Military historians regard the invention of the stirrup as a major development in the art of warfare. If you were involved in mounted warfare and were trying to whack some guy on the head, it really helped to have the stability and security that stirrups provide. Fortunately society has stopped using horses for warfare; equally fortunately, the stirrup has stayed with us. It is fortunate because, for a rider, the stirrups are the ground.
Because I want you to be well “grounded” in your technique, I always make this point about the role of your stirrups. But stirrups or no stirrups, if you don’t have a good lower-leg position, you literally don’t have a leg to stand on. I have been teaching people to ride over fences for quite a while now, and I am firmly convinced that you cannot overstate the importance of lower-leg position.
Anything of importance is built from the foundation up–including the lower-leg position. We are talking about the jumping lower-leg position, so we have to adjust our stirrup leathers correctly for jumping. I want my riders to have about a 90-degree angle behind their knees when seated. The best way to achieve this from the saddle is to take both feet out of the stirrups and then adjust your stirrup leathers so that the “tread” of the stirrup (the part that you tread upon) touches you at, or just above, your anklebone.
Build a Solid Foundation
Because your stirrups are your ground, let’s start there: Once you have adjusted your stirrup leathers for jumping, put your foot in the stirrup. Don’t jam it into the stirrup; place it there very carefully and purposefully. Put the ball of your foot on the tread of the stirrup. While your horse is at the halt, stand up and sink your weight into your ankles. If you have adjusted your stirrups correctly, you should be able to rise in your stirrups without effort. Practice this a few times, as this transition from a light three-point to a two-point is the basic movement you should make when jumping . but I am getting ahead of myself. We are still building our foundation.
You are now seated in the saddle at the halt with the ball of your foot on the tread of the stirrup. Allow the tread to assume a slight diagonal angle to your foot, with your little toe against the outside “branch” of the stirrup. The branch of the stirrup is the long metal arm that connects the tread to the stirrup eye. If it is made of nickel or stainless steel, it is, of course, always clean and highly polished. As far as I am concerned, metal polish and saddle soap never go out of style. Remember that there is no such thing as an unimportant detail for a serious rider. (See how hard it is for me to help you build a solid foundation? I keep getting distracted, because I find absolutely anything about horses fascinating.)
While I am distracted, I might make the point that some jumping experts place their big toe against the stirrup’s inside branch, rather than their little toe against the outside branch. In theory, little toe against the outside branch is French, while big toe against the inside branch is Italian, but that comes under the heading of “too much information.”
My own preference is for the little toe to rest against the outside branch, but that is a preference rather than a requirement. My observation is that a rider’s foot will naturally adapt to the side of the stirrup that is most comfortable for that rider’s conformation. The only really important consideration is that you must be both symmetrical and consistent. I have been told by proponents of both techniques that I must do only one or the other, but I have found that both techniques work. I think the important part is that you find out which technique suits you best, and then use that technique.
Vertical vs. Perpendicular
Once you have taken care of all these details, rise and put the weight in your ankles again. This time, pay attention to the angle that your foot forms with your horse’s body. This angle should be the same angle as that with which you walk. I have heard trainers say that a rider’s foot must be parallel to her horse’s body or it must be at a 30-degree angle. I disagree. There are some absolutes in riding, and we are going to discuss one in a moment, but this is not one of them. The angle of your foot to your horse must be natural, so that you are relaxed and comfortable using your ankles as shock-absorbing mechanisms.
Now then, before we talk about absolutes, there is one more thing to take care of, and you are going to need a large mirror or a friend to help you. While you and your horse are standing on level ground, make sure that your stirrup leather forms a vertical line to the ground. If this is not true, chances are your saddle is not suitable for jumping. (Read my article “Make Sure Your Jumping Saddle Fits You, Too.”) If the stirrup bar is too far forward, it will cause your lower leg to be too far in front of you, and if the stirrup bar is too far back, it will cause your lower leg to slip back.
The only way we can find security while jumping is with a vertical stirrup leather. Notice that I say “vertical” and not “perpendicular.” The reason for this is that while perpendicular is relative, vertical is an absolute.
I know you’ve done this exercise several times already, but let’s do it again: At the halt in an arena on level ground, stand in your stirrups. This time, experiment with the angle of your stirrup leather. For example, put your leather behind your girth, and feel what happens: Your upper body topples forward onto your horse’s neck, doesn’t it? Now, bring your leather back to a vertical position and stand up once more. This time, put your stirrup leather out in front of you. You will find that putting your stirrup leather in front of you will cause you to fall backward into the saddle.
My point is that your body will tend to move in the opposite direction from your stirrup leather. If your leather slips back, you will tend to topple forward, and if your leather is out in front of you, your body will tend to topple backward.
The thing that separates cross-country riders from pure show-jumpers is this concept of perpendicular versus vertical stirrup leather. My illustration is pretty simple. Look at your favorite cross-country photo in a book or magazine showing a horse and rider jumping a fence on level ground, and with the rider’s stirrup leather perpendicular to the ground. If the photo was taken on level ground, then by definition her stirrup leather will be vertical as well. Now then, simply take the photo and rotate it 45 degrees forward, so that the photo appears to have been taken on a down slope. Do the same thing the other way, so the horse and rider appear to be jumping up from one level to another. Notice that the correct position changes as the terrain changes.
Obviously when you rotate the photo back and forth, the rider now apparently jumping downhill with her stirrup leather behind her will be in a precarious position when she lands, and the rider who appears to be jumping uphill with her stirrup leather in front of her is going to get left behind when she lands on the next level. My point here is that you cannot be in balance unless you have a vertical stirrup leather under you, whether you are jumping uphill, downhill or on level ground.
Jumping in Balance
To look at the photos in another way, consider this: Whether you are jumping up a bank, landing on the level or jumping a drop, if you are in balance with your horse, you are landing in the same place–above your feet–with a vertical stirrup leather. There are obvious differences, of course. The length of your reins should remain unchanged when you are jumping on the level or uphill. You should depart from uphill jumps or jumps on level ground with your reins the same length that you had in the approach. When jumping up a bank, your horse’s head and neck motion is barely perceptible and does not require you to lengthen your reins. When jumping on the level, you should be able to follow the action of your horse’s head and neck by opening and closing your elbows.
However, your reins should be longer (“slipping your reins”) when you land over a drop than they were when you approached the drop. This is because over a drop your horse will lower his head and neck to a much greater degree when he lands than he does over a jump on level ground. How much should you slip your reins when you jump a drop or downward-sloping obstacle? Trick question! You should give as much rein as your horse takes through your fingers. When we say we are “slipping the reins,” we actually mean that we are relaxing our hands and allowing the horse to pull the reins through our fingers.
I want to make a final point about jumping drops; I have heard riders say they have been told when jumping drops, “hold your shoulders back,” “get your head back” or “lean back.” I do not use those descriptions, because they focus on the rider’s upper body. When you focus on your upper body, it makes you tense, with unsatisfactory results when you land. (In addition, focusing on your upper body will usually make your hands tight, and you will have trouble slipping your reins.) Your security is in your lower-leg position, so the emphasis should be there as well.
I tell riders to move their feet back a few inches when jumping up, which allows their lower legs to move behind the girth. The reverse is true when jumping drops: Don’t think about moving your shoulders back, think about placing your lower leg in front of you.
If you watch videos and look at photos, you will see that the riders who are negotiating jumps in balance have their lower legs in this relationship. If you look even more closely, you will see a vertical stirrup leather. People make jumping on horseback seem more complicated than it really is. When you land over a jump, land with your feet on the “ground.” Remember, for the rider, her stirrups are the ground. Happy landings.
In need of examples for why vertical is absolute? Check out these links to video and photos of world-record-breaking horses and riders accomplishing tremendous feats. Note their lower-leg positions!
The high-jump world record is held by Chilean Captain Alberto Larraguibel and Hueso, a 16.1-hand Thoroughbred stallion. It was set on February 5, 1949, when Hueso was 16 years old. The jump stood at 2.47 meters (8-foot, 1.5 inches).
Col. Lopez del Hierro of Spain long-jumped 8.3 meters (over 27 feet, 2 inches!) riding Amado Mio at CSIO Barcelona on July 1, 1951. See a photo of del Hierro and Amado Mio. They held the long-jump record until Andr? Ferreira riding Something broke it on April 26, 1975, in Johannesburg, South Africa, with a jump of 8.4 meters.
This article first appeared in the May 2009 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.