Riding without stirrups
Posted by Irina Yastrebova on Friday, August 30, 2013 01:55 PM
Riding without stirrups is considered one of the best ways of learning to ride a horse. Even accomplished riders should ride without stirrups on regular basis to reestablish deep seat and proper alignment. Human bodies have a tendency to develop compensations which if unnoticed over time can create a substantial challenge to properly balance on a horse's back.
However, simply dropping the stirrups and bounce around on a horse's back will not accomplish much. For beginner riders it is paramount to do it under supervision of an experienced instructor, especially, one with ability to analyze body biomechanics and properly correct mistakes. Experience riders can work without stirrups on their own, though, an occasional good eye on the ground never hurts :) These are few guidelines that are important to follow while doing this work:
  • Always start in walk. This will help to establish proper posture and alignment
  • Make sure to find your seatbones by lifting both legs away from the saddle for a moment. The pelvis must remain vertical/neutral
  • Place your legs around the horse's barrel with knees being deep but still remaining bent, gently press your thighs around the saddle
  • Gently place your lower legs on your horse's side. Have a sense of wrapping your whole legs around your horse
  • Pull your toes up and keep them like that through the duration of the exercise
  • As always - core muscles engaged, torso is vertical, shoulder blades are puled down and away from each other, upper arms are vertical, elbows bent
  • Breathing evenly down into your diaphragm or lower ribs
Now, the faster you go the more tone required in your muscles to retain the position described above. If you are not sure you can control your balance in trot without accidentally grabbing and pulling on the reins you need to do it on a lunge line with instructor helping you from the ground. The moment you ask your horse to trot you have to work on reestablishing the balance you had in walk and checking all the points above. Ask yourself questions such as:"Where are my seatbones?" "Is my pelvis and/or spine vertical/neutral?" "Am I tightening my hip joints and collapsing in my core?" If you find it difficult to continue in trot the best exercise to do is rapid walk/trot transitions, just a few strides of each gait. It will help you to find the right tone for your muscles and connection to the saddle. In a few minutes you will start to feel that the transitions are happening smoother and you will have a sense of staying with your horse. Less and less rein will be required to walk and less leg to trot. It starts to feel like your horse is reading your mind. Make sure you work both directions as human body is not symmetrical and it is always easier to go one way compare to the other. The reasons are too many to list here.
Here are few other exercises that are very helpful to do while working without stirrups:
  • In walk, usually in the beginning, let your legs hang down in complete relaxation. Make sure your torso does not relax too much and lose it's alignment. Walk like that for couple minutes. This is a good way to stretch the hip joints.
  • In walk/trot/canter take your thighs away from the saddle strictly sideways without turning them out, it is only for a moment then place them back. If your muscles are weak you can make an attempt and feel the weight of thighs lifting. In time you will be able to actually lift. Also, good flexibility in the hip joints is important here. Otherwise, your pelvis will rotate either forward or backwards.
  • Transitions walk/canter/walk if your horse schooled enough to do them easily. Trot/canter transitions require very good balance to come back to a very nice easy to sit trot. I do not advice riding them unless your horse is very well trained.
  • All sorts of changes of direction, mostly in trot. It challenges the side to side balance and develops ability to stay in the centre of the saddle.
  • Rising trot, done without stirrups really develops inner thigh muscles and shows the rider how to stay independent of the stirrups even in rising trot which greatly increases the sense of connection and security in the saddle.
A few more notes...
- Do not ride without stirrups all the time. It is important to know how to keep stirrups without pushing into them, constantly swimming in them or locking your knee/ankle joints.
- Working for 10 minutes couple times a week is all it takes to preserve and reestablish the proper connection. If you need to develop more control or independence from the stirrups work more often gradually building it up to 20 minutes in duration.
- Do not think that riding without a saddle automatically develops a good seat. I am spending a lot of time fixing bad habits people picked up riding without saddles in their youth.
-If you work a lot by yourself mirrors are invaluable.
Happy riding...
Comment by Angela on Saturday, June 6, 2015 01:38 PM
I often do rising trot without stirrups in a jumping saddle and it worked really well, ow doing it in a dressage saddle and haven't felt the same benefits yet but I'm hoping with with a little more work I will improve. Angela.
Comment by Irina Yastrebova on Saturday, June 6, 2015 08:37 PM
This is probably because dressage saddle is not your usual saddle. Or, you are trying to sit differently in it, trying to be very vertical, or stretching your legs really down. The other option may be the saddle doesn't work for you: either too tight, too big, or knee rolls are too big and pushing your thighs too far back.
Comment by Ray on Sunday, October 18, 2015 08:06 PM
Hi I was wondering if you have any tips on leg strengthening my instructor wants me to jump without stirrups soon and I dont feel that my legs are strong Thanks:)
Comment by Irina Yastrebova on Sunday, October 18, 2015 09:01 PM
The quickest way to strengthen your leg muscles is to work with weights doing lunges, jumps, etc. You must be careful as it puts stress on your knees and building strength must be done gradually. Balancing in two-point on two Bosu balls (half-balls) while having dumbbells in your hands is another good exercise. To increase level of difficulty you want to bounce gently up and down pretending you are cantering.
Another way is to practice two point seat in canter without stirrups. This will be the closest you will get to jumping without stirrups without actually jumping :)
In terms of particular muscle groups you want to strengthen your adductors (inner thigh), hamstrings and quads.
Comment by Mary Eckstein on Tuesday, December 22, 2015 05:24 PM
I've started riding without stirrups again after many years. I'm trying not to grip with my knees while doing a rising trot. Am I correct that the muscles that should be engaged are the core muscles and upper thighs in order to maintain my body off the saddle when I post? My main aim is to improve my balance and use of the seat. Thanks
Comment by Irina Yastrebova on Tuesday, December 22, 2015 08:29 PM
Yes, you are correct. Stable core grounds the rider and prevents him/her from stretching up during rise. And upper thighs work the most because rising trot is a bit like squatting exercise. However, inner thighs will be involved to keep soft but steady connection to a horse. Gripping happens from loss of balance and overtightening in self defense. Walk on a beam and see which direction your body keeps collapsing trying to regain it's balance. That side of your body will be gripping the horse more.
Comment by Horse girl on Thursday, February 9, 2017 12:25 PM
Hi there I ride without stirrups in my lesson for 15 min and my horse always goes really fast and my legs get really sore! What should I do ?
Comment by Irina Yastrebova on Saturday, February 11, 2017 09:13 AM
If your horse goes fast only when you ride without stirrups consider taking them off completely because their banging may scare him. Also, you may become very tight and unintentionally drive him on. Ride lots of transitions trot-walk instead of just trot.
If your horse goes fast all the time even when you ride with the stirrups you need to train him to listen to your aids better. Again, transitions are a good tool rather then holding him tight at a desired speed.
Comment by Serena on Tuesday, April 4, 2017 02:35 PM
Hello, My instructor is making me go over jumps without stirrups on. I do this after I have cantered the horse, and if he wasn't bouncy enough he gets even bouncier post canter (with his trot). I slid of twice today since my legs were not in position. My question is; how do I maintain balance and control when he is bouncy, and how can I keep my legs in the proper position?
Comment by Irina Yastrebova on Wednesday, April 5, 2017 09:09 AM
The skill you want is not easy to acquire. Even very good riders will struggle to sit fast, stiff, unbalanced trot, Try first to slow down the canter after jump and then ask for a balanced steady trot instead of letting him fall into fast one.
Also, continue working on yourself - practice without stirrups rising trot, transitions in sitting trot back and forth, transitions inside canter and canter-trot on the flat without jumps involved. With time you will be able to control your horse better and better.
Comment by Christine on Saturday, November 11, 2017 04:41 PM
I have a lesson this weekend with no stirrups and I'm very scared. I'm wondering whether to cancel the lesson because last time I tried this, I fell off! What do you think?
Comment by Irina Yastrebova on Saturday, November 11, 2017 07:53 PM
This is the responsibility of your instructor to help you - to find an appropriate horse with smooth gaits, to work on exercises that teach you not scare you. If you feel you do not trust your instructor and she/he is pushing you way beyond your comfort zone instead of helping you overcome your fear then you need to cancel your lesson and find another instructor.
Comment by Lisa on Sunday, May 13, 2018 12:08 PM
Every time I ride without stirrups in my lesson I always grip with my knees which makes the horses go faster as the trot bouncier. My instructor keeps telling me to relax with my legs but each time I do I feel myself sliding to one side to I grip with my legs again. I don't think it helps that I've got into a bad habit of putting my legs too far back with my stirrups, especially when cantering. Is there any way I can try change these even when I'm not in the saddle since I don't get to ride too often.
Comment by Irina Yastrebova on Wednesday, May 16, 2018 04:40 PM
Instead of struggling riding the trot ride trot-walk-trot transitions, ride only 3-5 strides of trot. Think "walk" the moment your horse trots. You will learn to stabilize your core/seat and will start to feel that gripping is not necessary. Then you can ride more trot steps.
Off the horse exercises that can help you are lunges, lunges with weights, Physio ball, anything that challenges your balance, Bosu balls, beam walking, etc. A good idea is to work with a personal trainer asking him/her to help build core, stability and balance control. Good luck!
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