New dressage riders who arbitrarily lengthen their leathers end up riding "heels up/toes down" or with their legs thrown forward, bracing against their stirrups. Those who have tried to stretch by riding without stirrups often pinch with their knees, making the lower leg unstable.
The basic tenet that these riders overlook is the intrinsic harmony of the dressage seat. Like any physical effort requiring balance-riding a bike, ice skating, walking-the effective dressage position comes from the sum of the parts. If you are not quite in alignment from ears to ankles, your position is not secure. Your leg naturally shortens to maintain your stability. And, under this condition, it will remain short no matter how long the stirrups get.
The key to finding your dressage leg is locating your center of gravity and opening your hips. Once you do, your legs will "want" or need a longer stirrup. A good exercise for finding your center of gravity is to shorten your stirrups, hold your leg entirely off the saddle and make a transition to walk. If you find you have to grab mane or feel insecure, keep your horse walking for a bit, relax and allow your body to find its equilibrium. Once you have stabilized at the walk, ask for the trot. If you make this transition successfully, trot around for a few minutes, taking mental notes as to how your body feels when it is in this position. That is how it should be all the time. After each period of holding your legs off the horse, drop them down and shake them out to avoid cramping.
Because the correct dressage leg drapes the sides of the horse, your hips must be open and your thighs relaxed with your calves lying lightly and quietly on your horse. Many riders are unaware of how tight they are through the hips--and how restrictive this is to their horses.
To check whether this is one of the impediments to your seat, take note of how your hips move during the walk. If you are moving back and forth, you need to open your hips and thighs so that your hips follow your horse's hips, dipping alternately, somewhat like a slow hula. Relax to the extent that you can feel your lower legs alternately touching your horse's sides. If you are fortunate enough to have a mirror, walk toward the mirror, watching your legs, which should swing like parallel pendulums. Try the same thing at trot until it becomes automatic for you to follow your horse's hips. This not only will keep your back relaxed but will help prevent tension in your horse's back. When you do use your back to push him on or slow him down, your aid will be much clearer.
Once you've learned to relax into your horse's swing, pick up your stirrups, adjusted to their usual length. Hold your lower legs on your horse's sides. Now keep them still as your hips continue rising and falling with your horse's hips. This stabilizes your lower leg so that it can be used exactly when and where it is needed.
As soon as you can maintain your equilibrium in a relaxed, supple posture, you will be able to follow the step-by-step exercises outlined here to lengthen your leg. Help to confirm your new position by opening your hips and stretching your legs at the beginning of every ride. As soon as it feels "natural," lengthen your leathers. Forcing it before you're ready simply won't work.
Don't be concerned if, after finding your dressage leg, you occasionally feel a need for a shorter stirrup. The length is often dictated by the conditions under which you are riding, such as the size of the horse's barrel, his level of training, and your state of nerves. Now that you have learned in your development as a rider that you have to wait for your leg to get longer, bear in mind that your stirrup length is the result of what is required at the time.
This article originally appeared in Dressage Today in 2001.