I logged into Facebook today just in time to be reminded that November is No Stirrup Month. It seems that people think that no stirrup work is essential to developing an effective, deep seat. They also credit no stirrup riding for improving the rider's balance and strength.
It is true that riding without stirrups helps develop muscles you never knew you had - do it a few times in a row to really feel those burning inner thighs and hips! If you like the no pain, no gain thing, by all means, go ahead and ride as much as you can without those stirrups.
There are a few things that you need to keep in mind as you try to match your friend's no stirrup shenanigans. Because riding without stirrups might be counterproductive if you want to consider what can happen to your seat - and your horse.
Here are three pitfalls to riding without stirrups. Keep them in mind to make No Stirrup November really improve your riding.
The Old Knee Grip
The first thing that usually happens when you drop the stirrups is that your body goes into gripping mode - it might be completely reflexive. So while you think you're working on your seat, your knees are gripping tighter and tighter.
The problem with tight knees is that while you feel like you're keeping yourself in the saddle, you're actually pinching the horse near the shoulders. This will prevent him from being able to reach with the front legs, which will also block any energy coming from the hind end.
Then, the tighter your knees, the tighter your back and the harder your seat. If you feel like you're having a more difficult time following the horse's back with your seat, check your knees first.
The Over-Bent Pelvis (Chair Seat, Anyone?)
The tight knees also lead to the chair seat. As you tighten the knees, they will likely begin to creep upward. Higher knees means closed hip angles.
You're probably already familiar with this one (I have spent years trying to undo this muscle memory). The hip angle closes and as you assume the ever-famous "fetal position," you invariably end up being out of balance with the horse's movement.
Holding On To The Horse's Mouth For Balance
Once you're out of balance (whether falling forward or backward), chances are, you'll hold onto the reins to keep yourself more with the horse. This will cause unintentional pressure on the reins, causing all the negative results that a pulling rein can have on the horse.
When you put them all together, it's no wonder that horses often go worse when the riders go without stirrups. We need a lot of extra strength and core balance needed to maintain the amount of dexterity needed to not interfere with the horse while keeping a strong but supple position.
But it can be done.
If you want to give it a try, here's what you can keep in mind.
- Keep your knees toned but also soft. You will need to grip with them in rhythm with the horse's movement (especially on the down stride in canter), but try to be very aware of how hard you're holding on. Soften when you can. You can do a lot of your balancing with the seat, through the inner thighs rather than your knees. Keep your upper body on top of your seat.
- Lengthen the legs. Aim for a soft bend in the knees, just as if you are using stirrups. If you notice your knees creeping up, push them down again at the next opportune moment.
- Build up your no stirrup work. Start with shorter intervals and stop before you get really tired. Or try going without stirrups in increments through your ride. You don't have to go all-or-nothing right from the beginning.
- Get lunged! There is no better way to go without stirrups!
- Use a bucking strap. Get one of those straps that attach to the front rings of an English saddle (or just hold on to the horn of a western saddle). Use one hand on the bucking strap (usually the outside hand) while the inside hand is used to keep your horse's flexion. You can use your arm strength to pull yourself deep into the saddle to teach your seat to move with the horse. Make the reins long enough for the horse to be comfortable while you hold on with your hand. You can always take your hand off to control the horse as needed.
- Have a knowledgeable person watch you as you ride without stirrups so they can help you identify when your legs creep upward or when you're getting too tight in the lower back.
- Aim to allow your horse the same level of comfort as when you ride with stirrups. If you find that you're causing the horse to hollow or brace or tense, put your feet back in the stirrups, re-establish good movement, then try again without. Gradually lengthen the time you ride without stirrups.
Like all things horse riding, going without stirrups well is an art form in itself. If you can truly ride with an independent seat, without holding on to the horse through the reins, and with soft, "draping" legs and knees, you are surely on your way toward developing a deep, effective seat. Give the no-stirrup work a good try, but build your way up with minimal discomfort to the horse. As always, listen carefully and let your horse be your guide.
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