Horse-Riding Dressage Equipment: Stirrups

Offset stirrup irons are inappropriate for dressage! Their construction mechanically prevents the correct position of the rider’s leg, stiffens the ankle, and prevents the use of the pushing aids. For many riders, the most difficult area to relax while riding is the ankle. The offset stirrup, instead of contributing to relaxation, forces the rider to immobilize his ankle, and so, instead of contributing to a correctly hanging leg position, it makes the rider a prisoner locked into one set position by his stirrup irons.

Stiffness anywhere in a rider will spread from the stiff area and eventually affect most of the rider’s body. That is why suppleness in the ankle is particularly important.

The primary purpose of the rider’s leg aids is to create impulsion (forward locomotion, energy) and secondarily to create and maintain proper bending. In essence, all riding depends on the appropriate use of the legs because all gymnastic progress is based on the control of the horse’s hindquarters. Therefore, the correct position and effective use of the rider’s legs are greatly important, which is why offset stirrups are inappropriate.

Use a heavy stirrup iron for better feel, as well as for the occasion when you may lose contact with it. A heavy stirrup soon comes to rest at a vertical hanging position and therefore will be easier to regain. The rider’s foot should rest on the stirrup so as to touch the outside edge of the iron with the outside rim of the boot. The stirrup is a resting place for the foot and not an area for gripping or support. There is no need to press down onto the stirrups in order to remain in contact with them. Supplely rotating ankles, belonging to hanging and draped legs, will always accommodate the gentle swinging of the stirrups. Correctly placed and supple legs will not be ejected by the stirrup’s jarring. Instead, such legs will move the irons in harmony and rhythm with the horse’s motion. The more foot length available by contacting the stirrup close to the toes, the easier it is to push the heel down behind a flexible ankle. The lowering of the heels is a result of lifting the toes upward and stretching the calf muscles. Keep the toes turned inward and nearly parallel to the horse’s side with the help of supple ankles. Without this position, the calves cannot stretch and drape along the horse’s barrel for the soft, perpetual contact that is necessary for driving in rhythm and controlling the haunches.

Initially, adjust the stirrups short enough to encourage the stretching of the thigh and calf muscles. As these muscles stretch, a deep seat and longer leg position will earn the incremental lengthening of the stirrup leather. One earns longer stirrup leathers gradually by stretching the limbs while retaining their correct angularity and positions at the ankles, knees, and hips. Do not arbitrarily lengthen the stirrup leathers to seek the appearance of a deep seat without actually possessing deeply stretched calves and thighs. More than two hundred years ago the stirrups were shortened on the advice of de la Gueriniere because he realized that riding improves by a perpetual contact with the horse’s sides. The shorter stirrup enables the rider to keep his legs folded and draped around the horse’s rounded rib cage. Shorter than necessary stirrups initially may assist in stretching the rider’s leg muscles and eventually enable him to earn the much-coveted long stirrup leathers. Looking at the old engravings predating de la Gueriniere’s teachings, we can observe that riders’ legs were not in contact with their horses’ sides. Contact, in fact, is denied by having too long a stirrup leather, which causes the legs to dangle forward and away from the horse’s sides.

The rider’s legs act, move, accompany, harmonize, and aid differently in the three different gaits. Yet, in all three gaits, their activities and their effectiveness depend upon supple ankles, well-stretched thighs keeping the knees in a deep position, and well-stretched calves keeping the heels in a deep position. Without such leg position, there can be no effective control over the horse’s haunches.

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