Shorter Stirrups

By Terry Golson

For fifty years I’ve been trying to improve my riding skills. At this point I certainly know how I should be sitting, where my toes should be pointing, and to keep my elbows at my sides. I know it, but I can’t always do it. Like many women of a certain age who’ve had babies (and even those who haven’t) my hip sockets don’t swivel like they used to, my back aches, and that left wrist curls in no matter how much my brain tells it to put the thumb up. When I try to stretch my thighs down, they retract up like rubber bands. But I keep working on my position, because it matters. How you sit, where your weight is, the tip of a chin, the angle of your knee – all of it – affects what your horse does. Your body is what your horse listens to, and you want the message to be clear, consistent and kind.

Rider position also can interfere, or support, how your horse uses their own body. As Tonka recovers his  beautiful, natural movement (click on the sacroiliac joint and soundness categories on the right of this page to read more about that saga), I don’t want my middle-aged body to get in the way.

Because I’m not at a barn with a resident dressage instructor, I monitor how I’m doing with videos. They confirmed what I knew. My legs were gripping up.


This wasn’t all of the time. There were moments when we both looked lovely.

As a dressage rider, I want a long leg. But we’re not all tall and willowy like Charlotte Dujardin. I’m 5’2″, with short legs in proportion to my upper body. Those moments of long-legged elegance were fleeting.

Stretching exercises before riding and will-power didn’t do a thing improve my leg position.

My heel went from being jammed down,


to gripping up. That altered my upper body position so that I rounded and tipped forward. You can see how my heel and tight calf would be annoying to Tonka.


At the canter, my leg swung. I’d trained Tonka to pay attention to information from my seat, legs and hands, but this was tactile information that Tonka would have to ignore. It’s wasn’t fair that I was asking him to be more athletic and to do a true 3-beat stride, while I was rubbing and jabbing his sides.


I purchased the Total Saddle Fit Stability Leathers. Supposedly, they steady your leg. They helped a tad, but it wasn’t a huge improvement. I needed to do something else. I couldn’t fix my position by riding without stirrups. I rode stirrupless for hours and hours on a lunge line as a teen and into my twenties. It certainly taught me to sit correctly, but I can’t do that now. Two months ago I tried dropping my stirrups for five minutes. My hips hurt (shooting pain!) for a week. So I kept the stirrups, but shortened them. Just a hole.



Now those new stirrup leathers were doing what they’d promised. My leg steadied. Which allowed my upper body to stay upright. My thigh is still tight, but it’s not pulling the heel up into Tonka’s sides. The correct and longterm fix is to exercise and stretch (I’m going to do pilates) but for now riding one hole shorter has made an immediate improvement that Tonka appreciates.

With me riding more quietly, it’s easier for Tonka to find his balance. It also helps that my body isn’t yelling contradictory messages at him, but communicating more clearly. This week we even managed a stride of canter jump.


There’s still a lot of work to do. The one stride with canter suspension continues to be a rarity. Most of the time, Tonka adds a quick fourth beat (those two hooves should not be on the ground at the same time.)


But there’s progress. There’s more air under Tonka’s hooves. We both enjoy that feeling.



9 thoughts on “Shorter Stirrups

  • John Schaller

    I find the different schools of 5hought on Joel position for dressage interesting. My ankles are pretty inflexible, so heels a smidgeon below even is about as good as I can manage even for jumping position. Unlearning gripping has definitely been one of my big developmental issues as a rider. I found riding with eyes shut as much as possible helped me a lot in terms of better awareness of what Ibwas doing, and plan to make a pair if those goggles with a slit that let you see forwards not down to be able to work I in this regard more.

  • Laura Allemand

    As my daughter was growing up, we always had to adjust her stirrups on the sly because she’d insist they were fine, even though she’d grown inches and started looking like a jockey. In gymkhana, a slightly shorter stirrup is desirable for the same reasons you have mentioned. I also find that over time, my stirrup leathers stretch. You go along thinking they’re perfect, but then move it up a hole and it’s amazing how much better it feels!

    • Terry Golson Post author

      Yes, those stretching leathers! Once a month I switch the leathers to the other sides so that the left one that I use for mounting doesn’t get longer than the right.

  • Jan

    Pleased to hear Tonka’s recovery is going well and you are sorting out your riding position. In the last photo it looks like Tonka’s skimming the ground nearly floating. Definitely try Pilate’s both my daughters have been going for 2 years now and they say it really helps and stretches you out, one of them has had a back problem for years and has seen a definite improvement, so please give it a go nothing to loose. 🙂

  • Elisa Smith

    Terry, thank you for all the comments on the shorter stirrups! Often times when I’m helping someone I ask them to just try raising them one hole. They look at me like I’m crazy and I answer back “just humor me please.” They initially think it feels awkward and then realize that their base and core can be stronger and a slightly bent, relaxed knee and ankle can be the soft shock absorbers that they are meant to be. This is not my revelation. In riding for 23 years with Eric Horgan I have often seen him make the same request in many of his clinics and seen the results that he gets consistently with many shapes of riders and horses. How many of us can warm up at the sitting trot and get our horses backs round and soft? How are we to stay in rhythm with our horses at the posting trot for warm up while we are reaching for our stirrups. Again thanks for the insight Terry. Eric does a few clinics every year in Maine and there usually not an audit fee. He may be known more for his eventing career but his dressage insite on position and horse suppleness is wonderful. I would highly recommend him.

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