We’ve all heard of the dreaded no-stirrup November, but have you heard about no-stirrup…July? Watching 18-year-old Sydney Luzicka navigate her way around the grand prix class at the HIPICO Santa Fe Summer Series (New Mexico), you might not even notice at first. But take a closer look: Luzicka has been competing without stirrups for three months.
In March, Luzicka was involved in two car accidents that set her back in her show schedule. Then toward the end of April, she was riding dirt bikes with her younger brother when they crashed headfirst into each other, causing Luzicka to break her left ankle, requiring surgery.
“I kind of freaked out because it was probably one of the biggest points in my show season,” said the Albuquerque, New Mexico, native. “I was supposed to be qualifying for [the FEI Adequan North American Youth Championships (New York)], and it’s my last junior year.”
Her doctor told her she would need to have 10 weeks non-weight bearing on the ankle and expressed concerns that the impact when landing from a jump would be too much on the injury. That’s when her idea sparked: What if she just rode without stirrups?
The day after her cast came off, Luzicka shipped out to Colorado with her grand prix horse, Willow Catkin. Even though this was Luzicka’s first ride back after her injury, that didn’t stop her from winning the 1.20-meter class with “William.”
“I was very happy. I came out, and I was like, ‘I’m leading the class? Did that just happen?’ ” said Luzicka. “I came out of the ring breathing all heavy, like, ‘I just need to go take a nap now!’ “
Riding without stirrups isn’t new to Luzicka; in fact, she hacks her horses out bareback in a halter and lead rope three times a week. Even though it’s been difficult, Luzicka knows her unplanned no-stirrup work has improved her riding.
“Without the stirrups, I’m forced to use my seat and forced to constantly be paying attention. I feel like I’m a little more aware of what’s going on and what’s happening underneath me,” she said. “It’s almost helped me get to know my horses a little better and do better on them even though it’s harder when I’m in the air trying to stay off their back.”
If it’s not the lack of stirrups that’s going to catch your eye about the pair, then it might be the fact that Luzicka rides William in a bitless bridle.
“I noticed that with my bit I was having a little bit of a problem; [he was] almost locking his jaw and avoiding the bit,” said Luzicka. “We ended up with a Happy Mouth D-ring which he seemed to like the most.”
One day, Luzicka accidentally forgot her tack at home, so she walked over to the therapeutic riding program that shares the barn’s property to ask if she could borrow a bridle. The only bridles they had were Dr. Cook’s Bitless Bridles. Game for anything, Luzicka tacked up William and gave it a shot.
“I started hacking him, and he framed up, and he was up under me with his hind end. It was like everything I was working towards getting him to was just there,” she said.
Excited, Luzicka and her mother, Julie Betts Luzicka, set up a practice jump-off course to see how William would jump in the new bridle.
“He was the type of horse who, when you galloped up to the combination you wouldn’t be able to get him back because he would brace against the bit, and you would end up punching out the second rail of the combination,” explained Sydney. “But I galloped right up to the combo, landed and barely took a hold of him in the middle, and he steadied right up, jumped out clean, and I did this crazy inside turn I didn’t know was possible on him.”
Watch Sydney Luzicka competing Willow Catkin stirrupless and in a bitless bridle:
Sydney said she’s gotten some comments about her lack of bit and stirrups, but she seems to take it all in stride.
“I’ve had a bunch of people ever since I started using [the bitless bridle] ask me about it and now without the stirrups, I’ve had some people who are like, ‘Do you show all your horses without stirrups?’ ” said Sydney. “And I’m like, ‘Well, my ankle is broken currently, so I kind of have to!’ ”
Sydney’s doctor said it would still be at least a couple more weeks until she’s able to put her stirrups back on her saddle, but she knows that she’ll continue to add no stirrup work in the future—next time, voluntarily.
“We’ve already got our little short stirrup kids doing no stirrups on their ponies. Yeah, it’s hard, but at the same time it’ll strengthen your legs and help you get to know your horse a little bit better,” said Sydney. “It helps you use your seat and use all your muscles and doesn’t give you that cheat at all.”