Don’t get me wrong… I’m 100% for feeling the burn and making those riding muscles work without the aid of those things we put our feet in. I just have a few things I need to get out about the entire month dedicated to riding without stirrups.
As any rider who came up through a lesson program likely has experienced, No Stirrup November is a time where either someone suggests politely to you to ride withouts stirrups as much as you can, or (more often) someone literally steals your stirrups and you spend a month without them, hacking, in lessons, jumping.. you name it, you’re stirrupless.
In my professional opinion, I believe riding with no stirrups has a great place within the realms of developing position, strength, and function in the tack. Hunter/Jumper/Event riders, we’ve all found ourselves in the middle of a line approaching a huge oxer or in the middle of a combo just having conveniently lost our stirrups at some point, amiright? Having some background in being able to keep your leg and your balance without weight bearing is hugely beneficial.
We know the pros to this. Increased balance, strength, and confidence. These are great pros! But if NSN is done wrong, you may not get the full benefit and actually end up affecting balance, strength, AND confidence.
Yes, there are safety cons to NSN. Falling, muscle soreness/strains, higher chance of injury.. etc. However, that’s not exactly what I want to focus on today.
Too often what I see happen with NSN is an immediate jump into absolutely no stirrups (as in the cases where stirrups mysteriously disappear from saddles and aren’t returned for 4weeks). While, yes this is a sure way to commit… it’s also a sure way to develop bad habits, compensations, and put yourself at risk for newly developed poor equitation come December. Think of it this way.. if someone took away your desk chair and you had no way of modifying the desk height or finding another seating device, so you had to still get down low enough to work at the desk.. Let’s say you’re ambition and you try to maintain a seated position (now squat) position (because we all sit in that nice posture, right?!)… you probably wouldn’t last long, and soon you’d start trying other weird things just to keep functioning. You’d probably start out by hunching or crouching, then maybe try to kneel and crane your neck, then maybe standing in a lopsided posture looking down…
Now think about the last time you rode without stirrups. Were you fluid and efficient with your movements? Or did you immediately lock up your hips, clamp with your legs and knees, and stiffen your arms and the rest of your body in an attempt to maintain your “normal” eq? This is before muscles even got tired!
If the above didn’t happen immediately.. it likely happened as soon as you got fatigued. Which is very normal. My issue with this? Now you’re training bad habits, and strengthening in your position in the wrong ways. Yes, the more the month goes on, of course the stronger you’re going to get. But if you build that strength on top of incorrect equitation.. it’s not really benefitting you. Also, your horse won’t appreciate you bouncing around all stiff and clampy for the first few weeks either. Think of their back and yours!
All this being said.. I’m still in favour of no stirrup training. If it’s done appropriately. Here’s my recommendations for NSN.
Week 1 (3-4x/wk):
- Regular warm-up with stirrups
- 1-5 min of no-stirrup work (or as long as you can until you find you begin to lose good equitation and posture.. this could be only 1-2min to start!). All gaits. Trot is obviously going to be the most difficult gait, with walk and canter being a little easier to maintain.
- 10-15 min regular riding. Do any jumping or more intense work within this time.
- 1-5 min of no-stirrup work. Focus here on things like sitting trot and transitions to build that core stability. Make sure you’re still letting the hips move, and keeping the legs in an appropriate position and of course maintaining a correct posture!
- Cool down. Or continue with a regular ride with stirrups.
- Repeat this every second ride (if you ride every day) or 3-4x/week with days in between.
Week 2 (3-4x/wk):
- Reg. warm-up with stirrups.
- 10-15min regular riding with stirrups.
- 3 min trot work with out stirrups, posting and sitting, 2 min canter work and transitions from trot to canter no stirrups.
- 2 min break
- 3 min trot work with out stirrups, posting and sitting.
- 1 min break
- 1 min trot work with out stirrups, OR transitional work (walk to trot, trot to canter, canter to sitting trot, sitting trot to canter, canter to posting, posting to walk.. etc).
- 1 min break
- 3-5 min with stirrups holding two-point at trot. Focus placed on leg position and hip elasticity!
Week 3 (3-4x/week):
- Reg. warm-up with stirrups
- 10 min reg. ride with stirrups.
- 2 min with stirrups holding two-point at trot. Focus placed on leg position and hip elasticity. Trust me you’ll feel the burn in your legs!
- Jump-work with no stirrups (if you jump), or lateral work or advanced work with no stirrups. Do this only until you feel your position slipping… Take breaks as necessary. If jumping, start at a level you’re comfortable with (obviously). Ideas here could be:
- small gymnastic exercises or grids or small course work.
- 1-2 min break.
- 5 min regular hacking or jump work with stirrups.
- 5 min hacking with no stirrups, all gaits.
Week 4 (3-4x/wk):
- Reg. Warm-up with stirrups, including 3-4min two point position work at trot.
- 5-10 min no stirrups, all gaits.
- 5 min regular hacking with stirrups.
- Any jump work or advanced skills with NO stirrups. If you’ve been working on jumps, work towards a full course at a comfortable height for you within this week!
- 1-2min break.
- 5-10min no stirrups, all gaits.
Some general rules of thumb for this progression:
- The times are a suggestion. If you feel you can do more or can only do less before your position and posture get poor, by all means modify!
- The point is to challenge yourself, but not to the point of training a bad position. Be aware!
- The two-point position holds will challenge your position in a similar way to not having stirrups. I recommend throwing these in at the beginning and end of every ride you do for 2-5 minutes. Challenge yourself to control your horse with your legs, while keeping good position, and maintaining balance. Use your saddle or horse’s neck for balance IF NEEDED ONLY. This will work legs, core, and overall postural stability.
- Perform the above progressions every second ride, or 3-4x/week. On days off from no stirrup work, add in the two-point holds and ride as usual otherwise.
NSN is often viewed as a month to go hard or go home. While I’m all for challenging riders to improve their fitness in the saddle.. it has to be done appropriately and smart. If it’s not then that’s where we end up with injuries, chronic pain, and perpetually fixing bad habits.