Oh, November is the most wonderful time of the year! It’s a time when equestrians mount wooly, wild-eyed steeds and ride off into a gale of swirling leaves, stirrups bravely left behind. A time of bonding and camaraderie as riders worldwide are briefly united by sore muscles.
A time where you, as an instructor, stand to gain or lose a lot of popularity points with your students — to say nothing of your school horses!
Everyone has plenty to say on the subject of No-Stirrup November. Some professionals preach the gospel of no-stirrup work. Others hate the “bandwagon” and are happy to tell you why.
As it happens, we instituted an annual month without stirrups at the Riding Academy several years before the November tradition became popular. Our perspective is that thirty days of focused seat-building can be a really great thing… if you do it carefully with consideration for both horse and rider.
It has to be fair to the horse
School horses put up with enough already. Their mouths and backs should not have to suffer for sake of a fun hashtag!
Putting the horse first means your no-stirrup lesson plans should take into consideration each horse’s gaits, conformation, and physical complaints.
At HorseSense, we used to run our No-Stirrup Month in August — rather than November — along with the start of the local school year.
The thinking was that August here in Georgia is a hot, humid, transitional month; our calendars were relatively light after two crazy months of summer camp; and both horses and riders were ready to take things a little slower before the fall show season.
But when I started freelance teaching and decided to join the rest of the world in No-Stirrup November, I quickly decided to leave stirrups on for the first twenty minutes of each ride. I teach students to be respectful of their horses back, especially during warm-up, prioritizing a light seat and two-point until the horse’s muscles are loose. This warm-up period allows stiff old horses time to work out the kinks and find a smooth rhythm before stirrups are dropped.
It also allows me to assess the horse and rider and get a feel for an appropriate level of work.
Because if we want to be kind to our horses, one of the best things we can do is avoid overfacing our students.
It has to be fair for the rider
You can’t just take the irons away and carry on conducting your lessons as though nothing has changed. College teams and big equitation programs get away with this because they know that their more advanced students are fit, riding multiple times a week and participating in mandatory cross-training sessions.
The average riding school students, on the other hand? Weekly riding lessons may be their only physical activity — and you’re lucky if they ate anything nutritious out of their school lunch that day!
That means that if the stirrups are coming off the saddle for good, you’ll need to scale down your activities to match your student’s level of fitness and ability without them.
Maybe that means your lessons take place entirely at the walk, or include very short, controlled trots. This is not actually a terrible thing if November in your part of the world is cold, dark and wet. (Look for a future blog post on walk lessons and how they don’t have to be boring!)
Or maybe your student is riding a green, unpredictable horse and a safe version of No-Stirrup November simply involves dropping irons for a few minutes at a time, in the warm-up and cool down.
This is not a one-size fits all adventure. It should look a little different for every rider you teach.
It should build your students up, not break them down
I know we all LOVE to complain about how much we hate no-stirrup work and how sore we are the next day.
But honestly? My goal is to get my students to the point where they don’t need to complain. Even better, I’d like them to start to enjoy it a little. Our abilities are closely linked to our attitudes, so someone who loudly proclaims that she HATES no-stirrup work is not likely to become very good at it!
Some mild post-ride soreness or fatigue is to be expected, but if your students complain of hobbling three days later, scale back. Think of conditioning students like you would condition a horse: you’re trying to keep the recovery rate within a reasonable level. Your students will slowly continue to improve without stirrups unless they are pushed to exhaustion, soured or scared.
To avoid this, you’ll need to add an extra pinch of creativity to your November lessons.
It should be fun!
Let’s say your students are consistently jumping 2’6” courses and riding Training Level dressage tests. You take away their stirrups and suddenly they can barely stay on at the trot. So what do you do? Spend four weeks on hip openers and sitting trot transitions and hope for the best?
Not saying hip openers aren’t delightful on a cold November evening, but if this is your strategy, your students may become a little more open to excuses not to ride!
Instead of asking them for fifteen Frog Legs exercises in a row, look for ways you can incorporate games and obstacles into your no-stirrup programming. Our students love:
Don’t forget to award their achievement at the end of the month, with praise on social media and prizes like our popular No-Stirrup Month Certificate – free in our Resource Center for the month of November!
No cold turkeys (except Thanksgiving leftovers)
If your students only practice without stirrups during the month of November, they’re going to be in for a hard time. And a thirty day boot camp is not a magic cure-all for a weak seat, especially if you pick your stirrups up Dec 1 and avoid the tough stuff for another year.
Emphasize that the point of No-Stirrup November is to gently (gently!) push us out of our comfort zones and to build a habit. If you can ride thirty days without stirrups, then three minutes per ride is not really that big a deal, right? The road to success, for most of us, is “little and often.”
Think of No-Stirrup November as less of an endurance test and more of a springboard to future improvement.
Speaking of which… if your students jump, get ready to do a lot of two-point position exercises as part of the joyful stirrup reunion in December. Your riders may have newly secure seats, but lower legs can get forgetful in a hurry!