Saturday, August 13, 2016

Stirrup length makes all the difference

Once a week, I ride a Quarter Horse named Nicky. (He's the grey in the banner, above.) He and I go way back; when his owner was a young girl of 11 or 12, she began taking lessons from me at a local riding school. A couple of years later, I was leasing a small barn, and she was ready to buy a horse. So together we trooped around New England, looking at horses. We found Nicky at a sales barn in VT, with the help of my trainer, Jillian Kreinbring. We brought him home, and I've been helping his family keep him happy and fit ever since.

Last night, Nicky and I had the best ride we've ever had.

Many things went into making last night great. My recent return to an old habit of bodywork (not just groundwork but actual massage and dynamic stretching) before and after each workout helped. So has an increased emphasis on working him harder, getting him stronger. It also didn't hurt that last night was our third day in a row working together. But the single most influential change, the thing that helped me ride him more effectively than I ever have before, was this:

I shortened my stirrups.

I was both thrilled and chagrined at how much of a difference this made. Elated, because of how good it felt to help Nicky move forward more freely. Embarrassed, because I know better than to ride too long. For years, I've been encouraging my students to shorten their stirrups, and seeing the wonderful results they've achieved; the improved position and communication which can result from even as small a shift as half an inch. Though not every rider is guilty of extra long leathers, the vast majority of us have allowed our 'normal length' to get longer and longer. So what is the correct length, and why is it important?

For the vast majority of riders, a correctly adjusted stirrup should hit them in the ankle bone when they drop it. This is true whether you ride English, Western, even Dressage. This length allows your ankle, knee and hip to have peak flexibility. Any longer than this, and the thigh is drawn in and back, which in turn pulls the pelvis into a slight forward tilt. This creates tension in the lower back and inner thigh, blocking correct motion through the horse's back and rib cage. With your stirrup adjusted correctly, you can release through the thigh and the lower back at the same time, sitting on your seat bones with a long spine, and allowing your horse's energy to flow from the hind end to the front end.

So why doesn't everyone ride with their stirrups adjusted correctly? For many, it is a style issue. Especially when it comes to Western and Dressage, the trend is for an extremely long leg. But while this creates an elegant aesthetic picture, it is an exaggeration; it mimics a leg which appears long because it is relaxed. But instead of creating relaxation, the longer stirrup actually creates tension.

Another reason people may choose to lengthen their stirrups is for comfort. Many riders (myself included!) can experience discomfort in their knees and hips on a long ride. The fix for this, though, is not to lengthen the leathers, but rather to lengthen one's spine. By finding a neutral pelvis, releasing tension in your lower back, and allowing your knees and toes to roll away from the horse, you can align your joints such that they experience a lot less strain while still enjoying the support of a correctly adjusted stirrup.

Last night, my stirrup kept my leg at just the right angle, so I could utilize the crease where my thigh met my hip. Every time I creased at this spot, Nicky was able to reach his hind legs further under him, lift his back, and go forward more smoothly. Since he has a tendency to get 'stuck' on the forehand, this was a wonderful feeling for both of us! I no longer felt like I was chasing him, or that my leg aids were being ignored. Instead, sensations that I'd been seeking for months, even years, were suddenly available to me. I could release my lower back, and keep it relaxed while still giving leg aids. I could rotate without Nicky leaning in on my knee. Suddenly the horse who inverts and offers to buck when asked for trot was trotting figures of eight while swinging freely through his legs and back! I can't wait to get back out there next week and ride him again!

Questions? Comments? Want me to help you find a more comfortable, effective position in the saddle? Contact me anytime at