Work without stirrups is a great tool for riders in any discipline. It may be underused in dressage but can be incorporated into training programs in small doses that will reap positive rewards. “No Stirrups November” is well known to hunter riders but, I find, less so in the dressage world. With the traditional end of the competition season, before the start of winter showing for those who live or migrate to warmer climates, this challenge can be a good tool for dressage riders, students and instructors.
What are the benefits of working without stirrups? Why is it so frequently recommended?
Riding without stirrups allows a rider to reach another level of feel, balance and suppleness in the saddle and can be used to effectively solve a variety of rider issues, at any level of training. No-stirrup work can help a rider increase awareness of her own biomechanics as well as the horse’s. Riding without stirrups will teach the rider to maintain a sense of balance, build core strength and improve her feel of the horse underneath her. This feel is developed by learning to ride in rhythm and with the movement of the horse.
Do I need to be concerned about making my horse’s back sore if I work without stirrups?
As a rider, you must be sure to carry the weight of your body over your legs and not take all of your weight in your seat. Without stirrups to support your weight, you must be sure to stay tall in the saddle and keep your vertical alignment (shoulder/hip/heel). It is also important for you to stay symmetrical from left to right, carrying an equal amount of weight on both sides of your body and seat, keeping your shoulders and hips level and not collapsing or leaning in either direction.
What can I do to prevent my horse from becoming back-sore as I work without stirrups?
When starting work without stirrups, it is important, as with any new exercise, that it be done in moderation and introduced in small increments. The best way to condition horses and riders to no-stirrup work is to use intervals of work with and without stirrups. A new exercise program needs to be started slowly for both the rider and the horse.
For example, after a good warm-up of walk, trot and canter to be sure the horse’s back and you, as the rider, are warmed up, take the stirrups away for a few laps or a few minutes, then return to stirrup work. Gradually increase the duration of the no-stirrup work. It is a good idea to alternate the no-stirrups work with rising trot and stretching the horse over his back. This will allow both you and your horse to stretch. Remember, it is essential that you carry your body weight over your entire leg and not take all of your weight in your seat alone. To be sure that you do not use the reins for balance, it is a good idea to have a safety strap attached to the front of the saddle. You can use this to center yourself and rebalance as needed. You can keep your reins in hand and just use an index or pinkie finger on the strap or grasp the strap with your whole hand if needed.
What are good exercises to do on the longe line without stirrups?
There are a multitude of exercises available for riders to use on the longe. This, of course, has to be done on a safe, experienced longe horse with an instructor who has a wide variety of exercises to use. USDF Certified Instructors must teach seat lessons on the longe in their certification exams so they are a very good resource for this, as is the USDF Longeing Manual. All exercises need to be done with a horse who is accustomed to riders moving around in the saddle with swinging arms and legs. It is also best to do the exercises at first lightly holding a strap on the front of the saddle, and in a quiet, safe arena. Exercises on the longe help riders develop independent aids and improve suppleness, timing and feel. You must maintain a basic balanced position and keep lateral and longitudinal alignment in mind when doing the exercises.
• Arm Circles. Move your arms like you’re doing the backstroke, alternating left and right, while keeping your torso centered. If circling your outside arm, be sure to keep the inside shoulder back, facing the direction of the circle, aligned with the horse.
• “T” Position 1. Hold both of your arms straight out to the side, forming a “T” with your upper body. Be sure to keep your hands as high as your shoulders. Once you are straight and steady, turn your trunk to the inside of the circle, keeping your legs and seat even on each side of the horse and your hands/arms as high as your shoulders. Straighten, then turn to face the outside of the circle. Continue alternating directions, twisting your trunk to face the inside and outside of the circle without allowing your torso to collapse or fold or your legs to change position.
• “T” Position 2. Hold both of your arms out to the side, forming a “T” with your upper body, then alternate lowering one arm from shoulder level and raising it back up.
• Hands to Elbows. Put your hands behind your lower back and touch the opposite elbows.
• Remove one glove and pass it to the opposite hand behind your back.
• Toe Touches. Reach down to touch your toe on the same side and then reach across and touch your toe on the opposite side of your horse.
Lower Body/Leg Exercises:
• Legs Away. Lift your legs up and off the saddle out to the side. Keep your alignment, holding for a determined number of seconds then relax.
• Leg Scissors. Swing one leg forward while the other is stretched back behind the seat. Keep your torso centered and shoulders level while your legs are swinging.
• Quad Stretch. Pull your heel up to your buttocks and grasp your heel/ankle with your hand on the same side. Start on the inside where the instructor can best see your alignment, then switch to the outside. It is important to stay square on your seat and not collapse toward the leg you are lifting.
• Ankle Circles. Twirl your toes clockwise for five to 10 circles, then counter clockwise, working both ankles at the same time.
How do I know if I’m working without stirrups correctly?
Your horse will tell you! If the horse remains happy in his work, supple and over his back, you are successful. If you, as a rider, start to become more aware of your seat and its influence and in a supple way feel stronger and more connected in your seat and core, you are working successfully.
What should I avoid doing when riding without stirrups?
You should always stay centered in the saddle. If you become crooked it will lead to incorrect work and can make both you and your horse sore. You should also carry your body weight through your whole leg and avoid taking the bulk of your weight in your seat or lower back. Here are some other things to avoid:
• leaning to the inside or outside of the horse or saddle. Often on the longe, the centrifugal force of the circle can cause the rider to sit outside the center, collapsing the inside rib cage
• drawing your legs up, which increases the weight in your seat
• pinching with your knees, which blocks the flow of energy through your leg
• leaning back behind the vertical with your shoulders behind your hips and/or your lower legs in front of your seat. The effect of this “chair seat” puts more of your weight in your seat and lower back and less in your legs.
Is it better to simply drop my stirrups, cross them over the horse’s withers or pull them off the saddle completely?
The primary concern is safety. The first choice is to cross the stirrups over the horse’s withers in front of the saddle. If the horse is not comfortable with the stirrups there or is unsettled, he may not be the horse to do this work with. Before crossing the stirrups over, pull the stirrup buckles down below the saddle skirt to get that bulk of the stirrup leather out of the way before pulling them forward and crossing them. When crossing the irons, be sure they are under the reins and if you are using a safety strap attached to the pommel, be sure the strap is still accessible.
Are there any specific safety concerns that I need to keep in mind, other than the obvious concerns of using a safe horse?
Ride without stirrups in a safe and quiet arena with minimal distractions. Remember that a fatigued rider is more likely to make a mistake, lose her balance or injure herself. Be careful to increase your no-stirrup work incrementally. As I mentioned before, it is advisable to have a safety strap on the front of the saddle. This can be used to center yourself, take a hold of if you feel like you are slipping and to be sure you do not balance on the reins or the horse’s mouth. A rider has to have a degree of an independent seat to be able to ride effectively without stirrups. If you do not feel centered or balanced enough to ride without stirrups around the arena, ask your instructor for a longe lesson.
What should I focus on when riding without stirrups?
Balance and symmetry in your position. Focus on keeping the horse round and over his back so his back muscles stay up and the abdominal muscles stay engaged to lift the back. When returning to work with stirrups, try to keep the slightly deeper, softer seat you obtained from the work without stirrups. Be careful not to brace against the stirrup irons but to emulate the feel you achieved without them. Some benefits of the work without stirrups can be a longer leg, a more open hip angle and a leg that drapes better around the horse and lies comfortably on his side.
How can I make riding without stirrups more interesting so I’m not focused on my burning muscles or other discomfort?
Focus on the positive benefits and have an end goal for your time riding without stirrups. Work without stirrups doesn’t have to be trot or canter work, it can be walk work on a horse who you trust. It is important to be able to bring a feel of mental and physical relaxation into the no-stirrup work. Work without stirrups can be very beneficial for a rider changing from another discipline to dressage. Some of those riders may need to re-adjust their leg position, lengthen and strengthen it to be able to ride with a longer dressage stirrup.
Having grown up as an event rider, I am often surprised by riders who have to stop what they are doing if they lose their stirrups. I encourage riders to continue riding if they lose their stirrups, as long as they are safe and can stay centered in the saddle. They need to learn to regain their stirrups without stopping and/or using their hands to fix the position of their foot in the stirrup iron. This independence of the aids is important in all aspects and styles of riding.