Bug Bears

We all have bug bears don’t we; little things which cause us far more agitation than they should. Well, I’ve worked out my equestrian bug bear, and that is stirrups. Or more specifically, inappropriate stirrups.

There are so many designs of stirrups available now that I think it’s easy to lose sense of the safety aspect of stirrups, as we try to match stirrup treads to saddle cloths or follow the latest fashion.

I hate seeing children riding in non-safety stirrups. We always had stirrups with peacock rubber on the outside, which pop off with the slightest pressure. Sure, that can be annoying when a child has little control over their lower leg and foot, but it’s of paramount importance when they tumble off the side as their foot comes straight out of the stirrup and they won’t be dragged along by the pony.

The Pony Club I teach for insist on all children having this type of stirrup, but I do think it’s a shame this level of safety hasn’t reached the general population. In my opinion, it should be mandatory for riding schools to use these stirrups on ponies. If kids want to be matchy matchy then you can buy coloured stirrup treads for the stirrups. I’m afraid I’m a bit of a traditionalist.

These stirrups only have one metal side, so aren’t that strong, the same as free-jumps. Which means they aren’t an appropriate design for adults and teenagers as they can bend with the downward force exerted on the stirrup when doing rising trot or cross country position. Instead, you can buy bent leg irons, which have a forward facing curve on the outer side of the stirrup, so allowing your foot to easily come out of the stirrup. I have these on my jump saddle, and can’t imagine going cross country without some form of safety stirrup. It always amazes me that I don’t see more of this style amongst leisure riders.

There are so many different designs of adult stirrups now; lightweight, flexible types, and of course different styles of safety stirrups. And of course they have their benefits, but there’s still safety factors to consider. Stirrup irons need to be the correct size for your foot so that you have the best chance of losing your stirrups in a fall or accident. Even stirrups which claim to be safety ones cannot work effectively if they are too small for your foot. To check that your stirrup iron is the correct width for your foot place your boot-clad foot into the iron and there should be half an inch either side of your boot. Any less and you risk your boot getting jammed. It’s worth remembering that yard boots tend to be chunkier than jodhpur boots so if you swap between the two types of boots you should ensure the stirrups are wide enough for both types of boots.

Unfortunately, it’s something I see all too often. Chunky boots jammed into too narrow stirrup irons, and riders using stirrups that are not strong enough for their weight. There’s a reason free-jumps have a weight limit! Who wants a stirrup to break halfway round a course?! It probably does irk me more than it should do, but I think it’s such a simple thing to get right which makes the difference between a fall and a serious injury. And surely our safety is more important than the latest fashion?

An Old Exercise

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!

Life Hacks

We`ve all seen the web articles about life hacks – such as using potties instead of cavaletti cubes. Well, I came across a fab idea by one of my clients a couple of weeks ago.

You know some stirrups, such as the T-bar leathers which have to be physically shortened, or the Pro-jump stirrup irons which don`t run up very easily. You run them up and by the time you’ve walked from the arena to the stable, they`ve slid down again and are banging around their elbows.

Well one of my clients has Pro-jump irons and they are the bane of my life! I seem to be forever running them up. Anyway, when I took the saddle cover off the other week to ride, I found a length of cloth over the seat of the saddle, with the stirrup irons tucked into it. It took me a moment to realise, but the cloth was an oven glove.  You know, the double oven mitts? Each stirrup was tucked into the hand part. Genius – pure genius!

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Since seeing this, I`ve come across stirrup socks, which are fleecy drawstring backs in which you place your stirrup iron – perfect for when you come back from muddy rides – and good for protecting saddle flaps from damage.

The two ideas are actually quite different in that one tries to protect the saddle from dirt or damage, and the other is a way of keeping stirrups out of the way. But perhaps the stirrup sock company could further the oven glove idea; making it more ergonomic to fit stirrup irons in, or a better length to accommodate the excess stirrup leather. Either way, I think my client should patent her idea!

As Good as Any Medicine

Today I never really got going. I woke up feeling a bit “meh” and never shifted the weight of the world. The miserable January weather didn`t help either. After an extremely long drive to the yard, avoiding the numerous flooded roads, I was officially in a bad mood.

A friend had turned out this morning, so I had my lie in, which wasn`t really a lie in because I was still awake at 6.30am. I only had to muck out, catch, and ride. So once I`d done the stable I tramped down to the field through large puddles and trying not to do too much mud-skating. When my field was in sight, and there was a break in the wind I shouted “Come on!” to O. He looked up, and turned away from him bag of hay at the back of the field and started trotting over.

Instantly I felt a bit better, he often looks up and ignores me, unless he sees an orange feed bucket of course. He trotted over, his new rug still fairly respectable, but the wind blew down his neck, getting under the large neck cover of his rug, making him look about 18hh, and have the neck of a Welsh stallion. He stomped up the track, with me skating behind, and we reached my friends horse`s paddock, where O stopped and nickered gently. Her horse came over and I put his headcollar on and continued being towed back to the yard.

A groom and a cuddle later I was ready to ride. There was a horse on box rest being walked in one arena so I asked how long she would be and if I could come in and start walking.
“Five minutes, and I can`t guarantee how well behaved we`ll be”. True, she had been walking her horse along the tracks a couple of weeks ago, as it`s more interesting that the arena, and he had gotten free and jumped into a neighbouring paddock.
“That`s fine, it will make me do more walk work. I`ll stay out your way.” I try and spend ten minutes in walk at least, but in chilly weather and the evenings it`s very easy to move quickly into trot. My walk work is mainly done on the roads, leg yielding or half passing round parked cars, shoulder in or travers along the kerb. So I was diligent, and spent a long time walking, riding transitions, doing a bit of lateral work and circles. I could also feel the effects of my new years resolution of sit-ups and improving my posture, which is always good news.

Once the other horse had left and I`d walked evenly on both reins I picked up trot. O felt quite forwards and elastic so I rapidly rode some movements on both reins before stopping and taking away my stirrups. It makes me work just a bit harder and stops my cheating in the transitions. It all went smoothly, rein backs, direct transitions, leg yield, shoulder in, travers, half-pass, we did the lot, combining different movements and generally getting him completely focused on me. Then I picked up canter and he was pretty soft and balanced. I stayed on a 20m circle around X; which everyone finds notoriously difficult, moving in and out, shoulder fore, sitting to the odd buck as he tried to change (he seems to have flying changes on the brain at the moment) Again I did some direct transitions. Recently he has discovered the power in his hindquarters and when he`s not sure what to do with it he just does mini bucks on the spot! It makes walk-trot transitions more interesting …

I had a bit of a light-bulb moment whilst cantering. We were doing 10-15m circles and I was finding he was falling out. Then it twigged; my inside leg was keeping his inside hind engaged but was shifting my weight to the inside thus pushing him out of the circle. As soon as I sat up and transferred my weight to the outside our circles were accurate.

After I`d been without stirrups for about 40 minutes I took them back for some medium work. I`m dedicated, but not stupid! His medium trot was fantastic! So powerful behind, really pushing through, and taking the contact forwards whilst staying in balance. So I began to make it a little harder and rode some small circles at either end of the school before medium trot down the long side or across the diagonal. I`m really looking forward to seeing his extended trot if this is only medium.
I repeated similar exercises in canter, moving it forwards and bringing it back. He`s not quite got the push of the inside hind at the moment and tends to drop the bridle, but its coming. Very pleased with him, I let him do two flying changes before we finished.

I`m not sure whether it was him picking up on my dampened spirits and wanting to cheer me up, or whether it was the effect of not working and having a bit of daylight to ride, my new improved core muscles, or just all our work coming together. Anyway, I was happy by the end of it!

Showing with a Twist

We went to a competition today, and I tried out my new mounting block. Unlike last time, it was very successful! On our last outing I had a plastic two step stool (I may have mentioned it previously) as I didn`t want my hip dislocating with another dodgy leg up. But upon mounting, I put my foot in the stirrup, prepared to step up and the stool broke! I was left hanging off the side of my poor horse! So this stool is a bit more manly. And I would be very concerned if I managed to break it. It`s a recycled wooden step ladder which was originally 6 foot tall, but had been sawn off so only the top two steps remain. I think it will suffice.

Our joking about the step ladder reminded me of a classic situation from a few years ago that my Mum and I observed. We had decided to go to Broomes for a show; it was one of my 4 year olds first shows, and the first one which we travelled alone. I`d entered Riding Club Horse or Pony; mainly for experience so we weren`t hoping to win, just to behave ourselves! It was going quite well, no spooking and reasonable work when we all rode together, and then we were pulled in.
In first was a little girl on a grey pony. Nice little show pony, and deserved to be there. But then came the clincher. The judge told us all that before we did our individual show we would be required to dismount on the correct side and remount on the off side. So she turns to the little girl in first as says, “when you`re ready”. But this girl wasn`t. This exercise wasn`t in the showing manual her Mum had taught her. With a bit of help from the steward, she managed to complete the exercise without too much of a problem.
I was third. So I dismount confidently, thinking “It`s a good job someone told me yonks ago that it`s good for your horse`s back to switch sides regularly…” But this horse is a bit bigger than my 14.2hh! I think we managed it fairly respectably, see below.
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But just down the line … was a lady who Mum had already eyed up as a potential candidate for injecting some humour into serious showing. She was a  rather large lady, riding an equally rather large horse. I`m sure you can guess what happened next! Firstly, she asked if she had to do the exercise, and was told, in a polite way to get on with it. So she signalled to her husband on the sideline, who came running in with a step ladder! He held the step ladder whilst she dismounted gracefully.

 

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Then of course, comes the remount. Equally gracefully, she climbs up the ladder, and with her husband hanging off her other stirrup, she hauls herself on. Meanwhile, I along with the two little girls in line, and the rest of the spectators sniggered away.

 

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Individual shows performed, we were all lined up again, and we were a respectable 3rd. In addition, I received the “best senior rider” rosette. I think this meant more to me than the placing. And then of course there was this little anecdote, which got retold many times in the next few months! Just for good measure here`s a picture of my gangly four year old.

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An Interesting Question

I teach a middle aged man who comes for an intensive riding day every couple of weeks; he`s lovely, and you can really see him progressing. Today I was amazed to see his sitting trot without stirrups – long legs, deep seat, that Carl Hester would be proud of. But today we had a breakthrough, we started doing leg yield and in the process of the two hour morning session I got him feeling how the horses were going, correcting them himself, thinking about how to improve them, the horse`s weaknesses and strengths, etc. Even in the canter he managed to balance the canter which meant that he could really sit into it. It`s such a great feeling of achievement!

But what I like most about teaching him is that he is very methodical and logical, and often it takes a couple of explanations. Sometimes he`ll just stop mid exercise to check which leg is doing what. I find it helps me clarify my explanations and also makes me think about what I`m saying rather than just regurgitating last weeks spiel. Today I was asked this;

“Which is the correct diagonal when you`re hacking? I mean, in the school it`s obvious, but what do you use to guide you onto the diagonal?”

It`s a good one; I explained about circles and the outer foreleg travelling further forward and the inside hind coming under to take more weight, so it helps the horse to alleviate our weight when they`re doing this. I then went on to the fact the in the school we should talk about correct or incorrect diagonals (using the outside leg) and then when hacking have right and left diagonals. Ultimately it doesn`t matter which you rise on, but the horse will accommodate this and develop more muscle and become one sided therefore you are better to alternate you diagonals regularly.

He was satisfied with this answer and I know now to use the terms left, right, correct, incorrect!