When I was a kid riding in my weekly group lessons we had a couple of exercises that were performed during our warm up on an almost weekly basis. The BHS don’t encourage it, but when I think back on it I realise that they actually had a lot of benefits for us.
The first exercise was that we’d be trotting round, either rising or sitting, and the command “inside/outside foot out of your stirrup iron”. We’d have to continue exactly what we were doing but minus a stirrup. After a couple of minutes, we’d take it back and repeat with the other foot.
The benefits? Not one of us lost our balance if we ever accidentally lost a stirrup and we could get our foot back in in a nanosecond. How many riders today can do that? This means on a hack, showjumping round, cross country, we weren’t put off our stride by a loss of stirrup.
Secondly, which is the big reason I brought it up today, is that we were pretty symmetrical in the saddle as a result. If you have a leg that is particularly dominant then, even when sitting centrally you rely on that leg to help you rise and to support your body. When that foot is taken from the stirrup, suddenly it’s down to your weaker or lazy leg to support you, which makes rising harder. The rise sequence is more fragile and often not as high.
Yesterday I used this with a client who is coming back from a leg injury. We’ve done a lot in walk without stirrups ensuring she’s sat evenly on her seat bones, but now that we’re progressing to trot work we need to make sure that her weaker leg is working and building strength, otherwise we counteract her physiotherapy sessions. I’ve also done this with riders who sit crooked or have one leg that is far more dominant than the other. In walk, we checked seat bone symmetry and then removed the weaker leg from the stirrup, making sure the seat bones don’t change, and then went up into sitting and rising trot. This is fairly straightforward for most riders because they have their stronger leg stabilising them in the rise. Then we go back to walk and swap legs. This is usually the wake up call. For riders who are unaware (and therefore not really taking in my position lecture) they can see the asymmetry in their body because rising trot is almost impossible for them. For yesterday’s rider, it was more about waking her weaker leg up to the fact it couldn’t drift through life aimlessly and helping her rediscover the muscles. We did short bursts of rising trot a couple of times without her dominant leg until she felt that her weak leg was working better.
When we retook the stirrups back and did another seat bone check, my rider already felt more even, and whilst in the trot her injured leg was still erring on the lazy side, there was definitely an improvement to be seen. She could feel the muscles working harder and her rises felt more level and stronger. Hopefully by using this exercise she’ll be able to strengthen her riding muscles as symmetrically as possible.
If you rely heavily on your stirrups to rise, then going without one foot will cause you to lean your upper body one way, which makes you feel like you’re going to fall off. When the weaker leg is in the stirrup the rider tends to take their shoulders across to that side, so curving their spine. This isn’t the purpose of the exercise; the rider should feel they stay above the horse’s spine but the important part is that they can’t feel a difference between their rising ability with one foot in the stirrup rather than the other, after all the rising comes from the core and thigh muscles rather than the lower leg, but when the lower leg is in the correct position and still it supports the upper body in the rise. I can still remember the lightbulb moment I had when I was little and I managed to rise with one stirrup without feeling that I was going to slide off the side. That’s when I started using the correct muscles and became generally less reliant on stirrups.
I find that trotting without a stirrup to be the easiest way to explain to a rider that they are crooked; after all, crooked becomes the new straight after a while. As soon as a rider is aware of their asymmetry they are more likely to make a conscious effort to straighten themselves up and engage their weaker side.
We also used to do a lot of trotting, sitting and rising, without either stirrup. They’d dangle by the girths, which the BHS hates, but none of our ponies batted an eye when stirrups were lost and banged around for a moment, and the lesson progressed much more quickly by not stopping a ride of eight children to help cross and uncross their stirrups. The BHS also isn’t a fan of rising without stirrups but I find short periods of it can be really beneficial to helping riders find the correct muscles. You do need to be careful that they don’t grip with the knee, but careful observation and explanation soon overcomes this. Again, removing and replacing feet whilst trotting really helped our balance.
Give these exercises a go when you’re next warming up, and it may well be an eye opener about how much you rely on your stirrups for security and to keep you central in the saddle. Let me know how you get on!