Perfect practice makes perfect. – George Morris
Working without stirrups is so incredibly beneficial for our riding. It may not be fun, but it strengthens our legs, stabilizes our position, and allows us to really feel the horse. I once had a trainer who made me flat without stirrups every time I rode for a couple of weeks straight. It was painful and annoying, but it made a huge difference in my riding. Now, I frequently drop my irons when I need to work on Chance’s position and really get him to move off my leg; or when I need to clean up my equitation.
Chance is very sensitive, and does not tolerate spurs, draw reigns, or other aids that help to teach horses to bend and move off our leg. He also tends to get very dull on the flat and wants to just plop around instead of actually working. This causes problems when we start jumping; for he simply ignores my leg. I have discovered over that past few years that if I drop my stirrups, I can really feel what his body is doing – if he is leaning left or right – and I can be a little more effective when asking him to move off my leg. I typically work on circles at a sitting trot, and frequently change direction. I get him to move up into the bridle, so that he works in a frame along with bending left and right. I will canter some as well, but I primarily focus on trot work, and really feeling what he is doing.
Besides helping school a horse, no stirrup work can dramatically improve riding position and stability. If any of you have ridden without stirrups, I am sure you know that it burns!! As a teenager, I remember wanting to cry while going around and around the ring, posting the trot with no stirrups! Luckily, I always powered through because that torture really improved my riding. When I taught lessons years ago, I always loved torturing students with long rides without stirrups not because I’m evil, but because I always remembered how much they helped me when I was younger! Most of the time when I ride without stirrups, I simply drop my irons and leave them hanging. However, if you are on a spooky horse that might freak out with the irons hitting his sides, cross them over the top of the saddle or take them completely off. If you leave them on and hanging, you can keep the irons right at your feet and use your toes to hold them in place. Then we you are ready to take them back, they are right where they need to be. For an extra challenge, try to pick them back up while you are trotting or cantering. Besides being a cool thing to brag about, being able to pick your stirrups back up without stopping will help you out if you ever lose them while jumping a course!
Posting the trot is probably the most uncomfortable yet effective exercise to do without stirrups. Keep your leg in the same place as it is with stirrups on, really stretch down through your heels, and engage your entire leg while you post. Try to post as high as you do with stirrups. Be careful not to grip with your knees, but rather engage the entire leg. After posting the trot for a while, get into a half seat. Again, stretch down through your heels and engage your entire leg. Pretend you are riding with stirrups, and relax. After torturing yourself at the trot for a while (in both directions), pick up a canter. You can sit the canter, or ride in a half seat. And if you’re feeling adventurous, try jumping! The key is to ride like you have your stirrups, the only difference being that your legs are more engaged to keep you stable. This will help to strengthen your legs, and your overall position, when you are riding with stirrups. When sitting the trot and canter, really sink into the saddle and relax your pelvis; this keeps you from bouncing around.
Whatever riding position you are in, dropping your stirrups strengthens your body so that you stick in the saddle better. Your leg becomes tighter, and your core is strengthened which gives you a more stable position. Remember to relax! You want your muscles engaged, yes, but you don’t want to be rigid. Think about melting into your horse. Rather than trying to hang on, move with him or her. Relaxing into the horse’s movements will enable you to ride without stirrups comfortably, and will dramatically improve the way you ride with stirrups. I highly encourage any rider to frequently drop the irons, and reap the many benefits!