Opening Up The Thighs

In my weekly pilates class we’ve been doing a lot of stretches to open up the front of the hips – muscles which become tight when sat at a desk all day and subsequently prevent you from sitting upright and having the long leg desired in the dressage arena.

I’ve made a few observations over recent months about adjusting stirrups, which link into these exercises.

Let me explain.

When I was a teenager helping at the local riding school and had to adjust a client’s stirrup length, we would ask them to take their foot out of the iron and swing their leg back. Then you can access the buckle at the front of their thigh. There’s also no weight on the skirt of the saddle and you can see what you’re doing, so it’s a straightforward adjustment. I didn’t think much of it, apart from the occasional beginner or mature adult who was a bit stiff the first few times.

Fast forward almost two decades (when did I get so OLD?!) and now anytime I see anyone having assistance to adjust their stirrup length, brings their leg forward, akin to adjusting the girth. Why has this trend changed? Or maybe the leg back approach was just a Welsh thing… Perhaps our increasingly sedentary lifestyles has made us all stiffer in the hips?

Anyway, let’s not go down the route of discussing keeping the foot in the stirrup whilst adjusting the leathers, because that technique actually helps stretch out the inner thigh (one of the reasons many people struggle to use this technique if not brought up with it). We’re talking about assisted stirrup adjustments.

Based on my observations, that riders prefer to draw the leg forward to make adjustments, and the fact that many leisure riders find it difficult to ride with a long leg, either relying on knee rolls to hold their leg in the correct position or pitching forwards at the seat. Or both.

Linking back to pilates; when we prepare to ride and do some leg stretches, or when we do leg stretches in the saddle whilst first walking around, should we also be considering how we adjust the stirrups, using any adjustments as an opportunity to stretch out the front of the hips?

It would be interesting to do a study with those riders who usually move the leg forward when stirrups are adjusted, and instead get them to move their leg back each time they ride and adjust the stirrups. Over the course of a few weeks, do they find this movement easier, and does their seat and leg position improve? Then, how much effect do the pilates stretches have on seat and leg position if done before every ride?

Food for thought…

Safety Stirrups

I’ve come to realise that I have a couple of hang ups when teaching. One is chin straps being tight enough to stop the children talking. I joke. But they mustn’t be able to get the strap in front of their chin as their hat becomes loose. Or spend their time chewing the end of the strap.

My other hang up is stirrups. I hate seeing kids riding in non safety stirrups. I prefer to see adults using them too, particularly when jumping, but I understand that they can make their own informed decision. Kids though, have far less control at keeping their stirrup iron on the ball of their foot, with the iron often getting close to the ankle. So I’d much rather have the option of the foot coming out sideways in an emergency, particularly when jumping.

The traditional peacock stirrups are my usual go to for kids as they are affordable and as soon as pressure is applied to the outside of the stirrup iron the rubber pops off, freeing the foot. Of course there’s always the odd band with a life of it’s own which is forever springing off.

For adults, there’s the bent leg stirrup irons, which I have on my jump saddle. Stronger because they’ve iron on both sides of the foot, the shape means the foot is able to come out easily. I bent a pair once, whilst hacking Matt out. He spooked, slipped on some mud at the side of the lane and fell onto his side. My leg was between him and the tarmac. I survived with just a bruised foot, but the stirrup iron was bent. When a similar incident happened a month later when I was schooling without stirrups my foot had much more of a squash injury.

Anyway, I digress. Bent leg irons are still popular, and I definitely prefer to see my riders in them as opposed to fillis irons.

You may remember a month or so ago Harry Meade had a fall cross country, which resulted in his foot getting caught and he was dragged along. Regardless of his stirrup irons (I have no idea what stirrups he uses so not passing any judgment) if a rider as good as Harry can get their foot stuck in a stirrup it should serve as a warning to all of us. Use safety stirrups!

The two safety stirrups I’m familiar with have been around for donkeys years. Incidentally, did you know that donkey originally rhymed with monkey when it first came into general usage in the 18th century because it derived from the word dun, describing the colour? I.e. It was dunkey, not donkey.

More digression, apologies. Since hearing about Harry Meade’s accident I’ve done some research into safety stirrups on the market now because technology has moved on in recent years and there’s bound to be more modern alternatives which I’d like to be more informed about.

Modern safety stirrups, such as the Acavello or Equipe, have a release mechanism on the outer strut. When pressure is applied to the outside the strut pops out and the foot is released. The strut can then be clicked back into place. Some makes have magnetic clips, others have springs, others have a silicon outer strut. From what I can tell, it’s important to keep the stirrup irons clean and free of grit as this might cause the mechanism to become stuck. And to monitor the condition of any springs or magnets so they don’t weaken and damage the integrity of the product.

I’ve a couple of clients starting to use Acavello safety stirrups, attracted also by their grippy tread, and they certainly seem to have been extensively tested for safety. Definitely some for me to consider when I need new jump stirrups, or am asked for my opinion.

I think in light of Harry Meade’s accident, it’s worth checking our own stirrups. Do they need new treads, peacock rubbers etc? Are they the best design for our foot? Are they the right size for us? Are they safety stirrups?

Riding With One Stirrup

“Take your inside foot out of your stirrup iron” was a staple part of my early riding lessons. And not one that I’ve heard repeated much. 

When we first did it we used to lean right over the outside stirrup, often missing a rise and generally struggling to keep our balance. I did this exercise for years until one day I didn’t lean. It was as easy as rising trot with stirrups.

I never really understood the full implications of this exercise, but it’s a good half step to removing both stirrups, and teaches you not to lose your balance should you suddenly lose you stirrup, and retaking the stirrup mid-trot after the exercise helps teach you how to quickly regain your stirrup in an emergency.

I find it quite a useful exercise with beginners and nervous riders, however I stick to sitting trot, and walk for the very beginners.  It just pushes riders’ boundaries without making them feel like they’ve lost total control or balance.

Yesterday I used the traditional rising trot exercise with one lady I teach. She has, and she knows, a stronger right leg, which means that although she’s sat centrally in the saddle her weight sits towards the right, with her right leg looking more secure, and every so often on circles you can see her upper body lean slightly right.

Using the fence line down the long side to help I first got her to trot with only her right foot in the stirrup. She managed this fine, but felt like she was really leaning to the right. We then repeated the exercise with only her left foot in the stirrup. She found this much harder, and the rises were smaller and less established. After a couple of goes like this I got her to put both feet back in the stirrups. The left leg instantly looked more grounded, the heel was more secure and down more.

Going back into rising trot I got her to think about both legs putting in the same amount of effort, and you could see the improvement on circles. On the right rein they weren’t mimicking a motorbike and the left circles became more circular. 

So if you know one of your legs is stronger than the other, try this little test because it really wakes your weaker leg up and gets it working harder. You don’t want to overdo it (straight lines are best), and be careful that it doesn’t shift your seat from the centre of the saddle, but other than that it’s a very useful tool for finding the symmetry, or lack of, in your body.

Heels Down

After I’d schooled a client’s pony last week she tried riding with my length stirrups. I think I only put them down a hole to the end of her leathers, but she found it made a huge difference to her riding.

In walk she found she could really feel her seat bones and differentiate between them, so could ensure she wasn’t sat to the right, and she could use her seat aids more effectively. However, when she came to trotting she found it almost impossible to rise, so spent the rest of her ride in sitting trot – not necessarily a bad thing!

She told me about this problem when I arrived the next week, so after I’d ridden she got on to demonstrate her problem.

It was quite simple really; having learnt in the old days, my client pushed her heels down as far as possible, which causes the rider to push to the back of the saddle, but also for the lower leg to swing forward, akin to kicking a football. When she rose her lower leg swung back, and when she sat it swung forwards, so she was out of balance. I explained that you want the heel to be directly below the hips and shoulder, with the heel slightly lower than the toe. Really, it is the weight dropping into the foot and heel that stabilises the rider, not the fact the heel is lower than the toe. Perhaps as instructors we should stop shouting “heels down!” and rephrase it to “allow the weight to drop into the heel”.

In order to ride with longer stirrups you have to start near the seat; opening and stretching the hip joint so that the thigh can be at a more vertical angle, and the knee drops down whilst staying relaxed so that it doesn’t trap the rider’s weight and cause their centre of gravity to be by the rib cage instead of the pelvis. With the knee relaxed the lower leg can hang down, with the heel fractionally lower than the toe so that when you rise you feel as though you are standing and sitting on the floor, i.e. The foot and leg creates a solid support structure that doesn’t swing. If you were to look at the rider trotting and you could imagine removing the horse and the rider would still be able to do rising trot then you k ow they are balanced with a secure leg position.

Once my rider had made these slight corrections she found it much easier to rise to the trot, but can feel the muscles that need to develop so she is more comfortable at this longer stirrup length.

Safety Stirrups

When I was learning to ride all the ponies at the riding school had safety stirrups. In fact, none of us dreamed of riding without our peacock rubbered stirrups. When I progressed onto my first youngster I was told to buy bent-leg stirrups. The adult version of safety stirrups. This has stayed with me and my jump saddle has bent-leg irons on still, whilst I`ve moved on to plain stainless steel stirrups for my dressage saddle.

However, I`ve noticed during my career that most riding schools don`t use safety stirrups anymore, mostly having plain irons and plastic stirrups for toddlers. That, and the evolution of flexi-irons, has led to the demise of safety stirrup irons, and it was only when a young client told me that she needed them for Pony Club that I realised safety stirrups were now an outdated item of tack.

Traditional peacock safety stirrups should have the rubbers on the outside, so that if the rider was to fall off the elastic pings off and their foot comes out the stirrup safely, so they do not get dragged.  To ensure that the stirrup is on the correct way round the rubber should be nearest the horse`s shoulder when the stirrups are run up. However, the design is only suitable for lightweight riders because the weight of the foot is only supported on one side of the stirrup iron and can break if used by an adult. When using peacock safety stirrups it is important to keep spare peacock rubbers and leathers to hand as they are liable to ping off, or perish. For that reason it is also important to check for cracks in the rubber every time tack is cleaned.

The adult version of safety stirrups are bent legs, with the bend on the outside of the iron and facing forwards. Only when they are on correctly can the foot easily escape the stirrup in case of emergency. When the stirrup is run up on the saddle the bend should face into the saddle, and be closest to the horse`s shoulder.

Nowadays stirrups come in all shapes, sizes, colours, and have different purposes – some help stop the foot going too far through the iron, whilst some help the rider balance, and others are flexible to help stiff ankles or knees. Personally, I`m still a big fan of stainless steel, safety or plain stirrups depending on the discipline – I would never go cross country in non safety stirrups!

What stirrups do other people use, and why? What makes your decision – is it comfort, fashion, style or purpose? And more improtantly, does it affect your riding?