Do you cringe when your trainer yells, "Drop your stirrups!”?
Riding without stirrups can seem like torture sometimes—especially if you ride a bouncy horse. But dropping and crossing your stirrups is actually a great way to improve your position and strengthen your legs. Riding without stirrups teaches you to find your balance in the saddle and develop an independent seat. Learning to ride safely without stirrups is also a good idea because you’ll probably lose one stirrup (or both) by accident when riding or showing. Instead of panicking and slowing down your horse so you can pick up the stirrup—which a judge will notice—you’ll be able to continue on without the stirrup until you discretely pick it up again.
You don’t have to ride without stirrups for hours and hours to improve your position—although it probably would help! Dropping your stirrups for five or 10 minutes every time you school your favorite horse will help you become a better rider.
Cross your stirrups
Take your feet out of the stirrups and pull the buckle away from the stirrup bars about two or three inches. Then cross the stirrups in front of the saddle. Fold the leathers as flat as possible so there’s no lump under your leg to make you sore.
Begin by walking around the arena or field. Try to stay relaxed and hang your legs down low. Find your balance in the middle of the saddle. Press down evenly on both seat bones. Keep your lower legs close to your horse’s sides but don’t grip with them. Sit up nice and tall.
If you feel a bit stiff and nervous riding without stirrups, do a few ankle rolls while you’re walking. Draw circles in the air with your toes for a minute or two.
Begin by doing sitting trot. Why? You’ll probably get bounced out of the saddle if you try to post right away! Ask your horse to slow his trot down a bit and sit deeply in the saddle. Think about sitting up tall and straight. Let your legs hang down as loosely as possible because gripping with them will make you bump around more in the saddle and make you tense and stiff. Do your best to relax and try to follow your horse’s movement. Breathing deeply and slowly should help you relax.
Don’t do sitting trot without stirrups for too long. It can be tiring (and possibly painful) to your horse if you’re bumping around on his back for more than a few minutes.
Once you’ve mastered sitting trot without stirrups, you can try rising or posting to the trot. Warning—this can be tough!
Move your lower legs closer to your horse’s sides and lean forward slightly. You want your horse’s natural, bouncy trotting movement to "push” you out of the saddle. Try not to post too high.
The first time you post without stirrups you might go into "survival mode” and grip with your knees and lean too far forward. Try to loosen the death grip, sit up a bit and let the thrust of the trot help you rise up out of the saddle. Again, only do posting trot once or twice around the arena. You don’t want to be totally sore the next day. And be sensitive to your horse’s feelings. If his ears are back and he’s swishing his tail, he’s probably not happy with the way you’re riding him. Take back your stirrups and give him a break.
You’ll probably find cantering a lot easier than trotting because it’s a smoother gait. Ask your horse to canter as you would normally--inside leg at the girth, outside leg squeezing or bumping behind the girth. As with the trot, try not to lean too far forward. Sit deeply on both seat bones and ask your horse to canter immediately. Don’t kick and kick and get bounced out of the saddle while he ignores your aids and keeps on trotting.
Keep your legs touching your horse’s sides as you canter, but don’t grip with your knees.
Trot over some poles when you school without stirrups. You can do this rising or sitting to the trot. The poles should be 4 ½ to 5 feet apart, depending on your horse’s stride.
Nudge your horse forward with your lower legs to keep him trotting with energy over the poles. Easy! Practice getting into jumping position over the poles too.
If you can walk, trot and canter without stirrups and haven’t fallen off yet, you can try popping over some small fences. Set up a few cross rails and point your horse at them. Get up in jumping position a few strides away from the fence as you would with stirrups and rest your hands on your horse’s neck. Your first few jumps may be ugly and you may lose your balance; this is why it’s important to grab mane so you don’t yank your horse in the mouth if you’re flying all over the place. Use a jumping strap if it helps your hands stay quiet over the fence. When you land, sit back down in the saddle and squeeze your horse forward with your lower legs.
If you feel like you’re going to fall off or if you’re really bugging your horse by bouncing on his back, slow down to a walk and regroup. Riding without stirrups shouldn’t be painful for you or your horse.
So how did our model Mia feel about riding without stirrups for this photo shoot?
"My horse has a bouncy trot and is lazy at the canter, so sitting the trot and keeping my balance while asking him to go forward was a challenge,” said Mia.
Did riding without stirrups tire her out?
"I would say the most tiring part was trying to keep my equitation looking decent without stirrups. I’m terrible about that!”
Did her legs hurt afterward?
"They hurt right after I rode and then again after a good night’s sleep. The next morning I did some stretches which helped,” said Mia.
Does Mia plan to ride without stirrups more?
"Absolutely! I definitely notice a difference after riding without stirrups,” said Mia. "Having a stronger leg makes me a more confident rider and being more confident allows me to jump higher and ride a wider variety of horses.”