How to Ride Without Stirrups

When I first started riding, my coach would very often make me ride without stirrups, or ride bareback, or play around the world with the horse moving.

When I was about 8-9 years old, I was able to do all flat work without a saddle or a bridle.

Unfortunately, as I got older and started to do more “advanced” things in another sense – aka jumping – I didn’t practice those stirrup-less, saddle-less and bridle-less skills nearly as much.

riding bareback is easy when you're young

I just assumed I could always go back to it. Kind of like the expression, it’s like riding a bike. The problem with that is: fear.

Fear is something that is harder and harder to get over as we get older. Adults have a lot more fear typically on horseback than kids do. We think of all the things that can go wrong. We have all the memories of the bad falls over the years that kids haven’t had the chance to accumulate yet.

No Stirrups as an Adult is Scary

About 5 years ago, I decided to regain my ability to ride bareback and bride-less again.

Of course, the first step was dropping my stirrups.

I remember the first time I dropped my stirrups again at a trot. My body reacted really badly. My body reacted out of fear. It did all of the things it was conditioned not to do from all my long years of riding:

  • My upper body hunched forwards
  • My legs gripped the sides of the horse and my knees started coming up
  • I felt my core was getting super tight
  • I started to pull back on my reins

If you visualize that, you’ll realize that because I was scared, my body was naturally putting me in the fetal position. It’s like I was preparing for the fall before it even happened.

My body was unsteady and my balance was challenged.

The more I tightened, the worse my balance got and I would feel more and more like I would start slipping to one side.

The nice thing is that I did have an amazing horse, Shady, so whenever I would feel myself slipping, I could slow her down and she’d immediately walk so I could compose myself.

The fact that I was tightening up was actually making it way more likely that I would fall. What I should have been doing was the exact opposite:

  • Kept my shoulders back
  • Let my legs fall and elongate – keep the angle of my hip large
  • Let my upper body feel the movement of the horse
  • Kept my hands quiet and steady
the cues for riding no stirrups

What Makes it Hard to Ride With No Stirrups?

What I find makes it hard to ride stirrup-less is the fact that we’re not used to it and we’re afraid.

We react out of fear and forget our usual position in the saddle.

That sensation of slowly losing your balance and bouncing over one of the sides of the horse is super frustrating and scary if you’ve ever experienced it. The more you try and fight to stay on, the quicker you lose your balance.  

It’s like falling off but in slow motion. It happens when riding with no stirrups without proper balance, or if your horse turns a bit quicker than expected. 

The trick is to learn to relax into the horse’s movement. The more we relax deep in the saddle and let our core move with the horse rather than tightening up, the easier it becomes.

learn how to ride without stirrups

The more we tighten, the more our legs grab onto the horse in an effort to keep us on. Of course, this just makes it worse and we instinctively lean forwards and grab onto a bunch of mane which is definitely not as graceful as we’d all like to be in the saddle.

We’ve all been there! Well, I certainly have.

When I was re-learning how to do this as an adult, these are the cues I used that made things easier for me and helped me get over the “fear-hump”.

Riding Stirrup-less Made Easy – My 2 Favourite Cues

#1: Increase your hip angle. 

This is by far the most helpful as well as the least intuitive trick. 

When we feel like we’re going to fall off, the first reaction we have is to grip with our legs which automatically brings our knees forwards and bends them. This brings us almost closer to the fetal position – especially if we then lean forwards. 

You want to do the exact opposite of this. 

You want to drop your heel as far as possible, now thinking of keeping your toes up a little bit as opposed to heel down as well as pointing directly forwards. 

By dropping the heel as far as possible and lengthening your legs, your hip angle between your thigh and your torso will increase. This will drop your weight lower and help you sink deeper into the saddle. 

This also puts your thighs into a position where they have more contact with the saddle, where they are more relaxed and where they can help to balance you as opposed to being raised up and tense. 

#2: It’s all about the core. 

When you’re sitting the trot without stirrups, you want to do those 3 things we talked about in the normal sitting trot:

  1. Pull in your belly button and squeeze it towards your spine 
  2. Activate your core
  3. Perform a slight posterior pelvic tilt

You want to do all 3 of these actions in time to your horse’s trot so that you move your bum with the horse so it ends up being : “squeeze, squeeze, squeeze, squeeze” with your core while your horse goes “trot, trot, trot, trot”. 

The key is to relax in between the squeezes so you’re moving with your horse.

You don’t want to just progressively tense more and more. This will just make you lean forwards and slowly go into the fetal position as you loose your balance and brace for a fall.

Last But Not Least – My Secret Trick!

I know it seems super simple but it helps so much.

Plus it’s an amazing workout.

A trick to help you transition to this if it’s a little nerve wracking is to post a stirrup-less trot. I guarantee that your legs will be so tired, you won’t have time to be nervous about falling!

Try it!

Hope this helps!

Let me know how you make out in the comments below. And if you need more help with fear, check out our post on overcoming it here!

Martina


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