Winter Arena Exercises: Part 2 Let's Focus On Legs
Let's focus on legs!
I have never been a very athletic person. I was at the back of the line when they handed out the athletic DNA. Things like running faster, jumping higher, getting on my horse bareback (see previous post here) and posting without stirrups have never come easy for me.
I remember one particular horse show in Coeur d' Alene, Idaho that I was competing in and Barbara Tibbs was judging. I had been doing quite well that day. JR, my Quarter Horse gelding, was performing beautifully and I was proud of our partnership. Then came the Hunt Seat Equitation class. JR tolerated my riding him in English tack but getting a ground covering trot out of him took a valiant effort. He was predominantly a western horse. Some days the best he could muster was an extended jog. JR was not made for English. However, despite JR's decidedly western way of going, we usually placed well in Huntseat classes.
The class began. I knew what Barbara would be looking for in a Hunt Seat Equitation rider. I had taken lessons from her and I knew what was expected. I also knew that she knew I knew how I should be riding and my placing in the class would reflect her expectations. The class was going well. Walk, trot, lope both directions and the line up. Apparently it was a close class because she pulled several of us back out onto the rail to perform more rail work. I love competition, so knowing I was one of the top in the class drove me to really do my best.
Off we went at a posting trot. We hadn't gone far when the dreaded words came from the announcer, "drop your irons" (that's the stirrups on an English saddle). Ugh! Posting trot with no irons. Yes, I had done it before and practiced it but I was not good at it. My competitive spirit drove me on. I gripped the saddle with my legs with all I had in me and attempted to rise as high as my pathetic legs would take me, This particular exercise usually didn't last long in a class like this so when I finished one lap around the large rodeo style arena I was sure we were nearly done.
The announcer came over the loud speaker, "Extend the trot". Oh please no! Keeping JR at an acceptable English trot was proving difficult already and now I had to extend? I glanced across the arena and noticed a girl on a little white Arabian. She and her horse were usually one of my close competitors. She was gracefully rising and falling in the saddle as if she had never left her stirrups and her little mare stretched out and extended beautifully at her rider's cue. Oh help me! My effort to extend my devoted western horse's trot felt, to me, pathetic. After a second time around the arena the announcer called for us to return to a regular trot, but still we continued iron-less. My legs were burning; screaming at me.
Shall I remind you that I am not athletic? I counted our third lap around the arena. Its funny how just when your pride has swelled in you so that your hat is getting a little tight on your expanding head, something comes along to remind your pride that your hat size doesn't need to grow. Four times around the arena. I didn't recall having signed up for a stirrup-less endurance class. At four and a half times around that huge arena the announcer finally said the words I was desperate to hear; "walk your horses". Sweet walk. Wonderful walk. Glorious walk! We lined up again in the middle of the arena.
I think I got third in the class that day so my performance must not have been as awful as it felt. Looking back on this story, two things come to mind. First, thank you Barbara Tibbs for putting my teenage pride in its place. Second, practicing riding without stirrups is something I should do more often.
This leads me to the topic for today: riding without stirrups. I rarely ever ride without stirrups anymore unless it's on a long trail ride and I am stretching out my sore knees. This is partly due to the fact that I spend most of my time riding young, green horses or with my two year old son in the saddle with me. I also rarely ride without stirrups because no one makes me. When I was young I had instructors who regularly made me drop my stirrups. My winter riding exercise this week for you and me is to ride without stirrups.
Here are a few tips before you lose the stirrups:
1. 10-15 minutes a day is just fine. I have heard of some people going all in and actually removing their fenders (Western) or leathers (English), but I am definitely not going there.
2. Start slow. Your horse and your body will thank you.
3. This should go without saying but I will say it anyway. Don't balance with the reins when you drop your stirrups. Do not attempt this unless you have good, quiet hands.
4. Don't let your legs dangle lifelessly (see image 1). your seat and legs will not be doing the work that they must to keep you from bouncing all over your horse's back.
Image 1- Too relaxed. No leg and seat contact.
5. Keep them in the same position they were in when your feet were in the stirrups (see image 2).
Image 2- Correct leg position with foot in the stirrup.
6. Don't scrunch your legs up as this will cause you to pinch your horse's sides causing more forward motion that you probably want. Scrunching your legs up may also cause your heals to come up and your upper body to be thrown forward out of balance (images 3 and 4).
Image -3 Too much bend in the knee. Heal is coming up and pinching horse's side.
Image 4- Way too much bend in the knee. Heals are up and pinching. This is survival mode.
7. The purpose of this exercise is to develop balance. Stretch your legs down and around your horse's barrel and balance with your seat not your hands or knees (image 5). Engage those core muscles.
Image 5- Stretch your legs down and around your horse's barrel.
8. Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. Ride correctly. Don't ride in survival mode and expect your seat and balance to improve.
If this exercise sounds just a little too scary and you would like to keep those stirrups thank you very much, start slow at a walk or jog. If this sounds super easy and somewhat pointless, I am guessing you were somewhere closer to the front of that athleticism line than I was. For those of you like me, just think of the great leg muscles we will be building!
This blog is written and maintained by Danielle Otis, one of the wranglers (one job title among many) at Western Pleasure Guest Ranch. It is a collection of tales and stories related to the ranch that come straight “from the horse’s mouth”. The oh so fluffy horse that is featured in the pictures above is Little Horse, my POA mare. I don't really have long legs, just a small horse.