royal Riders, but they have managed to do that without being quite so… lethal) and they always stay where I put them, whether it’s the ball of my foot for stadium or a little more “home” for XC. I have yet to lose a stirrup while using these, even with some pretty impressive acrobatics from Henry on cross country. I don’t love the look of any flex iron as much as a traditional solid metal fillis iron, but since flexion seems to be my destiny, I have to learn to live with it. I do like that these are at least metal/gray instead of black plastic, and have a good solid feel to them. I’m unsure as to whether or not I get any benefit from the 45 degree S feature at the top, since typically I don’t have knee pain except for after long horse show days. Of course, now that I say that, I haven’t noticed much knee pain after shows so maybe it’s doing something after all.
Overall I learned a lot about stirrup features and personal preference from comparing all these irons. I would greatly encourage anyone else who is interested to take advantage of MDC’s Free Trial Ride and/or 100% money back guarantee policies, or contact Martin at 831-393-0588 (note: he’s on the West Coast) and speak to him yourself to see what he might suggest for you. He has also graciously offered to answer questions in the comments of this blog post, so feel free to blast away!