Riding without stirrups can give you a stronger leg, but as with any exercise, moderation is key, according to hunter/jumper trainer David Loman.
“I don’t like to do it to exhaustion for riders. I don’t want my riders to leave the lesson in a way that they can’t come back and ride tomorrow,” he said. “I’m not going to have No Stirrup November in a way that they can’t do a good job at a show in December or January because their legs are worn out.”
At his base in Bluffton, South Carolina, Loman uses no stirrup riding depending on the experience and proficiency of the rider. Before taking away the stirrups, he makes sure his students know where their leg should be and that they’re learning the muscle memory to keep it in the correct place. His motto is, “Practice makes permanent.”
“I ask them to try and hold the stirrup still underneath their leg,” he explained. “If their leg is in the correct spot, it’s going to be related to where the stirrup would normally hang on their saddle if their saddle is fitted correctly. If they put their leg in a place where they’re thinking of trying to hold the leather under their leg, then their leg will be in the right spot.”
Knowing your own body and balance is key. Loman is 5’9 ½”, and he describes himself as having long legs and a short, heavier upper body.
“I have to think about my own balance the way I am,” he said. “I think everybody has to find their own balance on a horse for their particular body. Find a way that you can be in a position of security based on gravity or the lack of effects of gravity on your body while in motion. It’s dynamic balance while you’re in motion, not just static balance. When I first introduce riding without stirrups, it’s about finding balance based upon the fact that if you don’t, you will fall off—of course that’s controlled, on a quiet pony on the longe line, or things like that.”
Not everyone will benefit from riding without stirrups though. Riders with bad habits, such as pinching with the knees over fences, can further ingrain that position flaw if they ride without stirrups, so Loman suggests other exercises like working on rotating your femur outward at your hip.
He finds that having riders drop their stirrups, pick them back up, and drop them again can be useful for anyone, regardless of their bad habits.
“But you have to be on the right horse in the right conditions and in the right situation where you’re not worried about falling, and where you can work on that balance,” he said. “If you’re doing it just to get through the month of doing it, then I think some people can do more damage than good with it. It’s important to have other eyes or have a good plan as to what you’re going to do, and again, everything in moderation.”
Dressage riders can benefit from dropping the leg down and letting it hang as they work on sitting deeper in the saddle for the sitting trot. Loman’s spent plenty of time around dressage trainers, and he’ll have his hunter/jumper students ride without stirrups that way too to practice sitting the trot and going with the motion of the horse.
“[The legs have] got to hang in a particular way out of your pelvis. It depends on the body,” he said. “I like to have the feeling of having my stirrup underneath my body. You see these pictures where they’ve Photoshopped out the horse, and they say, ‘OK, this is the perfect position—if the horse disappeared you would fall and land on your feet, and you wouldn’t fall down.’ It’s about balancing and organizing and stacking the whole body in a way that your leg is underneath you and that you’re supporting your upper body over the top of your foot the same way you would if you were standing on the ground.
“The difference with hunters and jumpers and dressage riders is that we have to ride so much in the two-point position,” he continued. “I work in the two-point position more than I do in the seated position, getting flexibility and motion and absorption of concussion through the joints of the foot and leg in a way that enables the body to remain in its position through this concept of dynamic balance that you have to have all the time when you’re in motion on top of something that’s in motion.”
He noted that while people used to learn to find their balance by riding around bareback as children, falling off and getting back on, many of today’s modern riders don’t have that opportunity. It’s important for instructors to have a controlled environment to teach students how to ride without stirrups and not to push to do it every day.
“Growth happens mentally, emotionally and physically in recovery and not in the actual action,” he said. “If you go to the gym, you push hard, and you know you’re going to have a certain amount of recovery days, and you’re not going to do the same exercises every day. When you’re trying to study for a test, you get to this place where your brain is tired, and you just need to stop and go for a walk and get away from it and come back to it. The growth and development happens as a result of the exercises you’re doing, not doing the exercises. I think if everybody keeps that in mind when they’re doing it, that’s as important as everything else.”
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.