According to equestrian lore, “No Stirrups November” refers to that wonderful time of year when we take our leathers off our saddles and go stirrup free… for a whole month… of torture.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love no-stirrups work. Actually, let me rephrase that. I love the results of no-stirrups work. I find that when I work without stirrups regularly, my leg feels longer, more relaxed, my seat more independent, and my whole body taller and stronger. This is, indeed, the desired effect, along with a sense of feeling more secure in the saddle and more a part of your horse. Oh, and it’s a wicked core workout.
So when No Stirrups November rolls around, I don’t cringe. I look at it as the inevitable culmination of a season spent working on my seat and position, and working on my horse’s softness, roundness, and the building up of her own core. Having said that, I don’t go sans stirrups for the whole of every ride. For a few reasons. The main one being that I don’t think it’s fair to warm a horse up in stirrup-less sitting trot (and doing too much posting trot without stirrups can encourage you to grip with your knee).
So for me, the goal is usually 20 minutes of no-stirrups per ride. I warm up in my usual way, then drop & cross my stirrups, and work in all three gaits. Walk work without stirrups is very beneficial, allowing you to really focus on feeling the horse’s back underneath you, and cantering stirrupless can give you a deeper feel than you’ll ever get with stirrups. For the last 20 minutes of my ride I take my stirrups back, and try to get the same feel with them as I had without them. It’s not easy, and usually involves me letting them down a hole.
Not all riders are ready for trot or canter work without stirrups (and not all horses are ready either), so, as with all good fitness programs, I would suggest modifying. If you aren’t yet able to sit the trot without without relying on the reins for balance, then you’re probably not going to get a benefit from doing twenty minutes of trot without stirrups. Does that mean you can’t partake in No Stirrups November festivities? Of course not! Walking (heck, even work at the halt) with your leg hanging down long is a great way to get that no-stirrups feeling without fear of bouncing on around on your poor horse’s back, hanging onto his mouth to keep your balance.
Another way to pay your no-stirrups dues is work on the lunge line, assuming yours is a safe lunge horse (if not, ask your coach if you can get in some saddle time on a reliable school horse). Always make sure, of course, that the person lungeing you is well qualified. A fun instructor will even find ways to make lunge lessons without stirrups seem like a good time, and will know what exercises will be beneficial for you.
Are you a complete beginner? Have your instructor lead you around while you practice dropping your stirrups then getting them back without looking down. Play fun games at halt like touching your horses ears and tail, or doing around the world.
No stirrups work should not be reserved only for one month of the year either. Ask your instructor if you can do a little bit every lesson. If you ride mainly on your own, make yourself do it. Set up a video camera or your smart phone ring-side and video your progression. That way, when November rolls around, you’re all set to up the ante and challenge yourself even more.
My point here is this: first of all, yes, maybe the end goal for No Stirrups November is to be able to spend a month without stirrups at all. But that’s just not reasonable for most of us. And to miss out on something beneficial just because you’re not an expert at it seems… well… wrong to me. So we make modifications. We set realistic goals. We do what’s best for our horses and our long-term riding aspirations while challenging ourselves just enough to get better.