No-Irons November: Exercises Without Stirrups
No-Irons November: Exercises Without Stirrups
By AQHA Professional Horsewoman Paula Pray with Megan Arszman
Athletes build the muscles they need in the gym, lifting weights and stretching to gain strength to perform at their best.
The same goes for equestrians, but sometimes their workouts can only be done in the saddle.
Oftentimes we see equitation on the flat patterns that require riders to ride in two-point and drop their stirrups. It’s instantly obvious to the judges who has and who hasn’t been riding without stirrups.
Sometimes, when riders go into two-point, they really are just dropping their weight into their feet and not using the correct muscles – and the judges can instantly see that.
When riders don’t practice without stirrups, their inner thigh and calf muscle development lags.
Judges know when riders have strength and conditioning, and when they’re just faking it.
There are really no exercises that mimic riding without stirrups except riding without stirrups. It can be a humbling workout.
For the equine set on social media, #NoIronsNovember has become a popular hashtag, where riders dedicate the month of November to riding without stirrups. However, while the intent of No Irons November is a good one, riding without stirrups should be part of your regular riding routine all year long.
I hope that riders use #NoIronsNovember as a catalyst to incorporate these exercises all year. One way is to make riding without irons a daily practice, perhaps at the same time that riders are warming up their horses.
Any amount of time given to riding without stirrups consistently can benefit a rider.
Here are my tips on for a jumpstart on #NoIronsNovember:
1. Think Safety
First, make make sure your horse is comfortable with you riding without stirrups. Then you need to select an area that is fenced in and safe for these exercises.
2. Why a Longe Line?
Using a longe line will ensure that someone is there with you to watch your position. That person can control the situation should things not go well.
Some horses have only ever been on a longe line to get their energy out, so make sure the horse you plan to ride is capable of handling a longe-line lesson.
3. Lose the Spurs
I would highly recommend taking off your spurs to allow you, or maybe force you, to use different parts of your leg and gain a feel for your horse.
4. Find Your Comfort
There are two schools of thought when it comes to riding without stirrups: Removing your stirrups all together or slightly pulling your stirrups down and then crossing them in front of the saddle.
5. Set Goals
It’s vital to set realistic goals prior to attempting this exercise. You should always have the ultimate goal in mind of cantering in two-point without stirrups.
But you’ve got to keep it real and you’ve got to work your way up. Curb any discouragement, and make it your own goal, not what your friend or competitor is doing. Don’t get discouraged.
6. Start Slowly
Don’t expect that your first day will take you from walking without stirrups to cantering in two-point without stirrups. The point of the exercise isn’t to spend 45 minutes straight without stirrups. It all depends on your physical capabilities from the beginning.
7. Walk This Way
The first step is to walk without stirrups. Walk around, and within the time that you’re walking, go ahead and move into two-point. Whether you can hold it for three beats or 10 beats, start at the walk and go into two-point. If you need to grab a little bit of mane to hold yourself up, do so. An appropriate goal might be that at the end of the month, you would be able to go into two-point at the walk and hold it for a predetermined time goal.
8. Don’t Forget to Take Two
Until riders try two-point without stirrups, they probably aren’t using their legs properly by distributing the weight down the inner thighs and calves when they do have stirrups.
Once riders feel comfortable that they have a connection with their horses at the walk, they can attempt to do two-point at the walk, whether it be for three steps or 15 steps, then move to the sitting trot.
9. Sit the Trot
Once again, make your goals realistic. If you’re not in riding shape at the beginning of the month, you might only be able to progress from sitting the walk to doing two-point at the walk to sitting the trot after the first few days or even a week.
10. Focused Connections
When you’re sitting the trot, be sure to focus on your connection with your horse and the softness in your lower back so that you’re sitting and absorbing the horse’s motion through your lower back.
Often, riders will find that their sitting trot is better without stirrups than with stirrups because they’re using their whole body and they’re feeling their horse and they don’t have a stirrup to brace against that would otherwise make them bounce.
11. It’s Post Time
The reason you should start with a sitting trot as opposed to a posting trot is so you have your balance. You don’t need to necessarily have your horse going at his full, extended trot.
You can post at the same rhythm that you did at the sitting trot, and make a game of it: I’m going to post 25 times, then sit for 10 steps, post 10 times, sit for five, etc.
Work on your increments and keep pushing yourself for a month, so that by the end of the month, the goal you originally set, for example posting around the arena three times in each direction, becomes more attainable.
12. Extend the Trot
Once you can post at that slow-rhythm trot, increase the length of your horse’s stride, allowing the motion from the horse’s hind end to help you achieve your post.
If your horse has a huge trot, you aren’t going to want to start out with that huge trot initially, risk losing your balance and get bounced off.
13. Moving Along
Until you feel comfortable on your horse walking and trotting without stirrups, do not move on to the canter.
Even when you’re ready to try cantering without stirrups, I don’t expect you to feel confident about it right away.
I advise anyone who feels worried to put the reins in one hand and hold onto the saddle with the other, as you start cantering without stirrups. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Again, it’s about balance, safety, feeling the horse’s rhythm, softening your lower back and sitting that canter.
As with the sitting trot, riders might discover they can sit the canter better because they don’t have the ability to brace in the stirrup.
14. Progress at Your Speed
You want to keep progressing. Do not feel pressured to push more than you’re comfortable, especially at the beginning.
As your trainers, we want you to become a stronger rider, but we don’t want you to sacrifice your safety or your ability to walk normally the next day.
With time and practice, #NoIronsNovember can turn into #NoIronsAllYearLong and you’ll start to see an improvement not only in your riding abilities, but your horse’s performance as well.
This article originally appeared in the digital edition of November 2019 issue of The American Quarter Horse Journal.