The Long And Short Of It

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One of the jobs of a dressage judge is to make summary comments at the bottom of each written test. When I judge dressage shows?something I do 25 weekends and more than 2,500 tests each year?there are some comments that appear frequently in that summary.

Half the time at the basic Intro, Training and First Levels, I observe the rider?s stirrups are too long.??This isn?t just a comment I hear at dressage shows, though. I've noticed it's a favorite of George Morris in his long-running Practical Horseman jumping clinic feature.

Stirrup length isn?t just a matter of keeping the stirrup from falling off the foot?it affects the rider?s base of support and thus the stability and suppleness of her seat and the steadiness of her hands.? When I am judging and see a rider with over-busy hands, the first thing I do is look at her seat.? If the seat is unsteady, then my eye goes to her stirrup.? If her toe is lower than her heel, I have likely located the source of the problem.

it's impossible to keep hands quiet if the seat is bouncing around, and it's impossible to keep the seat supple if the heel is up, because a flexible ankle absorbs the shock of the hooves touching the ground.

When the toe is lower than the heel, the back of the leg is contracted, so the leg is actually shorter.? The rider not only compromises her base of support but also reduces the effect of her lower-leg aids.? SHe's likely also gripping too much with her knees in order to keep her balance and may even be tilting forward.

One source of the problem might be simply that the stirrup leathers have stretched subtly over time without the rider realizing it. I also sometimes wonder if riders feel that ?doing dressage? equals ?long stirrups,? when actually it more accurately equals ?long leg.?

A rider can do a lot to develop a supple seat and thighs that drape down over the saddle flap, rather than clutching it, by working without stirrups and on the longe line.? But once she picks the stirrups back up, if sHe's always reaching down with her toes she will lose the benefit of all that work.

If you don't quite believe it, try this test.? Get up into a two-point jumping position at the trot.? If you can stay there without losing your balance and falling back down into the saddle, then you likely have the right stirrup length, flexible ankles and a solid base of support.? If not, shorten your stirrups a hole or two and then try the test again, but be sure to allow the weight from the back of your leg to drop down with your heel.? you'll likely find everything about your stability in the saddle, including your seat and hands, will become more consistent.

Margaret Freeman, Associate Editor