This picture shows Sarah Blatchford on her Holsteiner mare, Roulette, who is trained to Third Level. Looking at the picture I notice that Roulette has a very expressive uphill canter, but lacks some suppleness in her back, which shows by the swishing of her tail with some tension and restricted reach in her shoulders. Sarah is sitting as though she does not want to disturb her mare. But as she sits like this, she is not helping her mare, either. Her upper body is too far forward and the angle of her hip joint is not open enough to allow an independent leg position.
Sarah specifically asks for help to achieve better stirrup control as she says her foot tends to slide too far forward into the stirrup. This is a problem that many riders face. Sarah says she has small feet, which may make it a little more challenging, but even so, it’s not impossible to control the stirrup correctly. I can only recommend maybe a slightly smaller size of a stirrup iron, but I do not think that this is the main key to solving her problem.
Rather than focusing on equipment modifications, the best way to address Sarah’s habit of losing her stirrups is to focus on her body control and position. Stirrup control actually starts in the hip. If the hip is not supple, the lower leg cannot be independent, as the hip and ankle joint communicate in riding all the time.
To feel this, I recommend working in two-point. Begin in walk and feel that lowering your seat can be done by lowering your heel and flexing in your ankle joint. Conversely, when you point your feet with your toes down, your seat is raised up more. In the sitting position, Sarah can slide with her pelvis a bit off center to one side and feel how the leg on that side becomes longer with the heel dropping down, while the other side becomes shorter. Often the problem of keeping your feet in the stirrups starts with slight tension in the hip flexor muscles. Then the leg shortens, preventing the foot from staying in place.
In the picture, I can see that Sarah’s right hip is not forward and over to the inside enough. This forces her knee to slide up against the knee roll, and her leg turns a little bit to the outside with her toes pointing down. To work on this, you need to spend a lot of time riding without stirrups. Concentrate on creating a supple leg position and relaxing your ankles. Practice moving your toes inside your boot without letting tension creep into your ankles or legs. Remember that in all transitions, your toes need to be long and spread out to allow your leg to be long and supple.
Riding without stirrups will deepen the seat and then the leg can become more independent. A good tool for this is to imagine that you’re riding in invisible stirrups and play with changing the length. Start by keeping your legs in a comfortable length so they are just able to make contact at the horse’s side.
Next, shorten your imaginary stirrups a couple of holes to jumping position with your feet staying underneath your hip joints. Slowly lengthen them and keep feeling equal contact on the horse’s sides. Then, move your legs and alternate making them short and long, as if you are caressing your horse’s sides up and down with your calf muscle. During all this, your foot should be parallel to the ground. At this point, there is no need to keep your heel or toes down. Just keep your toes spread out inside the boot. Your pelvis should remain steadily connected to your horse’s movement and your upper body should be stable and balanced to allow for independent leg movements.
When you take your stirrups back, I would like for you to work on your control first by learning how to move in them. Start with your foot in the correct place: the broadest part (ball) of your foot on the stirrup pad. Next, slide your foot too far into the stirrup. Then bring it back to the middle position. Last, carry it only under your big toe. Keep playing with the position and connect this to your horse’s rhythm in all three gaits. First do this exercise with only one foot, then both, then alternate feet.
As you perform this exercise, you should feel how you can achieve much better balance in your upper body and more depth in your seat. Only then can you maintain constant, correct contact with your stirrups without loosing depth in your seat.
If you look at the anatomy of the pelvis, the hip joints are located higher than the seat bones. Logically, a lengthening of the leg position should deepen the contact of the seat bones onto the saddle by pulling down on the pelvis. But too often, standing in the stirrups locks the hip joint and pushes the seat away from the saddle, which is very counterproductive.
In order for Sarah to solve her stirrup problem and improve, she must learn how to push down and reach for the stirrup while deepening her seat and feeling the connection of her seat bones better. I hope that she can use these practical tips to feel a positive answer from her mare, who should then be able to move with more swing and suppleness in her back.
Susanne von Dietze is a leader in equestrian biomechanics. A physiotherapist, licensed Trainer A instructor and judge for dressage and show jumping, she gives lectures and seminars throughout the world, including at the prestigious German Riding Academy in Warendorf. She is a native of Germany and now lives with her husband and three children in Israel, where she competes at the international level. She is the author of two books on the biomechanics of riding: Balance in Movement and Horse and Rider, Back to Back. Find her books at www.EquineNetworkStore.com.
This article first appeared in the June 2017 issue of Dressage Today.