Do any of these things happen to you?
- You lose your stirrups during a transition.
- You feel your feet bouncing in the stirrups, especially during sitting trot.
- Your lower legs sway in canter.
- You can't feel your feet in the stirrups.
- You have trouble placing your legs on your horse's sides.
- You can have nice long legs riding without stirrups, but still lose the stirrups as soon as you start using them again.
These things happen to most riders at some point, especially during the first few years of riding. Sometimes, you develop a habit that lasts even longer, mostly because your body blueprinted itself long ago and now it's even more difficult to break that habit.
But it can be done.
We are always striving to maintain quieter legs, a more secure seat, and stable feet (preferably with the heels lower than the toes). The thing is, the harder we try to keep the legs from moving, the more they swing, tighten, and finally slide out of the stirrups!
What to do?
Here are three steps (pun intended!) to a quieter leg position.
1. Soften through the seat.
Whenever you find tension in the lower legs or feet, you can direct your attention higher up. In this case, consider your seat. Are you tight through the lower back? Are you gripping with the gluteal muscles? Maybe your hip angle is closed or you're leaning forward in the upper body.
In all these cases, start with softening through your seat. Don't become a blob of jelly - just feel for tension or gripping, and release that as much as you can. Allow the hip angle to open. Allow your upper thighs to really sit into the saddle.
Try to be quiet in your seat aids. If you feel you are moving bigger than your horse, or if you are pumping through your seat and body to get him moving, work toward whispering your aids, reducing body movement, and becoming lighter over the horse's back. We often get "too loud" in attempt to be clear. The quieter you can be in your body, the more opportunity you can have to feel your legs and the horse's sides.
So start with a softer seat that allows a more open hip angle and a straighter leg from the highest point of the thighs.
2. Straighten the leg from the hip through the knee down to the ankle.
Do two things with your leg.
First, rotate your leg inward toward the saddle, so your knee is facing straight ahead. You might need to grab the back of your riding breech and actually pull your leg slightly backward from the hip, placing the thigh flat on the saddle.
Second, straighten your knee slightly. Don't push it too straight, but see how much you can open the knee angle as you lengthen your leg downward.
It's like a stretch of the leg, constrained within the length of your stirrup leathers. You might discover that your leg will naturally feel longer.
3. Push into the stirrup with your foot, allowing the heel to go down if it can.
Now let's focus on the foot itself.
The ball of your foot should be flat on the widest part of the stirrup. If placed correctly, you will feel like the stirrup is as solid as the ground. We call this "grounding" your feet in the stirrup.
After you have lengthened your leg in step 2, you might feel that your heel just wants to go down on its own. This is a great sign that you are on the right track. However, don't force your heels down - that would cause more tension in your leg and be counterproductive. Let the heel hang if it will.
Start at the halt.
Take time and soften through the seat and hip, position the leg and then ground the foot on each side. Do all of this at the halt first, so you can feel the effects on your seat and leg before you add movement.
Then try to maintain the leg position through each gait. Walk is easiest. It might take some effort at first but will feel more natural over time, until you aren't even aware that you are doing it.
The longer leg and softer muscles will also allow your seat to position deeper into the saddle.
One last thought. You might not be able to do all three steps right away. In fact, you might be able to do one, then another, then maybe two at a time... you know what I mean. Add transitions, the sitting trot or canter to the mix, and you might have to be even more patient.
So be aware of what your seat and legs feel like, work on loosening the seat and lengthening the leg, and one day, you might be surprised that somehow, without forcing anything, you legs stopped swaying, your stirrups stayed on your feet, and you can actually feel the stability of the stirrups even as you canter merrily along!
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Lots more to read about the leg aids below!