The Harms of the “No Stirrups November “Fad
Unless a rider is quite advanced, when they work on their own without stirrups, they inevitably keep themselves in the saddle by gripping some part of their leg, usually the thigh. This has many detrimental effects. Their seat pops out of the saddle, their seat can no longer follow the horse’s back because gripping the leg locks the hip joint and they often tip forward on their pelvis which throws them off balance. And then, much to the further detriment of the horse, they keep their balance by hanging on the reins. I have seen many riders who think they are not gripping with their leg, who actually are hanging on with muscles that do not support a balanced following seat. And their poor horse is subjected to unyielding or pulling hands and an unfollowing seat that is uncomfortable or damaging to his back.
The lack of understanding about what makes for an effective seat is evident when you hear riders boast proudly “I am doing no-stirrups November and will have thighs of iron!” Yes, I have heard and read that more times than I can count. I also often hear “oh my thighs are so sore from no stirrups work!” Why? Could it be that they were gripping with their thighs? An effective seat has nothing to do with strong thighs, and everything to do with balance and appropriate use of the muscles that stabilize the pelvis and torso. There is a reason the Spanish Riding School in Vienna requires new students to spend six months working on a lunge line (with and without stirrups) with an instructor before they are allowed to touch the reins. It takes time to develop balance and only when we are balanced can we be sure we are not balancing on the horses’ mouth or blocking the movement of his back.
So here is a better No-Stirrups November challenge that is more respectful of the horse underneath us and will ultimately lead to a better seat. No matter how good a rider you think you are, find an instructor who is knowledgeable not just about riding technique, but also about human and equine anatomy and movement (like a Centered Riding Instructor or Balimo Seat Instructor for example). Take a lunge lesson with them without stirrups and without holding the reins. Carry your hands as if you were holding the reins and work on the lunge in all three gaits and if you are a jumper, over low jumps. When the instructor is confident you have mastered these lunge lessons by staying in balance with a softly following seat through all three gaits and through upward and downward transitions with no gripping of the leg and your hands softly following with the imaginary reins you are holding, THEN you are ready to work without stirrups on your own. But not before. Even the most advanced rider can benefit from lessons such as these.
Our horses deserve this approach to no stirrups work rather than the gripping and pulling that so often passes for no stirrups work today. Oh yes. And it really can be any month of the year.
Take Away Message for Riding Instructors
First and foremost, consider the horse when you ask your students to ride without stirrups. Have you ever seen a group riding class where the instructor says “OK, everyone cross their stirrups because it’s time for no stirrups work.” As the class trots around the ring, riders are bouncing on horses’ backs, gripping with their legs, and balancing themselves by pulling on the reins. The horses have hollowed backs and are anything but comfortable.
As instructors we have a responsibility to ensure that the exercises we give our riders never compromise the welfare of the horse.