Susanne von Dietze, dressage & fitness expert
Correct stirrup length based on the rider, horse and task at hand is a prerequisite of back-friendly riding. Choosing the correct length of your stirrups and task at hand depends on the purpose and type of saddle. The increasing popularity of discipline-specific s saddles has led many riders to only use a dressage or jumping saddle. These special-purpose saddles limit the potentially back-friendly use of different seats—to the great disadvantage of all beginners. Many dressage saddles do not allow you to sit well balanced. And, in saddles strictly designed for jumping, the center of gravity is often too far back to use them for dressage. Therefore, one important criterion for choosing the right saddle is being able to vary the stirrup length by at least two to three holes and still have your leg on the flap.
Editor’s note: One way to check yourself is to have someone take a picture of you in the saddle. Then compare that picture to the ones above.
The correct stirrup length should always be based on function. It depends on the rider’s conformation and level of training; the horse’s conformation and willingness to go forward; the particular exercise; or even the way a rider feels on a given day. In dressage, the purpose of the stirrup is to support the front of the foot: You need to be able to rise in the trot without changing the position of your lower legs or using your upper body as leverage. During a rider’s training, her stirrup length should start off at medium, advance to long for dressage, and finally to short for jumping.
Stirrups that are too long or too short are equally harmful to the back: Long stirrups pull you into a “fork-seat” posture, while short stirrups put you in a chair-seat position. When in the forward seat, stirrups serve as a stable basis for knees and heels, allowing you to balance yourself. In a jumping saddle, too long stirrups put your center of gravity in front of the horse’s center of gravity, while overly short ones cause you to fall behind it. The latter often occurs when riders in a jumping saddle do sitting trot during dressage practice.
Mounting and dismounting
In traditional equestrian circles, people feel that the ability to mount a horse from the ground—and dismount with a swing—is one of the decisive characteristics of an experienced rider. If you want to protect your back from injury and be gentle on your horse’s, you should forget about these “skills” right away. Significantly less strain is put on the back of both horse and rider (as well as saddle and stirrup leathers) when the horse is mounted from an elevated position: The purchase of a solid, and at the same time movable mounting block can be very useful.
Dismounting in a back-friendly manner requires some practice: Your left foot should remain in the stirrup while you swing your right leg over the horse’s back while your weight is on your left foot. Then, place your hands on pommel and cantle respectively, to push yourself up high enough so your left foot can just slide out of the stirrup with your leg stretched. As a last step, slowly let yourself slide down to the ground while you position your right arm over the saddle to act as a counterweight. Prepare the muscles in your knees, feet, and hips by building up some positive tension that will cushion your landing. This way, you will protect your back from strain.
Everyone who works with horses knows about mucking out stalls, sweeping, lifting, carrying feed bags and bedding, and all the usual advice about back-friendly lifting and carrying properly applies: Always work with your knees slightly bent and your lower back straight; lift and carry things close to your body.
Tips for riding instructors
Instructors, who teach several hours a day, should also develop back awareness. Wearing riding clothes and moving as little as possible does not take their back into consideration! Standing still requires an exhausting amount of muscle strength, and instructors need to decide for themselves how much they can and have to take.
Excerpt from "Rider & Horse Back to Back by Susanne von Dietze" Reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books Copyright © 2009 FNverlag der Deutschen Reiterlichen Vereinigung GmbH, Warendorf