Good riders not only have soft, quiet hands, they also have soft, quiet legs. Both of these qualities come from an independent seat – the foundation of balance and suppleness.
You can develop an independent seat by riding without stirrups, but only if you can practice it correctly. The biggest challenge is that the rider often grips more with her legs and tries to balance off the reins because she has difficulty maintaining her position. Gripping locks up the hips and lower back, making the ride uncomfortable for both the rider and the horse. Instead of balance and suppleness, the result is tension and resistance
If you cannot balance without using your reins, or your contact isn’t light and consistent, you should get some lessons on a quiet horse that can help you develop “soft” hands, before attempting to ride without stirrups. To be safe, you can ride with a neck rope/strap or a short strap attached to the D-rings on the pommel as an emergency handle in case of a loss of balance. This will prevent you from pulling on the reins.
Also, make sure to cross your stirrups in front of your saddle over your horse’s withers so they don’t bang on your horse. Pull the buckles down a couple of inches and make the leather as flat as possible under your leg to avoid bruises.
The following five tips will improve your work without stirrups. Depending upon your riding level, you can do them while your horse is standing still, walking, trotting or cantering. Only increase the challenge when you can maintain your balance and suppleness consistently in the previous gait. Keep your sessions without stirrups short (five to 10 minutes) so you don’t make your horse’s back sore. Add it to your warm-up and/or cool down period.
Get in the right position: Sit squarely in the saddle and feel both seat bones in contact with the saddle. If you can’t feel your seat bones, relax your thigh and butt muscles until you can. Let your legs drop out of your pelvis and just hang down. Relax your knees and ankles as you imagine both feet stepping down towards the ground from just behind the balls of your feet. Feel your legs naturally go around your horse’s barrel. Rotate your ankles in small circles. Gently swing your legs from the hip joints relaxing your hip flexors.
Independent leg movements: Do each of the following movements slowly so you can feel what happens to your seat, thighs and torso. Swing your lower leg from the knee, move your feet forwards towards your horse’s shoulders then backwards until they are under your hips. When your leg is in the correct position, you will feel centred as your seat bones connect with the saddle. Move both legs at the same time, one leg at a time, and finally scissor your legs (left forward and right back then right forward and left back). Note when your muscles contract and grip, or lengthen and soften.
Centre your torso: Sit tall, feeling your seat bones centred in the saddle. Lean your upper body forwards slightly. Come back to centre. Lean your upper body slightly backwards. Come back to centre. Hold each position for five to 10 seconds and notice how it feels. What happens in your leg muscles? When do you grip, and does your leg relax and lengthen? As you repeat this cycle of leaning forwards, centring, leaning backwards several times, if you can’t notice any differences in your body, try closing your eyes as you do the movements.
Maintain suppleness: With one hand, hold the front of the saddle or a neck strap for more security. Flap your elbows to ensure you are staying supple and not bracing as you pull yourself into the saddle. If you are unable to relax your arms, raise your shoulders to your ears. Hold for three to five seconds then drop your shoulders down. Repeat three times. Roll your shoulders forwards together, one at a time and then alternating.
Pay attention to your horse’s feedback: If your horse pins his ears, swishes his tail, increases his pace, or can’t maintain a rhythm, return to walking or standing still and adjust your position. Feel both seat bones, check for and release any tension in your body – particularly your legs, lower back and shoulders – and lengthen your legs and torso. Bouncing on your horse’s back is not good for either of you.
When you are balanced, supple and keeping your legs long and soft at the walk then gradually increase the challenge in this order: sitting trot, trotting over poles, posting trot, two point, canter. Your aim is to keep your legs long and connected to your horse’s barrel without gripping, your torso tall and the small of your back relaxed while allowing your pelvis to roll with your horse’s movement as you feel the rhythm of your horse’s movement.