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?