How important is riding without stirrups? Whenever I ask a class of new riders “What keeps you on the horse” one person will answer  “the stirrups”.  Rider’s receive security from their stirrups and become dependent upon them, so it’s important to also teach them  riding without stirrups. After all we want don’t want our student’s security to depend on a piece of equipment.


If taught correctly there are multiple benefits to having students ride without stirrups.

  • Riding without stirrups develops a seat that is deep and sympathetic with the horse and at the same time the rider can develop a longer deeper leg.
  • My favorite is how much riding without stirrups can strengthen the rider’s leg and develop a strong base of support.

And since anytime a rider’s seat and legs improve, their balance and confidence improve. Plus if your riders are accustomed to taking their feet out of the stirrups for even a few strides, they are less apt to panic if they lose a stirrup unintentionally. So we could classify riding without stirrups as a safety measure.

And keep in mind riding without stirrups is one of the 19 USEF Equitation tests.

What Do You Need?

  • A quiet horse who is used to the sensation of the rider without stirrups.  There is a different feel for the horse as the distribution of the rider’s weight will change form stirrups and seat to just seat. If your rider is nervous she may become grippy in her legs. And even worse, if the rider becomes fearful she may grab on with the reins. So a quiet horse is a definite plus.
  • So choose a horse that is accustomed to being ridden with out stirrups. Avoid surprises for your beginners.
  • You’ll need something for the student to hold on to, such as a breastplate or the front of the saddle.  I prefer a neck strap because I can adjust it to help the rider.  If you elect for your students to hold the pommel be sure they are able to get a good purchase and make certain the saddle fits the horse well. If your student is in a western saddle they can use the horn.
  • If you choose to lunge the rider you’ll need a lunge line, whip, and gloves.
  • If you choose to have your student led you’ll need a lead rope and an assistant. Leading the horse yourself while teaching is hazardous because you can’t see the rider when he’s behind you.

First Steps

Feet in- Feet Out

This is an exercise where the student practices taking both feet out and then they put them back in.  They’ll also practice taking one foot out and returning it to the stirrup at the walk, sitting trot, and posting trot, according to their riding level.

Our goal here is to teach the rider that  they can safely remove a foot from the stirrup while the horse is moving. Secondly, that they are capable of finding their stirrup again without looking at it or using their hand to guide their foot. This is a very elementary but important  level.

Even more advanced riders are challenged when they must take one foot out at the posting trot because they have to work to balance their weight evenly.

First Impulse

A first impulse with students is to let their legs dangle with toes pointed to the ground  This is okay when you want the rider to relax their leg or went you want to deepen the seat a little bit. It’s also a challenge as the foot will have dropped below the stirrup level and the student will have to hunt with their toe to regain the iron.

Quit & Cross

When you have progressed with your student past feet out feet in you will need to teach the how to cross their stirrups.  Obviously the western rider doesn’t do this, but anyone in an English saddle, be it saddle seat, hunt seat or dressage, needs to know how to quit and cross their stirrups. Allowing the stirrup to dangle is irritating to the horse and rider and can cause painful bumps.

Frequently I hear instructors tell students to cross the stirrups over the horse’s withers. Crossing the stirrup leathers with the buckle up  I prefer to have the rider pull the stirrup leather buckle down a few inches first and then cross the stirrups over the withers.  This eliminates considerable bulk under the rider’s thigh, especially in a hunt saddle and will help prevent thigh bruises. Check out my art-less iPhone pictures.

Removing Stirrups

  • Removing stirrups from the saddle eliminates the bulk.
  • This can be difficult depending on how your saddle is built and how often it’s cleaned.
  • Removing the stirrups also has a bit of psychological influence on the rider and I believe all riders reach a point that they should work with stirrups removed.


Cross stirrup leathers with the buckles pulled a few inches awayYour rider should carry their leg in the correct riding position without the stirrups with an even pressure through the thigh, knee and upper calf.  The heel should be down and toe up in order to keep tension in the calf muscle.

For some riders, walking in correct position without stirrups is enough work the first time.  Be sure to give breaks where the leg is allowed to dangle.

What Else?

  • I start riders at posting/rising trot as soon as I can.
  • Begin by asking for two or three steps.
  • Have students hold the neck strap and reins together.
  • Remind them to use their thighs, knees and upper calf plus tand the horse’s energy to lift off the saddle and not to use the lower calf, which will result in the horse moving forward faster.
  • They are always allowed to stop if they lose their balance laterally.
  • Be sure to compliment their achievement. This is a measuring point from which your rider can self challenge and build.

Correcting the constant change of balance and movement will help develop confidence in riders. They should spend a lot of time doing exercises at the walk. The more confidence your riders have, the more quickly they will improve.

How Difficult should It Be?

I teach riding without stirrups at all gaits and for jumping. A strong base of support in a jumping rider rider opens the door to a following hand/automatic release over fences and should be every jumping rider’s goal.

How long should students ride without stirrups?

Give your beginners and newbies a taste of what riding without stirrups is like and then include a few minutes of intermittent work in each lesson. Build their strength gradually, especially if they are once a week riders.

Regular riders should practice with out stirrups several times a week. They can expect to have a full lesson without stirrups at some point in my program.

It’s Your Turn

How do you teach riding without stirrups? Do you have a favorite exercise? I’d love to read about it in the comments.

Barbara Ellin Fox


Barbara Ellin Fox TheRidingInstructor
  • Great article about the benefits of riding without stirrups. As a student I love having time to ride without stirrups, because I felt a good boost to my confidence in the past and it has definitely helped me use my seat and core to keep myself on the horse. I love the feeling I get from being more connected to horse. I’ve even been able to start feeling the movements of the hindlegs whilst I sit to the trot without stirrups.
    I do wish I got more chances to work without stirrups so I might have to suggest it more often to my instructors.

    • Hi Alex, Riding without stirrups can make riders feel strong and independent. Good for you for wanting to work without stirrups more. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Barbara

  • I start all my students without stirrups! We ride in something similar to a vaulting surcingle until such time as their balance and coordination are relaible enough to ride with them.

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