Sit on the sideline of any warm up ring and you will have a true appreciation for the variety of stirrup lengths in which people choose to ride. In runs the gamut from those who look like they lost their way from the jumper ring to others who are busting a vein and points their toes down in a valiant effort to reach the irons that are miles beneath them. So which is the “right” length for a dressage rider?
More correctly, we should be asking, what is the appropriate length for you? You see, unfortunately it is not as easy as picking the angle in which your trainer rides and hitting the road. Why, well follow me down the rabbit hole, gentle readers…
Horse Considerations: The first element that must be considered is your horse, of course. If you are riding a newly started, younger, recently rehabilitated or tender backed horse, then very likely you will be riding with a shorter stirrup. It would not be appropriate or fair to your steed to ride in a longer stirrup when they are not ready for it, strength wise. Why? Because a shorter stirrup allows you to lighten your seat and thus enables your horse to strengthen his back without being burdened by weight that could cause him to stiffen or hollow. Also, your horse’s build will dictate your stirrup length. If you have one narrow horse and one that has the barrel of a rhino, then expect to ride in two different lengths. I am running stirrup leathers up and down all day long, each length adjusting to the new horse I ride.
Ability Considerations: Newer students should begin in shorter irons than the ones into which they will eventually evolve. A new student does not have the balance or musculature to yet support themselves in a longer length. Begin in a length where you feel confident and supported, even if it is a few holes from where you will eventually be. If you drop your stirrups too fast, too soon, then you will be forced to cling with your leg in order to stay on. Clinging or pinning your thigh, knee or calf to the saddle or horse could cause you to lose your irons (and possibly cause your horse to go blitzing to the horizon as well). It also creates bad riding habits and really takes some hard work to learn to let go once the cling has begun. It is better to begin in a situation that allows you to form positive habits versus trying to ride like those people on the posters. As time goes on and your seat gets more independent, you and your trainer can begin lowering them. Are you coming back to riding after a hiatus? These rules might apply to you in the short term as you remuscle.
Anatomical Considerations: This is a facet that is often ignored in the dressage world, both by students and instructors alike. In that search for the holy grail of shoulder, hip and heel alignment, we oftentimes neglect the fact that each of us, as human beings, is cobbled together differently. Take me, for example: I have an enormously long thigh, and a fairly short calf. To put it another way, my hip to knee is much longer than my knee to calf. If I were to drop my irons to the length that I had the ideal shoulder-hip-heel alignment I would be riding with a straight leg and that narrows my base of support to a point where I am not ideally functional. You might have a short thigh and long lower leg. Kyra Kirklund says this, “The tip of the toe should be directly under the front of the knee.”, in Dressage with Kyra. This allows us to be respectful of the knee angle we want without trying to pitch forward or lean back to achieve it. If your seat is evenly weighted on the seat bones and pubic bone, your thighs are draping along the saddle, your toes are under your knees and you are secure, then I would ignore a derivation of an inch from that ideal alignment. That is not to say you should ever blame a chair seat (leaning back with your feet out in front of your) or a fork seat (leaning forward with your feet behind you) on anatomical reasons – those are position issues and cannot be excused away (as much as we try).
Functional Considerations: The stirrups should be there to improve and secure your riding, not detract from it. Here are a few questions to ask yourself when riding to decide if the stirrups are too long or too short: Are you on a complete vertical, as though standing, at the top of the rise of the posting trot? Your hip angle should be fully open, as though standing in the posting trot at the top of the rise. If you attempt this and feel inhibited, check your position and stirrup length. Can you swing your hips open at the sitting trot and canter? If you are having to lean forward to get a swing in your seat, this could be telling. Of course always have your trainer check that it is not a position issue or insecurity. But a overly short stirrup will close your knee and hip angles to a point that when you are on the vertical like we dressage riders need to be, you will not be able to swing your seat through the gaits. Conversely, if your toes feel like clappers and your stirrups like bells, then consider that the length might be longer than you can handle right now. It could be the perfect length at the walk, but if you need to cling onto your calf or knee at the trot then it might be a longer length than you are currently able to ride. Unfortunately though, no stirrup length will bestow that independent seat we’ve heard so much about. If you are clinging with your knees and they are creeping higher and higher up the thigh block as you attempt to sit the trot or canter, then this is not a stirrup length issue. This is a position problem and you must hit the cold, barren salt mines of position work to correct this issue. So in these cases (and really any case), take a deep breath, take your trainer by the hand and enter the world of the lunge lesson and riding without stirrups. Chances are by the end of your toil, you will come back to the stirrup length issue with a better sense of what is right for you.
- Five Ways To Engage Your Horse’s Hind Leg (dressagedifferent.com)
- The Symbolic Totilas (dressagedifferent.com)
- Adult Amateur Dressage Shame: Riding the Roller Coaster (dressagedifferent.com)