This article originally appeared on our sister site, Horse Nation.
Your horse called. He said he has a monkey on his back. No, he wasn’t referring to his increasingly problematic peppermint addiction — he was referring to you and your seemingly aimless approach to No-Stirrup November. So as we continue our journey through this month of stirrupless bliss, how do we ensure that what we are doing will actually benefit our riding? The first step is recognizing that what makes a good leg for one discipline just might be the antithesis of what you need for another.
Function: While riding dressage, your leg has two major functions: aiding the horse and deepening your center of gravity so it is as close to the horse’s back as possible. It needs to do this while creating as little tension as possible to allow your seat to move with the horse.
Form: Your weight is passively sinking into your heel, but you are not forcing it as that creates tension and tension is the enemy of a soft seat. Your calf, thigh and hips are relaxed allowing for your horse to register the slightest contraction of your calf as an aid, and your seat to move with your horse.
General guidelines for riding without stirrups: Think about keeping your leg long and relaxed with a slightly flexed ankle. Contract calf and thigh muscles only when aiding the horse, remembering to release the aid immediately after you get a response from your horse. DO NOT CLING TO THE HORSE WITH YOUR LEGS!
- Leg pedal: For this exercise, let your legs hang long, and point your toes in so your heels are slightly turned away from your horse. Then by alternately bending each knee, pedal your legs back and forth. This exercise is great for stretching out the hip flexors and keeping the low back soft.
- Toe point/ankle flex: Keep those ankles flexible! A consistently flexible ankle is way more important than a deep heel when it comes to dressage.
- Forward bend: It is imperative to keep the back of the leg long and the lower back soft. A simple forward bend is an easy way to help make that happen.
- Standing hip stretch: Tight hips are frequently the cause of a discontinuous seat and a leg position that comes too far forward. The standing hip stretch is a quick and easy exercise you can do before hopping on your horse. Cross one ankle so that it lies across the opposite knee and push your hips back until you feel a comfortable level of stretch. Repeat on the other side.
Function: This is what is commonly referred to as your “base of support.” It is literally what keeps you in place on your horse as he soars gracefully over a jump. In order for your leg to be a solid base of support, it must remain stationary as your hip angle is closed by the upward thrust of your your horse’s jump.
Form: The main differences between a dressage leg and a jumping leg are when you are jumping you are actively pushing weight down into your heel and the contact of your calf with your horse’s side is increased. Ideally, your calf stays in contact with the horse’s side just at the girth unless you need to do something like aid a canter transition, or help your horse hold a bend around a tight turn. This form is partially shaped by the typically shorter stirrup-length used when jumping, but since this is No Stirrup November, you’re on your own, kids!
General guidelines for riding without stirrups: Ride as if your stirrups were still there. Recreate the same knee and hip angle you would have if you were riding with stirrups, and keep that ankle flexed!
- Posting trot: A common mistake I see when people are posting the trot with stirrups is that they catapult themselves out of the saddle every stride. Posting without stirrups really forces you to allow the bounce of the horse’s stride lift you out of the saddle. The key to keeping the posting motion smooth and protecting your horse’s back is to stabilize yourself with your core at the top of the post, and making sure you have adequate calf contact to slowly lower yourself back into the saddle.
- Posting canter: While the posting trot is ubiquitous, the posting canter seems mostly to be utilized by the hunter crowd these days. Done without stirrups, it is a great way to improve the independence of your seat.
- Squats: Squats are a great way to improve hamstring and glute strength. We riders tend to have obscenely strong legs as it is, so you might find it necessary to add some weight to make this exercise effective. I find a paunchy kitten works quite well for this purpose.
- Lunges: Again, thigh strength is imperative to be a good jumper. The lunge gives you an entire leg workout in one exercise.
- Downward Dog: With all this strengthening, it’s important to remember that you’ll still need your depth of heel when you take your stirrups back. The downward dog is great for keeping the back of the leg soft, allowing you to keep your “heels down!” just like your instructor is always yelling at you to do.
I hope this little bit of guidance can help make your No-Stirrup November a bit more productive, because as the saying goes, “perfect practice makes perfect,” not “desperately clinging to your horse’s back makes perfect.”
Biz Stamm is a part-time seed scientist and full-time trainer/riding instructor at Stamm Sport Horse LLC specializing in starting young horses for sport horse disciplines. She brings the analytical mind she developed while working in a lab to her riding and teaching, emphasizing a thorough understanding of how the horse’s body works. She currently owns two horses: the Kalvin Cycle (Kalvin), a 10-year-old half-Arabian gelding, and DB’s Alpha Helix (Helix), a 5-year-old Kiger mustang gelding. While she is currently pursuing competitive goals, her main goal is to enjoy her horses, and for her horses to enjoy her.