‘Tis the season for the November challenges, the most popular among riders being “No-Stirrup November.” However, many professionals are now speaking out against this trend, citing the added pressure on the horses’ backs. So is riding without stirrups so bad, or is it a good chance to develop a better seat?

Developing the Seat

Many of us have had longe lessons where the instructors took away our stirrups and had us doing exercises without. We feel how deep this makes our seat, making it be flexible and balanced or else we might be on the ground. This is absolutely important to allow the hips to loosen and follow the horse’s movement. Most of the time, the problem I see with riders’ seats is that their hips are tense and tight. Once they release, they can follow the horse’s movement so much more easily. Taking stirrups away allows this to happen much faster, especially once we add some leg exercises.

So where do stirrups come in?

Stirrups are an important invention in riding horses, dating back over 1000 years. They allow the rider to brace and balance in combat as well as assume many postures in the saddle that are otherwise impossible. However, they also help distribute the rider’s weight on the saddle tree and even help with different movements, especially the lateral movements. Some of the Old Masters used them for aids.

So why do so many riders struggle with using stirrups?

The problem is in the use of the stirrups. Most riders put far too much weight in their stirrups, bracing against the back of the saddle. This creates a chair seat and tightens the hips and low back, which is exactly what we’re trying to avoid. Instead, the foot should rest lightly in the stirrup while the ankle flexes around it. “Heels down” comes from relaxing the ankle, not shoving the foot past the stirrup. These habits are some of the biggest reason riders excel without stirrups and relapse as soon as they’re added back.

So how can I help myself?

Going without stirrups for a month sounds like a tempting idea, but it ultimately isn’t the ultimate answer. It can be hard on your horse’s back, and you’ll likely find that once you add stirrups again, you’ll feel no better off than when you started. Instead, try some of these things:

Warm up

Walk for a while without stirrups on a long rein. Let your legs hang while you go and do some small longe exercises, such as: circling your ankles, touching your heels to your fingertips (gently so you don’t kick your horse by accident), holding an ankle to stretch the front of your thigh (be sure to think about pulling your knee back and tucking your tail at the same time instead of bringing your heel to your bum for a more effective stretch), swinging your legs forward and back like scissors or an elephant walking, sliding slightly over to one side and pulling yourself back to center using your inner thigh muscles, alternating lifting your legs and dropping them back and down, and others you may know from longe lessons. A five-minute warm-up without stirrups while your horse walks on a long rein gives you both a chance to loosen up. If your horse is reactive, do these exercises cautiously so you don’t startle him.

The spiral seat

Something I notice in most riders is that they are very “frozen” in their seat. Try to thaw it out by practicing a “spiral” seat. Think about bringing your outside knee ridiculously far back, pressing gently with your big toe in your stirrup, while turning the front of your pelvis and belly button to the inside. To finish it off, flatten your shoulder blades against your back, spiraling up from your outside big toe to your inside armpit. Your horse will likely turn and move on a circle or even offer lateral movements. That’s good! Play with that and switch side to side. It should feel something like ice skating or cross-country skiing. Watch that your don’t sit too heavily with one seat bone; you should feel like you’re lighter in the seat and making room for the horse’s back to lift.

A new challenge: The Sugar Cube Challenge

Instead of taking away your stirrups, try something else: put a sugar cube between your toe and the stirrup and try to ride without crushing it. Most riders put far too much weight in their stirrups, so putting a sugar cube helps riders feel how much weight they’re really using in the stirrup. You should be able to even post the trot without completely crushing it to a powder. While this isn’t a daily challenge, you can play with this for a few days to see what happens with your seat.

Other tools

Of course, the best thing to do to improve your seat is to have some longe lessons so that an instructor can see what is happening and help you address your weaknesses. However, if you aren’t near an instructor that can help you with that, this is a good enough challenge that won’t hurt your horse but will help you self-identify weaknesses and improve them.

If you haven’t already, you should also look at finding a fitness professional that can help you identify other weaknesses and help identify those. Riding is great exercise, but like all sports, cross-training helps to keep your body balanced and fit. I personally love Pilates and calisthenics (body-weight exercises) for this very thing, although for other sports, I prefer martial arts (especially Historical European Martial Arts, or HEMA).

If you’re local to us, we have a few excellent longe horses that would be happy to help. You can also book us for a riding retreat for a concentrated training experience or keep an eye out for our next seat retreat.

Thanks for reading! Remember, riding is about the journey, not the destination, and developing your seat is no exception. Enjoy the journey and keep looking for new ways to learn and grow.