Vital to a rider’s balance, the stirrups are small but important items of horse tack. We use the stirrups more than most would realise, from the moment we first get on a horse, to help us mount up, stay central, and occasionally to stop us from falling off! So if stirrups are so important, why do our instructors enjoy taking them away from us?! This is a sentiment which is probably shared by most of the equine world (apart from the odd mad few!), and here we take a look at the benefits.
When you are asked to take your stirrups away, it is important that you cross them over the horse’s neck, and lay them across the shoulders, not across your saddle. This is for the sake of you, the rider, as the bruised thighs that can result will ensure that you only make that mistake once! Don’t worry, you won’t cause the horse any discomfort, as if you lay the stirrups flat, they will move in harmony with your horse. Also try to pull the stirrup buckle out from the stirrup bar a little way, and lay this across the neck. By doing this, and pushing the stirrup leather flat under the skirt of the saddle, you can be sure that the buckle is also out of the way of your thighs, which will avoid pinching and bruising.
The main aim of work without stirrups is to assess and improve your balance and core stability. Any security taken from the stirrups is lost, and therefore your instructor will have a much truer portrait of your position’s strengths and weaknesses. Without your stirrups, you must try to feel your seat bones, and sit back onto them. It can be very tempting to rock forwards to absorb the movement through the front of your body, however this will cause the horse to tense and hollow. You need to sit back, and really work at absorbing the horse’s movement through your hips, pelvis and lower back. The rest of your body should remain still and upright, moving just a little to accommodate the horse. You should also aim to sit as centrally and evenly as possible.
If you are a nervous rider, taking away your stirrups can help to boost your confidence in the long term. You may find it daunting and terrifying on the spur of the moment, but on a quiet horse no-stirrups work will give you increased balance, and a better feel for applying the aids accurately and sympathetically. If you find it unbearably hard, there is no shame in asking to do the initial work in a walk. You can always build up to the trot and canter, and any amount of no stirrups work is beneficial in lengthening the leg and developing security of seat. It is best to admit your fear and address it rather than worry incessantly, and transmit negativity and tension to the horse.
For the more experienced rider, no stirrups work is also a useful way of developing feel and reducing tension. Often tension can build up without us even realising, perhaps through the ankles, or neck, back and shoulders. Being very aware of your body is a key part of being a good rider, and will help you to be more influential.
Stirrups were originally developed as military horse tack, to allow for greater stability when fighting the enemy. Before their development, everybody rode without stirrups, some even without any horse tack at all! If we’re not fighting off enemies on horseback any more, you might argue that the modern horse world should perhaps not rely on stirrups as much as we do. However like so many gadgets, stirrups are a device which have made our lives easier, and for that reason are not going to change. However, if you strive to be the best rider you can be, as we all should, then riding without stirrups should be a significant part of your training.