Happy No Stirrup November, everyone! I am not fully participating in the festivities for a variety of reasons that mostly boil down to, I can’t always do the work I need to with Tristan without stirrups, at least not right now.
I am, however, trying to do 15-20 minutes of quality schooling work within each ride without stirrups. When I dropped them for the first time last week it had been quite a while since I’d purposefully schooled without stirrups. I ride without a saddle all the time, but am rarely working in trot or canter when I do that.
So I started thinking about all the things that change on me when I drop stirrups and try to be productive.
1. I ride some things better and some things worse.
With stirrups, I am far better at riding and improving the trot than the canter.
When I drop stirrups, my trot abilities go by the wayside, and I am magically much better at sitting deep and properly using my core to lift up in the canter.
My up transitions are better without stirrups; my down transitions are better with stirrups.
The walk is a toss up, since I ride that so often both ways.
I am better at encouraging and correcting for straightness in Tristan without stirrups and am just more sensitive to tipping or weighting one hind leg over the other.
On the other hand, I am much better at putting together a cohesive, planned ride with stirrups.
2. I am somehow always surprised by the journey I go through with my muscle groups.
It always starts out with me tensing my hip flexors as I try to go a little bit fetal.
Then, as I learn to let go of those – usually just as they’re getting a little sore or tweaked – I re-re-re-realize how much more deeply I need to engage my core. So I go down that route.
Then I re-learn just exactly what engaging my core means, usually about the time I’ve given myself a nice little side cramp from holding my breath and/or letting my lower back muscles slack off.
Somewhere in there I also go through a slump/straighten cycle with my shoulders and neck, and a round under/straighten up cycle with my pelvis as I work to follow Tristan’s movement without jarring him.
3. Tristan is not an easy horse to ride without stirrups, but he is a saint.
Tris needs a lot of leg. He needs to be sharpened off the aids early and often. His default is to slam his shoulders around and get thick and heavy and difficult to steer when he’s not thrilled with what’s going on. His gaits have never really been smooth (though in his defense they are not dramatically choppy, either). So that means that I have to make trade-offs in what I want to accomplish with him versus myself when I’m riding without stirrups.
On the other hand, if I am fair to him and warm him up properly, soften his back a bit, and then start to work without stirrups? He’ll tolerate my flailing around all day long. If I get too badly off-balance, he pulls up automatically. He gets very worried about me when I’m clearly not coping well. He’ll truck along and take the joke all day long, and often, once I’ve got my feel and my rhythm and my balance nailed, he gives me big lovely sweeping on the bit trots because he’s just glad I finally connected my damn core through my seat.