The first thing we’re taught as riders is to keep our feet in the stirrups and our heels down. It’s a simple but vital skill, and it becomes second nature almost immediately. Once imprinted into muscle memory and upon our subconscious, that’s that. We give it nary a thought. Using our aids correctly, maintaining pace and balance, navigating the course or test in front of us—those are things we’re more likely to be thinking about. But stirrups? Nope. Because, just like that emergency bottle of wine at the bottom of our tack trunk, we know that our stirrups are always there.
Except when they’re not. Like when we lose one in the middle of the jumper classic, right before the triple combination. Or when we’re asked to take them off the saddle for our medal work-off. Or when the dreaded No Stirrup November rolls around.
Thank You Not So Much
No Stirrup November is a yearly tribute we must pay to atone for the pain and suffering we have caused our trainers. It’s sort of like “The Hunger Games,” except your sister can’t take your place, and everybody dies at the end. It is so-named because somebody thought a cute, alliterated name would smoke-and-mirror us into thinking it was going to be fun. Oh, and also because someone, long ago, made the bad decision to start a month with the letter N.
I’m not sure anybody knows whom we have to thank for this yearly ordeal. Who exactly came up with the concept of NSN? I can tell you who didn’t: an adult amateur. We like our stirrups. A lot. And we’ve got enough of a challenge trying to cope with No Wine Workdays.
A junior, then? Maybe. Those little pixies like to show off. Case in point, I once heard a child student proudly proclaim, “I out-posted all of those adults without stirrups.” Well of course you did. You have the body weight of a pencil, and none of your joints set off the metal detectors at airports. It’s nothing for you to lift your lithe little bums off the saddle while your perky ponies prance ’round the ring. Meanwhile, we mature riders flail like upside-down turtles trying to motivate a recalcitrant warmblood to maintain forward motion while mustering the muscle strength to post. It’s more work than pushing out a 10-pound baby. And if I’d known riding without stirrups was going to hurt that much I’d have had an epidural before my lesson.
Some people believe NSN is an organic offshoot of the time of year when riders ditched their irons to sharpen their skills for medal finals. Others believe that social media had a lot to do with it: #NoStirrupNovember first appeared in Instagram and Twitter feeds around 2012, accompanied by smiling stirrupless selfies.
Most likely, NSN was invented by trainers while winding down from the weariness of another show season by knocking back a few shots. They got punchy and started talking about how many new gray hairs we’d given them and how the only acceptable tit-for-tat would be some form of torture. “Like what?” one asked. “Oh, you know…take away everybody’s stirrups for a month,” quipped another. At which juncture glasses were raised and a cheer of, “LET’S DO IT!” arose. After that, they became as an army of Spartans off to battle; nothing was going to stop them.
My personal feelings about the whole thing are ambiguous. Sure, it’s valuable to be able to ride without stirrups. I mean, who doesn’t want the inner thigh strength to crack walnuts? It comes in handy when a coupla beers turns into riding the mechanical bull at Kodiak Jack’s. But given the fact that stirrups are one of the most pivotal contributions to the equestrian world, being made to ride without them seems almost disrespectful.
In The Beginning
When people are asked to name inventions that have truly changed the world, the same few usually pop to mind: The wheel. The telephone. The screw-top wine bottle. You might be surprised to know that the lowly stirrup ranks solidly among devices that played a major role in shaping civilization.
The development of the stirrup may or may not have come about because of one person’s misfortune. A fellow named Cambyses, who was King of Persia in 522 BC, is said to have fatally stabbed himself with his own sword while leaping onto his horse. So the first stirrup (singular, because there was only one), a small circlet of leather on what we call the “near side” of the horse, was likely created to answer the question, “How do we get on our horses without killing ourselves?”
Early “sets” of stirrups consisted of small leather loops for just the big toe. If you’re cringing right now, it’s because you’re imagining what undoubtedly happened if a rider was unseated and got caught up in that tiny toe-loop stirrup. A few million big-toeless riders later, somebody invented riding boots, and stirrups were re-engineered to accommodate the entire foot.
That’s when the stirrup really came into its own.
Once upon a time, before there was Twitter, people had to fight their battles on horseback. In the use of the horse in warfare, the stirrup was the third revolutionary step, after the chariot and the mounted horseman. The horse provided a means of high-speed attack and retreat, but we all know what can happen when your horse executes a high-speed maneuver too abruptly. Stirrups helped anchor the rider securely. Consider that they also provided balance and stability for launching lances, swinging swords and waving flags on charging/turning/retreating steeds, and it’s easy to see why stirrups were so transformative.
There’s only one thing that might have changed the face of warfare more than the stirrup: Spray-sheen. It would have taken but a lone warrior to sneak into the rival camp and spray-sheen the bejeebers out of their warhorses. No matter how securely the enemy strapped on the saddles, come battle time they wouldn’t have stayed put for long. Stirrups or no, a horde of horrified Huns hanging upside down under their horses’ bellies would have been ripe for the picking. #WonItBeforeWeBegunIt
Supporters of NSN may point out that while stirrups may once have been literal lifesavers, times have changed; that sort of riding no longer exists. Apparently, these people have never watched a Color Guard drill team perform. The fact that those riders can stay on while making horses that are essentially running away from each other look like they’re performing finely tuned maneuvers is completely attributable to having stirrups. Go on; try running at each other with giant, waving flags without them. See what happens.
When All Else Fails
Even though history supports the argument to keep your stirrups, you may find that your trainer does not. In which case, I offer the following wisdom for preparing for and surviving No Stirrup November.
- Mount with care. Whether getting a leg up or using a mounting block, remove all pointy objects from your person before attempting to mount a stirrupless saddle. Remember what happened to King Whatshisname.
- Don’t get cocky. Working at the walk sans irons is easy-peasy. Don’t let it lull you into a false sense of security. Keep your wits about you. You’re still only one good spook-and-spin away from eating dirt.
- Think of the good you’re doing. You know all those bad habits your trainer has been trying to coach out of you? Riding without stirrups is self-correcting. Not sitting square in the saddle? Fixed. Leaning to the inside too much going around the turn? Fixed. Falling on the horse’s neck when it jumps? Fixed. Stopping every five minutes to re-adjust your stirrup length? Fixed.
- The trot will love you or hate you. The impossibly smooth trot that’s a pain to post will be a dream when you’re sitting without stirrups. On the other hand, the bouncy trot that makes riding more about keeping your lunch down than keeping your heels down will shake you like a martini. For the rest of your life, your MRIs will confound doctors as they try to figure out how your internal organs changed places.
- Fake it when necessary. If you jiggle your hips back and forth in rhythm with your horse’s trot, you can make it look almost entirely but not quite exactly unlike posting. Some of us even jiggle when we’re not trying. If it’s not clear whether we’re posting or not, just give us the benefit of the doubt. Also remember that without stirrups, there’s no such thing as two-point. It’s three-point at best, and four- or five-point if you happen to be pregnant or male.
- It’s easier to fall off without stirrups. When a fall is imminent, try to hit the softest, least expensive thing you can find as slowly as possible. If you have an app on your cell phone that calls emergency services when an impact is detected, turn it off. After the fifth call in 30 minutes, they’re just going to stop answering.
- Ride with the right people. If you are an adult, don’t ride with kids or juniors. They will just make you look bad. If you are a junior, please stop making the adults look bad. Go ride with your own age group. It may also be helpful to group together according to insurance carrier. Sharing your LifeFlight really helps defer costs.
- Have an exit strategy. Dismounting without stirrups isn’t as straightforward as you think. You have to boost your butt off the saddle and swing your leg with enough momentum to clear your horse’s back. Once you do that, you are in the landing pattern, and there is no going back. Make sure you’ve picked a soft place to land, because it might not be feet-first.
- Live to ride another day. That which doesn’t kill you can still make you wish it had. Don’t overdo it. You have a whole month. Pace yourself.
Thank you to the prize donors for the Chronicle’s #LoseTheLeathers challenge. They include:
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. The first 500 riders who submit a completed form tracking their rides beginning Dec. 1, will receive a ribbon. Learn more at the COTH Lose The Leathers Facebook group.
Check out the Chronicle’s Nov. 18 & 25, 2019 Equitation Issue to read about more #COTHLoseTheLeathers challenge participants in addition to a feature article on top equitation trainer Stacia Madden and much, much more.
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