Once again it’s “No Stirrup November,” which is celebrated not just in the saddle seat world, but across all equestrian disciplines. But, as it does each year, this unofficial month-long celebration raises the question … Is going without stirrups actually a good thing?
There is a philosophical divide within equitation – some believe no stirrup work is vital to the practice of equitation, while others believe it is without merit, and may actually hinder the rider’s posture in the saddle. Today, many patterns include no stirrup work, and many riders enjoy the challenge of it. However, Helen Crabtree, one of the most prominent equitation instructors in the history of saddle seat riding – and the woman who literally wrote the book on saddle seat equitation – never shied away from expressing her disapproval over riding without stirrups.
In Helen’s book, Saddle Seat Equitation (Saddle Seat Tests 1-12, pg. 149), she wrote:
“Of all the tests called for, riding without irons is one of the most popular. Because I am so firmly convinced that leg and knee contact should originate in the use of the stirrup irons rather than a gripping in of the knees, the value of riding the saddle seat without irons escapes me. As it appears very difficult, however, it is a crowd pleaser.”
In addition to her belief that proper leg position begins with the placement of the foot in the stirrup, Helen went on to say that there was a lot of inequality that went into play when riders were asked to drop their stirrups, as riding without stirrups is much more difficult for a long-legged rider than a short-legged one.
“How often we have seen spectators unduly impressed with the superior appearance of the small rider, when they were unaware that such a child had no problem in keeping the knees on the top half of the horse where they would provide some support for the posting motion. Knees that drop below the width of the horse do not have any mooring and are responsible for the clutching around the horse that is so disastrous.”
One of Helen’s former students, Amy Dru, 68, who rode with Helen in the 1960s, recalls her stance well.
“Mrs. Crabtree made us do it, but it was not something that was stressed, that I recall,” Amy said. “I personally always struggled with it.”
For Amy, the difficulty of the task came from her horse’s trot.
“A lot of riding without stirrups depends on the horse you have,” she said. “A horse that has a lofty trot, which mine did, is very, very difficult to ride without stirrups, as opposed to a horse that just shuffles along … To me, it’s kind of an unfair test for that reason, because the gait of your horse is such a critical factor.”
To do well in the no stirrups test, she said, it is advantageous to have a horse that doesn’t throw you out of the saddle. For a horse with a smooth gait, the move looks effortless, and is less difficult for the rider.
“It’s not a level playing ground,” she said.
But despite the struggles she encountered when dropping her irons, Amy received high praise from Helen.
"One of the greatest compliments she ever said to me, was, she said, 'Amy, you are not one of my best equitation riders, but I will tell you this; you are probably the best horsewoman of the group.'”
Helen noted that with constant practice, a rider’s muscles can become developed enough to permit any rider to accomplish this feat, but she always wondered if that time could be put to better use. However, almost 50 years later (the first edition of Helen’s book came out in 1970), equitation instructors and riders continue the practice of riding without stirrups.
Macey Miles offers a unique perspective as to why this might be. The daughter of trainer Todd and Lesley Miles, formerly at DeLovely Farm, and now at their own barn, Milestone Stables, Macey has practiced equitation her entire life. She also happens to be one of only 13 riders to have won the prestigious Saddle Seat Equitation Triple Crown (coming in first place in the USEF Saddle Seat Medal, UPHA Challenge Cup and Good Hands Finals in 2016). Now as an instructor at Milestone, she utilizes no stirrup work with her own riders, and believes that the true value of this practice is not only physical, but mental.
In the fall of 2016, Macey was 17 years old, and her four-legged partner, Harlem’s Wild and Wonderful, also known as Thor, had just come off of a great ribbon in the Three-Gaited Over 15.2 Stake at the World’s Championship Horse Show.
“Then, we asked Thor to do what some thought impossible: equitation,” Macey said. “Thor was a wonderful challenge and always kept me guessing. He was a great partner and I am eternally grateful to have had the chance to be his rider.”
As a competitor, Macey did a great deal of no stirrup work in order to be prepared should a judge call for it in a workout.
“I practiced countless hours to try to make it seem as if I had never even dropped them in the first place,” Macey said.
Behind the scenes, though, it wasn’t always pretty. Between bloody knees and saddle sores, practicing without stirrups takes its toll.
“But, in the end, I consider all of those scars a success,” Macey said.
It’s difficult to disagree, since those scars helped her gain a tremendous amount of balance and strength, both of which played a part in helping her capture the coveted Triple Crown.
“The advantages of mastering no stirrups is that it challenges every rider to test their own limits and understand their leg positioning and how the horse reacts to their legs,” she said. “I believe it allows you to really feel the horse and its movements underneath you.”
As an instructor, Macey has every rider – whether they show in equitation or not – practice dropping their stirrups.
“I believe every rider can benefit from the skill,” she said. “It challenges a rider to test their own strength. It also gives a rider a lot of confidence when they master this skill.”
Whether or not a rider has mastered the skill of no stirrup riding becomes apparent in the show ring.
“To me, seeing a group of riders perform a pattern that asks for the dropping of stirrups can really separate riders,” Macey said. “Seeing a rider without their irons in the show ring really sets a rider apart by showing their strength and ability to adapt from a lesson horse to a high powered show horse.”
Though proper leg position still originates in the stirrup, and a short-legged rider on a smooth horse will still find the task easier than a long-legged rider on a lofty horse, Macey believes the benefits outweigh the costs.
Learning to ride well without stirrups takes time, effort, dedication and perseverance. And even for those riders aboard smooth horses, it still takes hundreds of hours in the saddle to make the skill look effortless.
“Give riders credit when you see them perform no stirrups in the ring, because it is a lot harder than it looks,” Macey said.