Riding without Stirrups
Written by Scott Lico / Photographs by Kristin Lee
“No Stirrups!” The dreaded words no rider wants to hear. We go in depth with Scott Lico of Scott Lico Stables in Southern California as he teaches us just how beneficial riding without stirrups really is, how it should be approached properly, and why it should happen more often than “No Stirrup November”.
Those looking to bring their riding to a higher level will benefit greatly by riding without stirrups. Riding without stirrups will help to make a rider more balanced, stronger, and secure in the saddle. The most important reason to make it a consistent part of your weekly riding routine is that it will help to improve your seat. By improving your seat, you will improve your feel, and by improving your feel in the saddle, you will ultimately become a better rider. Once a rider has put in the time and effort to develop a world-class seat, it’s equally important for them to maintain their seat by riding without stirrups on a consistent basis.
There are a few different ways to work without stirrups. One way, as you might imagine, is to simply drop them while riding. This is useful when riding for short periods, but I do not recommend it when working for any extended length of time. The stirrups will bang against the rider’s ankles as well as the horse’s barrel and elbows, which is quite distracting and uncomfortable for horse and rider.
The second way is to cross the stirrups over the withers. This gets the stirrups up and out of the way, allowing both horse and rider to concentrate on themselves. It is very important to pull the buckles about half way down before crossing them over the withers. If you do not, it will cause a large lump under the flap of the saddle, which can be uncomfortable and cause painful rubs on the riders thighs. Be sure the buckles lay upside down and the leathers are neatly placed. (see picture on left).
The third method, which I prefer, would be to take the stirrups off the saddle completely. I recommend this for advanced riders capable of riding for 30-40 minutes without stirrups and when jumping without stirrups. If you do not have the strength to last that long, it might be better to start with your stirrups as a warm-up, and then cross them over the withers for the remainder of your ride. That way you are not cutting your ride short due to fatigue.
When working without stirrups, position is very important. The rider’s leg, from the knee down to the heel, should be gently touching the horses sides, with the toes “carried” and slightly turned out. This lengthens the leg of the rider, thus making it stronger and more secure. The thigh of the rider should be resting on the saddle with the seat very close to the pommel and deeply glued to the saddle. The rider’s upper body should be tall yet relaxed, eyes are up, fingers closed, and arms elastic.
You can proceed to ride your horse as you normally would with stirrups, but I find that when you really want to make the most of the ride toward developing your seat, the best way is to use supplying exercises. To do this, you hold the reins with your outside hand, and grasp the pommel of the saddle with your inside hand. We call this position a “seat correction” (see picture on right).
The rider should literally pull their seat forward and down to lengthen their legs as long as possible. Use the seat correction position following each supplying exercise or whenever you start to feel your position slipping. Some of my favorite supplying exercises are to place my inside hand on my hip, head, across my chest, behind my lower back, out to the side parallel to the ground, twist and look backwards, and circles backwards. You can also practice touching your horse’s poll, dock of tail, and your toe on the inside foot. When looking to improve the strength and overall tightness of your leg, I find posting the trot to be the most beneficial, though two pointing without stirrups helps to do this as well.
If you are lucky enough to have a quiet horse that lunges well, there is no better way to develop a seat than to work without stirrups on the lunge line. Here, not only will you have no stirrups, but you will also have no reins. The rider will be forced into a position to find the balance and feel they are looking to attain. Make sure your lunger is very experienced since they will be the ones controlling the horse. I recommend lunging the horse for a few minutes each direction before the rider mounts. That way if the horse is a little fresh, they can get their bucks out without you on them! Also, you will be using side reins for your horse’s head carriage, so make sure they are familiar with those. Once the rider mounts, let them get comfortable for a moment by allowing them to keep their reins. After horse and rider have settled-in, make sure to knot the reins to prevent them from interfering (see picture left).
When working without reins and stirrups on the lunge line, the seat correction is slightly different. Instead of placing your inside hand on the pommel, grasp the pommel with your outside hand. The inside hand should grasp the cantle of the saddle (see picture on right).
This seat correction position causes the rider to slightly twist to the inside of the circle, which allows to weight the inside seat bone a touch more than the outside seat bone. All the previous supplying exercises are used on the lunge line, the only difference being the rider should use both arms (pictures below).
As my good friend George Morris says, “a world class seat is not something that can be bought”. It takes years of hard work and dedication working without stirrups. Now go out there, and get to work!
Scott Lico is a USHJA Certified Trainer specializing in the development of young horses to the Grand Prix level. He has been a professional show jumping trainer for the past 12 years and currently runs his own stable, Scott Lico Stables. He was selected and participated in the prestigious George Morris Gladstone Program in May 2014, at the United States Equestrian Team headquarters. In addition to training with George Morris for the last 17 years, Scott has trained with many top horseman from around the world including Karen Healey, McLain Ward, Thierry Pomel, and Jeffery Welles. Lico’s students have had great success in the hunter, jumper, and equitation divisions.