Earlier this month, I read a blog post about “No-stirrup November” – if nothing else, you should watch this video to appreciate Malin Baryard-Johnsson’s successful attempt at staying on board and coming third in a jump off. Impressively quick and clear thinking.
I also recently read this excellent post on how riders over-use their hands – partly because the lovely Wiola linked to my blog at the bottom, thank you! – as well as another link Aspire Equestrian posted to this video by Mary Wanless. Many things jumped out at me thanks to these sources – I love Mary’s carousel analogy, and will be borrowing it – but one of the main pieces of rhetoric I agree with is this: balance is crucial for riders.
I grew up being taught much of what Wanless reiterates: using your body, maintaining a balance independent of the horse’s mouth, not using the horse to prop yourself up, being able to balance if the horse were taken away. Some of the best ways to practice these skills are to ride without stirrups or reins – I’ve intentionally jumped without both. Many people have lessons on the lunge, so that the instructor controls the horse and the rider focuses on their position, but this can defeat the object – Malin wasn’t attached to a lunge line! She had to control her horse and stay on.
I learned a huge amount by being told periodically to quit and cross – stop your horse, take your feet out of the stirrups and cross them over the front of the saddle – and this is how I teach. Naturally, I don’t expect my students to canter off stirrupless and complete a 1m40 jump off, they start slowly on a well-balanced horse. But they learn far better to engage their seat, back, core, thighs, knees and calves without the crutch of stirrups. They gain confidence, their bodies and minds work harder – jumping and rising (or posting) trot are things which all riders should eventually work towards without stirrups – and, most importantly, they get better.
My criticism of Malin’s ride – and the way many professional show jumpers ride – is that she hung onto her horse’s head. It’s a brilliant display, but she hauled the horse around by the mouth, which I find abhorrent and unnecessary – any student riding before me like that would lose their reins for the rest of the lesson. It’s not needed: she still had seat and leg contact, plus her upper body, with which to steer.
A horse isn’t the only thing I learned to ride as a child – like many others, I was taught to ride a bicycle. My Dad spent hours with my sister and me, adjusting bikes, telling us what to do, running along and holding onto the bikes as we wobbled along. We both learned to ride bikes with the assistance of stabilisers, as well as our doting Dad, but conventional wisdom has changed since I was little. I was fascinated to learn about balance bikes – there are even competitions! – and how they are used to teach children to cycle today.
The logic of balance bikes is that stabilisers can be counter productive – children can become too reliant upon them, and don’t actually learn to balance. In much the same way, many horse riders are too reliant upon their stirrups and hands: I’ve lost count of the number of times a student has wobbled all over the place before pulling up to a complete stop mid-lesson in order to reclaim their lost stirrup (and do so using their hands). When I criticise them for doing so and explain how they should be doing it, I am also able to recount my own Malin Moment: I was leading a trail of eight campers last summer, cantering happily across a field. As I began to pull the ride up at the end of the field, my stirrup leather snapped. I had to remain in control of the ride of campers and other staff, which I did successfully due to my prior years of stirrupless riding. The campers peered into the long grass below for my lost stirrup, one of them triumphantly yelling when they found it and sending my colleague down from their horse to retrieve it.
The next time a student asks me why riding without stirrups is important, I will tell them this: one day, you could be 20 seconds from $100,000, or in charge of a group of other horses and riders. At that point, will you worry about your lost stirrup, or getting on with the job?