Hi there, human! You seem to be walking a little funny today. Let me guess: No-Stirrup November?
I’ve taught a lot of students how to ride without stirrups, so as they say, this isn’t my first rodeo.
I’ve carried nervous Red Level kids through their first wobbly trot steps, helped adult students discover muscles they didn’t even know they had, and shown Teal Level riders just how powerful their seat can be.
You might have heard some chatter about how no-stirrup boot camp isn’t actually that great an idea. Really, though, it’s like handling reins, or learning to post, or pretty much anything you do with horses.
Whether No-Stirrup November is good for horse and rider depends on how thoughtfully you practice it.
Here’s my No-Stirrup perspective:
I don’t love it when no-stirrup riding is practiced at my expense. If you’re stiff and bouncing on my back, I’m going to be sore and cranky. If you’re unbalanced and jerking your arms around, guess who’s getting hit in the mouth? If you’re tense and gripping with your knees or calves, I’ll feel like there’s no escape from uncomfortable pressure.
Best case scenario, I’m going to silently suffer, or decide that moving at all is not in my best interest. Worst case scenario, I’m going to make my own escape – by speeding up until you bounce right off!
But I do love it when students make an effort to improve their seat.
Bouncing, gripping and grabbing can happen with stirrups, too, and if you do it all the time, I’m not going to wear my happy face when I see you coming for a ride.
Plus, horses are constantly blamed for rider imbalance. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “She won’t canter/bend/stop!” when as far as I know, I’m just doing what the rider’s body is asking for!
I really want students who commit to learning how to follow my movement and help me perform. And make no mistake, riding without stirrups is an effective way to get there.
Tips for nailing No-Stirrup November:
#1 - Warm up first
If my back is cold and tight, I’d rather you didn’t jump straight into sitting trot. If your muscles are cold and tight, you’re not going to enjoy that sitting trot, either.
Consider leaving your irons on for your initial warm-up at the walk, trot and/or canter.
Post to the trot, and if you’re in a saddle that supports it, spend some time in your two-point as well.
Let me stretch on a long rein, and help me relax as much as possible.
#2 - See what kind of horse you have that day
If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, your November might be full of gusting wind and crisp, cool days – aka, the kind of weather that makes a horse kick up their heels and say “Whee!”
We also know perfectly well that fall is spooky season. If we hear a leaf crunch a certain way, obviously we’re going to save ourselves from the bogeyman in the woods. Unless you’ve got riding pants with a Superglue seat, keep your stirrups on for the wildest fall weather.
Use your warm up time to evaluate how your horse’s brain is feeling as well as his body. If he seems distracted, tense or extra-speedy, maybe save the no-stirrup work for another day.
I promise, the No-Stirrup November Police won’t come after you!
#3 - Make me comfy by crossing or removing your stirrups
Your horse might not mind if you practice dropping and picking your stirrups up occasionally, but for prolonged practice, we’d rather not have lightweight irons banging against our barrel and elbows.
Completely removing stirrups is a better choice for jumping, since crossed stirrups can bounce on our shoulders when we land.
#4 - If you cross your stirrups, make yourself comfy by doing it right
Bulky folds of leather can create a pressure point against the inside of your thigh – OUCH, especially if you try to post!
Prevent this problem by pulling the buckles of your stirrup leathers down until they lie off the edge of the saddle when you cross them.
Next, lift the skirt of your saddle and take a look at where the leathers wrap around the stirrup bar.
Gently tug or twist each layer until they lie as flat as possible and you can’t feel them through the skirt.
#5 - Tune up your position for optimal balance, suitable for the kind of riding you’re about to do
If you’re practicing sitting gaits, or riding in a Western or dressage saddle, it’s usually best to let your leg hang long and low, with only a gentle bend in the knee. Keep your shoulders back and allow your core muscles do most of the work.
If you’re posting, jumping or galloping in a forward seat saddle, however, you may need a little more angle in your knees and hips to make your leg quiet and secure. Try to keep your legs in the same position they would be if you were practicing these activities with stirrups, and lift your toes to improve your balance.
#6 - Know your limitations
The end goal is to be able to ride as well without stirrups as with them – but you probably won’t start out that way.
Riding without stirrups takes a lot of consistent practice, and until you get good at it, plan on modifying your activities to keep things safe. Lower your jumps to crossrails if need be, or only practice cantering on a quiet, safe school horse. It’s also okay if your no-stirrup practice takes place entirely at the walk.
Do what you can, and don’t worry if you have to go back to basics for a while. Olympic riders go back to basics every day!
#7 - Mix it up
Ride bareback one day, and in a saddle without stirrups the next. Play games, walk through polework exercises, and ask your instructor if you can take a lesson on the longe line.
You can challenge yourself a great deal at slow speeds, and a little creativity can make no-stirrup practice more fun for both of us.
#8 - Practice off the horse
Getting strong and flexible makes no-stirrup lessons way less painful, and horses LOVE it when you work on your fitness outside of riding time.
There are tons of effective exercises you can do in just a few minutes a day. Ask your instructor for recommendations, and if you need extra motivation to practice at home, think of it as a gift to your horse in exchange for his willingness.
#9 - Practice little and often
It’s better to practice for five or ten minutes in every ride than to attempt a no-stirrup marathon. You’ll be less tired and sore, and your horse’s back will be happier, too.
Hopefully, you can build some good habits that will last into December and beyond.
Last, but definitely not least…
#10 - Attitude is EVERYTHING
You might think it sounds cool to complain about your no-stirrup workouts, but it isn’t very helpful.
Human brains have a funny way of processing words and beliefs – so if you are negative about doing something challenging, you might actually get worse at it instead of better.
The first step toward making no-stirrup riding achievable?
Decide you can do it. Then let the persistent practice work its magic.
When you ride without stirrups all the time, it really does become an easy thing to do. You won’t even remember that you’re stirrupless… you’ll just be riding your horse, and we’ll both be having a good time!