Are you a rider who struggles with losing your stirrups, especially in the sitting trot or canter? If that happens to you, it’s a sign that your seat and leg need improvement. Being an effective, quiet rider requires a solid foundation of a secure and balanced seat and stable legs that drop down and around your horse’s barrel.

There are several common causes for losing stirrups:

  • Stirrups are set too long so your feet are not stable
  • Incorrect leg position
  • The leg being shortened due to tension
  • Using the heel rather than the calf to give the aids
  • Gripping with the toes
A girl standing in the saddle to check her stirrup length.

Stand in the stirrups to find your balance, allowing your legs to lengthen; relax your hip, knee and ankle joints. (Anne Gage photo)

Check Stirrup Length

For hacking out or flat work, the standard test for stirrup length is to have the bottom of the stirrup at your ankle bone. Test this when you’re sitting in the saddle by taking your foot out of the stirrup and lengthening your leg. If the bottom of the stirrup is below your ankle bone, it is most likely too long.

Once you’ve adjusted both stirrups, try standing in the stirrups or riding in half-seat position and finding your balance. Allow your legs to lengthen as you relax your hip, knee and ankle joints. Feel your calf and thigh muscles in contact with your horse and saddle as you allow your ankles to flex down. Avoid pushing your heels down as this stiffens your leg and can also put your leg too far forward.


Place Your Foot Correctly

You may have been taught to ride with the ball of your foot on the stirrup and to push your heels down. However, putting pressure on the ball of the foot automatically creates a pushing response. We push off the balls of our feet as we walk, run, and jump. Place your foot in the stirrup in that position and notice how your ankle, knee and hip joints all lock up. You may even find that you’re gripping with your toes.

Placing the centre of the stirrup just behind the ball of the foot creates a softer leg and more stable position that allow the joints to absorb the horse’s movement. Notice that even your toes are now more relaxed, too.

Soften Your Seat

Tension in your feet and legs often starts higher up in your lower back and hips. If the hip is not supple, then the lower leg cannot be independent.

At the walk, bring your attention to your lower back and notice how much movement is happening there. The more tension in those muscles, the less movement there will be there as well as in your hips.

Next, focus on the gluteal muscles in your buttocks. Any gripping will affect your security in the saddle as well as your ability to give clear aids, and thus your horse’s movement. To feel the effect of tight glutes, while sitting on a chair try to push your feet into the floor at the same time that you tighten your butt muscles. You’ll feel your lower back and leg muscles tighten as well. Did you notice that you couldn’t really push your feet down?

When riding at the walk, focus on releasing your lower back and glutes, opening your hip angle and allowing your leg to drop down out of the pelvis. Allow your seat to swing with your horse’s movement. Feel your thighs melting into the saddle and your feet being gently drawn towards the floor as if attached to bungee cords.

Use Quiet Seat Aids

The “louder” your aids or the more “busy” your body, the harder it is for your horse to hear and respond to you. Pumping, pushing, and kicking all create tension in your body (resulting in shortening the leg) that not only affects your riding position, but also interferes with your horse’s balance and movement. The quieter you are with your body, the more:

  • you can feel your seat and legs;
  • you can feel and move with your horse; and,
  • your horse can feel and respond to you.

Without the unnecessary gripping and tension, your leg becomes longer, allowing you to keep your leg in the correct position and use your calf to give cues on your horse’s barrel.

Experiment with these suggestions when you ride. Don’t force the changes, because force creates tension and tension shortens your leg, causing you to lose your stirrups. By noticing and releasing tension, you’ll notice changes in how you feel and how your horse feels. At first, your body will want to return to the old familiar patterns, but with awareness, practice and persistence, you will create new habits that give you a more secure seat, quieter legs, and feet firmly (but softly) kept in the stirrups.