4 No-Stirrups Exercises With Stacia Klein Madden

Nov 12, 2020 - 8:00 AM

Brought to you by Kickapoo Ponies and Strides Equestrian

We’re well into “No Stirrup November,” and the Chronicle is once again encouraging people to participate with the COTH Lose The Leathers Challenge.

If you haven’t already, head on over to the COTH Lose The Leathers Facebook page and join the most encouraging and positive equestrian social media group in existence. You’ll find exclusive content there and lots of opportunities for prizes and fun.

Next, check out this introduction to riding without stirrups from equitation expert Stacia Klein Madden.

StaciaMaddenShelbyPhillips
Stacia Madden’s students practice riding without stirrups throughout the year, and she’s come up with a list of exercises to get you started. Shelby Phillips Photography

Safety must be a big factor when you’re doing these exercises. Here at Beacon Hill riders are not allowed to jump without an instructor being present. I would say everyone should have at least supervision when doing these exercises since not everybody has access to an instructor.

1. My favorite no stirrups exercise is working on a longe line. I put side reins on the horse to help navigate keeping the pace even. You can knot the reins or even buckle them to the D-rings on the saddle with a piece of bailing twine, and that way in an emergency the rider can get to the reins.

Once you’ve secured your reins and dropped your stirrups, the rider can do all sorts of exercises: putting hands out to the side and twisting to the inside, then twisting to the outside; going down to the neck, then opening up your hip angle. I sometimes have riders cross over and touch their toes, or if they’re not that limber, cross over and touch their knees. You can do all sorts of manipulations with the rider constantly focusing on keeping their balance. The rider has to use their legs with pressure in their thigh, knee and lower leg to be able to do all the different exercises.

If working in a small group rather than on the longe, an instructor can have the riders tie their reins and put the loop of the rein in their outside hand and execute the exercises. You can repeat by switching hands. I would start at slower gaits and see how the rider is handling the balance. Start at the walk and do the same type of exercises, getting a feeling for how the rider is handling the balance without the use of stirrups and reins. At that point, you could move into sitting trot and hold the reins until the horse gets steady in their gait. If that is going well, you could advance to different exercises like putting your hand on top of your head, putting your hand out in front of you, working in a half seat, etc. Basically you’re trying to get the rider to focus on the exercise so that they’re just finding the balance naturally, instead of just thinking about the fact that they have no stirrups.

2. If you like the longe-line exercise, you can increase the difficulty by putting a small jump or two on the circle. I typically use cavalettis when I’m going to let a rider jump on the longe line. I use raised cavaletti for my advanced riders when they are up to jumping small fences. The difficulty of the exercise should be a direct relationship to how advanced the rider is. Time the exercise and adjust the length of time you work with the rider so that they don’t become so fatigued that they start to lose their balance or so sore that they can’t walk the next day. That sounds silly, but if you overdo it with somebody who’s not used to riding without stirrups either one of those things can happen. A rider is not going to get sore while riding, it’s going to be the day after, so you want to introduce riding without irons slowly.

3. Another very useful exercise is to practice dropping and retrieving your stirrups. Have a rider work for five to 10 minutes without irons, and then ask the rider to retrieve them without looking. Start at the walk, and then you can continue to advance to the trot and canter.

I use my three-second rule when making transitions, and it is also helpful when practicing the exercise of dropping and retrieving your stirrups. I tell the riders to try to get both stirrups back at the same time within three seconds, but if they struggle they should abort and try to get the inside stirrup first and then the outside stirrup.

It’s a common occurrence for a rider to lose a stirrup on course at some time in their career. Every rider needs to be proficient at getting their stirrups back while on course. It’s nice to know if you lose a stirrup over a jump when a horse makes a big effort or if they trip, that you’re going to be able to get it back on the landing side.

4. If you have the availability and the space, you can put jumps along one side of the ring, putting a guide rail on the inside track so that the horse does not duck out. You can construct this exercise with one, two, three or more jumps. The more jumps you have in the exercise the more advanced the rider should be.

I would normally have the horse and rider go through the exercise with their stirrups and reins the first time. The second time I would have the rider hold the reins in one hand to make sure they have some steering. The next step would be to take the stirrups away and have the riders drop the reins midway through the exercise. If the horse and rider are handling that exercise well, you can follow up and start going through the exercise with no stirrups and no reins, with the reins knotted or attached to the D-ring.

An instructor could increase the difficulty by stating commands as the rider goes through the exercise such as “hands on your head,” “hands out to the side,” “hands on your knees.”


Have you signed up for the Chronicle’s #COTHLoseTheLeathers challenge? Ride 12 times for a portion of each ride without stirrups in November, and you can be entered into a drawing for prizes including a lesson with top equitation trainer Val Renihan. The first 250 riders who submit a completed form tracking their rides beginning Dec. 1 and pay $5 in shipping will receive a ribbon. Learn more at the COTH Lose The Leathers Facebook group.

Check out the Chronicle’s Nov. 23 – Dec. 7 Equitation Issue to read about a #COTHLoseTheLeathers challenge participant, a feature article on Val Renihan and much, much more.

You can subscribe and get online access to a digital version and then enjoy a year of The Chronicle of the Horse and our lifestyle publication, Untacked. Or you can purchase a single issue or subscribe on a mobile device through our app The Chronicle of the Horse LLC.

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