The Sensible Rider’s Guide to No Stirrups November

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.

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She’s a pro.

For a long time after Stella’s horrible ordeal with gastric ulcers, I firmly believed that she was going to be a “stay-at-home” pony. I didn’t think she would be able to deal with the stress of trailering, going to new places, and leaving her safe little haven at Slatehill.

Little by little, though, Stella started proving me wrong. And every time she checked another accomplishment off her list (loading calmly, visiting another barn for a lesson, trailering with another horse), I found myself thinking “well, that was good, but what’s going to happen when we do something really difficult?”

Now, don’t get me wrong; it’s not that I wasn’t proud of each milestone. It’s just that I never truly believed she was “cured”. I never really gave her full credit for her accomplishments. I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Today we went on yet another new adventure. A trailer ride with her young pasture-mate, Kami, to a facility she’s never visited before. She loaded well, stood quietly on the trailer, and when we made a coffee stop part-way there and I opened the door to check on her, I was pretty happy with her level of “chill”. This pony was really figuring this whole road trip thing out!


We got to Five Fires, a wonderful local facility where you can trailer-in and make use of their fantastic indoor, and Stella calmly backed off the trailer and stood patiently while we sorted out Kami and kids and stabling arrangements. I remember wondering, in that moment, when the time would come that I was going to stop being surprised by Stella’s good behaviour.

Then in to the barn she went like a trouper. I put her in a stall (she really hasn’t been in a stall since moving to Slatehill), and she started eating her hay, taking time out to look out the window and down the aisle way now and then. I groomed, tacked up, and got ready to ride without so much as a whinny.


Off we went into the arena. Where she has never been before. Where she didn’t spook, didn’t fuss, didn’t even give things a second look. We started off with a little ground work (we’ve just started an online workshop with Tristan Tucker, so this gave us a chance to do a little homework), and then we lunged for a couple minutes (totally unnecessarily, since she was completely quiet and focused already). I led her over to the mounting block (where she stood like a dream) and hopped on. We spent the next half hour doing walk, trot and canter work all around that lovely arena (and Stella got her first taste of a really nice forward canter – I think she really liked having all that space)!

After our ride, we decided to let the two mares have a little play time in the arena. We were expecting a lot of farting around, but, as seemed to be the theme of the day, the girls were quiet and the endeavour was entirely uneventful (although the letter H seemed to raise an eyebrow for some reason)…


Then it was time to leave. Stella walked right on the trailer without so much as a moment’s hesitatation, and then we were off, headed back home to her pasture and friends. She trailered beautifully, and arrived at home dry and relaxed. Out she went into the field where she had a nice roll and started to graze.

(Yet another) day of firsts for Stella. First time trailering-in somewhere where she couldn’t step off the trailer and immediately start grazing. First time going into a strange stall in a strange barn. First time in that arena. First time being the “babysitter” for a younger horse. And that sweet, amazing pony hadn’t put a foot wrong all day. I guess now it’s time. Time for me to stop being surprised when she’s able to handle situations quietly. Time for me to stop waiting for that darn other shoe to drop.  This pony’s a pro.

Goal-Setting 101

The Water Trough

Yesterday marked the official end of Stella’s “show season”. And no, she didn’t actually go to a horse show. But I’ve been showing my whole life, and so for me, there is a definite beginning (April) and end (October) to the season. Stella’s season consisted of one “at home” lesson, three “away” lessons, and four trailering excursions.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking. That’s not much of a season. But for Stella and me, it represents the achievement of some real, tangible goals, and that’s what this post is about. If you don’t set goals, and give them a timeline, how do you know if you’re improving? How do you know where to focus your energy? How do you know where you are?

Some of you may remember that this time last year was the beginning of a very dark phase of Stella’s career as a dressage pony. In…

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Mountain Lions

The Water Trough

I had a thought one day a few weeks ago:

When we are nervous while riding or handling our horses, they are not capable of perceiving that it is them making us nervous. Therefore they assume that we are able to see or hear or smell something very frightening that they can’t see, hear or smell yet. This makes them afraid. Surely there must be a mountain lion lurking nearby. Must run away.

I texted my coach, Wylie, to tell her about my revelation. “Yes”, she answered. “I’ve always thought that.”

For me, it was like an awakening. I had seriously never thought of it this way. By being nervous, we are scaring the bejeebers out of our horses. They must think mountain lions follow us around.

I thought very hard about this the next time I went out to the barn to ride Stella. I am in the process…

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Mind Over Matter

The Water Trough

It’s been a while since I wrote about Stella, my lovely Connemara with the ulcer issues. So, to put everybody out of their misery, I will tell you that she is absolutely fine. No tummy troubles whatsoever, mainly due to her change in venue and lifestyle. Stella now lives outdoors 24/7, with a nice herd and a cozy run-in shed. She grazes at will, is completely grain-free, and lives a pretty stress-free life. It’s a lifestyle that has kept the ulcers at bay, and now I can’t imagine keeping her any other way.

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But that’s not what this blog post is about. This blog post is about expectations, outcomes, and getting the heck out of your own head.

For anyone who remembers the story, Stella and I didn’t really have much time to get to know one another before she got sick. We did spend an awful lot of time together…

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My Favourite Letter is Q.

They say horses come into your life for a reason. I don’t think this was ever more true for me than in the case of a little chestnut quarter horse mare named Q.

When I first met Q, I was a working student for Michelle LaBarre. Q was my “summer project”. In a former life she was a western horse, a reiner to be exact, and my job was to retrain her to be used in our dressage lesson program.

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You know how sometimes people say “reining is the western dressage”? Not true. Not even one little bit. How do I know this? Because for the first month I rode Q, I had to ride her late at night, or early in the morning, when nobody else was in the arena. Not because she was bad, but because she was trained so differently than a dressage horse (or any english horse I’d ever sat on), that I didn’t know how to get her to go. She had so many buttons installed, and if you accidentally hit one, you never knew where it was going to take you. Sometimes she would fly backward as fast as she could. Or sideways. Or she’d just stop dead. Since I never knew in which direction she would go, I was afraid to ride her in the ring with another horse.

After months of hard work, Q became an amazing addition to our lesson program, and I was even able to use her for my “little kid” riding school, where she helped students as young as six years old fall in love with horses and riding. As Michelle often said, I had resurrected her. She had become a solid, dependable citizen who enjoyed her job, and did it well. I was even using her for my own lessons with Michelle, and we were ready to start showing first level together.

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Through an unfortunate twist of fate, Q and I were forced to part ways at that point. I never forgot that little mare. I thought about her every day, and cried myself to sleep many a night wishing I knew where she was, and that she was safe. Then one day, years later, I I was asked to come to the Atlantic Equestrian Centre to judge a schooling show. Of course I said yes. Part way through the day, during one of the breaks, I was wandering along the row of paddocks, and a familiar chestnut face caught my eye. I couldn’t believe it was true. It was my beloved Q, and she was right in front of me!

To make a long story short, I got in touch with Q’s owner, and made arrangements to come and ride her once a week. That riding arrangement not only reunited me with my old friend; it was also the beginning of a new friendship, with my coach, Wylie. Which, of course, has changed my riding life.

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Q and I are now a regular item. I ride her a couple times a week, I take her out to shows (where she often wins), and I ride her in clinics. She is turning twenty-four this year, but she’s still going strong, and usually comes out into the arena like a four year old, snorting at the scary back door and playing like a youngster. She lives in the stall next to Stella, and sometimes I stand in the aisleway and watch them both in their stalls, munching on their hay, thinking how lucky I am to have such amazing and wonderful horses in my life.

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Finding Q changed my life. It gave me a horse to ride ‘just for fun’, with no pressure, no expectations and no fear. It made me realize that the old saying is true, about loving something, setting it free, and trusting that it will come back to you. And it taught me to never stop looking for what you want, because someday you might just stumble across it standing in a paddock looking back at you.

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“I was walking along looking for somebody, and then suddenly I wasn’t anymore.”

-A.A. Milne

Just Like Starting Over.

Fifty days. That’s how long Stella was on GastroGard, being treated for gastric ulcers. Who knows how long it took for the ulcers to develop, but fifty days is how long it took to heal them. I gave her the last dose two days ago. Now I’m hoping against hope that we’re right, that the ulcers have healed, and that she is safe to come off the medication.

If you remember, Stella had been telling me for awhile that something was wrong. The quiet little indications turned to louder statements, and then, finally, she decided that if I wasn’t going to listen, she was going to have to shout. That was the day that, at the mounting block, she determined that the only way to make me listen was to rear, spin and buck until she got me off her back.

The long story of Stella’s medical rehab is well documented on this blog, but what I haven’t told you much about is her training rehab. See, if there’s one thing in the world that scares me, it’s a horse who rears when you’re trying to get on. The first time I realized that you can get hurt riding horses was thanks to a horse that reared (violently) while I was mounting. I was seventeen years old, and I tried to get on that horse ten times before I realized that I was going to get hurt if I didn’t give up (and, in my defence, nobody before or after me was ever able to ride that horse either). Nonetheless, it’s the one fear I’ve never really gotten over.

So back on that horrible day in November when Stella decided enough was enough, you can imagine my complete and utter disappointment when my dream pony, for no apparent (at least at the time) reason, did the exact thing that scared me most. I was devastated. And I wasn’t sure if I would ever feel safe getting on my pony again.

I talked to my coach, Wylie, about it. We decided together that, until we figured out what had caused Stella’s meltdown, I was not to try to ride her again. While it pained me to think that Stella was injured or hurting in some way, I was a little relieved that I didn’t have to try to get back on her any time soon. Now we could focus on getting her better without worrying about getting on her back.

Once we felt pretty secure in the knowledge that the cause of the pain (and the behavioural issues) was gastric ulcers, and once the pain started to go away, we slowly returned to “work”. For the first two weeks, every second day, we did something that got Stella into the arena (the scene of the crime). Some days we lunged with her bridle on, some days we just free lunged, and other days we put her in her rope halter and did ground work. It wasn’t as easy as it sounds, because, at first, the mere act of going into the arena turned Stella into a rearing fool. We had to be very careful to get her working right away so her brain didn’t turn to thoughts of standing on her hing legs.

Our rehabbing plan derailed a little bit when, a couple of weeks in, she developed a stone bruise in one of her hooves, and had to rest for almost a week. Once she was sound again, we got right back to work.

We didn’t want to try putting her saddle back on until we were sure she wasn’t in pain, but we did want to do it while she was still getting GastroGard (so we could be certain that any issues were behavioural/memory-based and not pain-related). We chose the week that we were switching over from full tubes to half tubes of the medication. We began with just tacking her up in her stall, then untacking her, which didn’t seem to cause her any worry. Then, on about the fourth day, we went ahead and lunged her, with absolutely no issues at all. The difference between her lungeing before the GastroGard treatment, and after, spoke for itself.

We continued with tacking her up and lungeing for another week. During this time, we also starting bringing her to the mounting block and having me stand on it. This is where the worst of the worst had happened, so it was encouraging to see that she didn’t have any left-over mounting block issues. On the day she received her last dose of GastroGard, we did some “leaning” work at the mounting block, leaning over her, putting some weight on the saddle, wiggling around a bit. We received a lovely non-reaction for our troubles, so we figured it was now or never.

Yesterday, on her first day off medication, it was time to sit on her and take a few steps. I’m not going to lie, I was a little bit apprehensive. I knew this was the moment of truth. But, as John Wayne once said,

“courage is being scared to death…

and saddling up anyway.”

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried.