In order to use your legs correctly they must be in the correct position and it, therefore, follows that your stirrups must be the correct length.
If you have a balanced seat with your legs in the correct alignment, you will be able to give your horse more effective and more refined aids. This will enable your horse to stay in front of your leg as well as improve his responsiveness to both your leg and seat aids.
So, in this article, we’re going to cover what is a correct dressage leg, what happens when your stirrups are too long or too short, how to establish the correct stirrup length, and how to lengthen your leg.
What is a correct dressage leg?
If you have your body in the correct position and alignment, then from the side, you should be able to draw a straight line through your ear, shoulder, hip, and heel.
This is your vertical line, with each body part stacked on top of each other, running perpendicular to the ground. (I like to describe this as “stacking your skeleton.”)
Related Read: How (And Why) To Maintain the Correct Rider Position
If you have your legs too far forward or too far back (which can be a result of stirrups that are too long or too short) then your body is no longer in alignment.
This ear-shoulder-hip-heel line must always be maintained even if you ride with short stirrups. A shorter stirrup length just results in your knee coming further forward, but your heel should still be under your hip.
You should also have a bend in your knee to allow your legs to absorb some of the horse’s movement, and your knee joint should be relaxed and supple, allowing your inner thighs to rest lightly on the saddle without gripping.
Your feet need to be below your center of gravity to support your seat and your upper body, and your stirrup irons should be on the balls of your feet.
Your heel should be lower than your toes, but don’t put the weight in the back of the heels because that can cause the heels to be forced too far down, resulting in your ankle joint becoming rigid and unable to absorb movement. Instead, think of contracting your shin muscles to slightly lift your toes.
And lastly, your knees and toes should point forwards.
Sitting or standing?
We often say that we are “sitting on a horse” or “sitting in the saddle,” but are we actually sitting?
Although this may sound strange, you want to be sitting as though you were standing.
“The man should sit astride the horse as though he is standing on the ground.”Xenophon (Greek Cavalry Commander and Classic Horseman)
Many riders sit on a horse as though they were sitting in a chair, that is, with their bums back and their legs forward.
The idea of “standing” in the saddle as opposed to sitting is due to the fact that we want our legs to be beneath us.
Why is it important to have our legs beneath us?
When each part of your skeleton is stacked on top of the other to create that ear-shoulder-hip-heel alignment, gravity works to help stabilize you in the saddle.
If you stand on the ground as though you were on a horse (remember we “stand” in the saddle and not sit), so with your feet apart, your knees slightly bent, and your hands out in front of you as though you were holding the reins. If you maintain the ear-shoulder-hip-heel alignment you will feel much more secure than if you broke that alignment by, for example, leaning forward or backward, or pushing your bum back into that chair position.
Also, whilst you are ‘standing’ on the horse on the floor, if you grow taller in your spine, you will feel more weight drop down through your body. Importantly, this weight isn’t forced down, it simply happens naturally due to the gravitation pull of the earth and because you have your legs beneath you.
Overall, when you have the correct stirrup length and your legs are in the correct position, you can make gravity your friend; it helps to make you more secure in the saddle. In contrast, when your stirrup length is not correct and your legs swing forward or backward, or you grip with your knees, you lose the ability to work with gravity and it, instead, will work against you.
Factors that can influence the length of your stirrups
There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to stirrup length, mainly because there are a lot of factors that can influence the length of your stirrups.
Here are a few of them.
- Your horse’s shape and conformation
- Your horse’s current level of training
- The shape and fit of your saddle
- Your body shape and anatomy
- Your balance and seat when in the saddle
Let’s look at each one individually.
1. Your horse’s shape and conformation
In order for your leg aids to be effective, your horse needs to be able to feel them. Therefore, your stirrups should be long enough so that your legs hang below the saddle flap, but not so long that they hang below your horse’s belly and you have to draw your knee up to give an aid.
Your stirrup length may also differ depending on the width of the horse. Wider horses can make you feel as though you want to ride a hole shorter, and narrower horses can make you feel as though you want to ride a hole longer.
2. Your horse’s current level of training
If you’re riding a youngster or a horse that’s recently been re-started, you should ride with a slightly shorter stirrup length. This is because a shorter stirrup allows you to lighten your seat, enabling the horse to use his back more easily.
For this reason, horses that have a tendency to be tight over the back often benefit from being ridden in a lighter seat, so you might want to consider keeping your stirrups a little shorter if your horse fits this description.
3. Your body shape and anatomy
Obviously, people with shorter legs will require shorter stirrups, and people will longer legs will require longer stirrups.
4. The shape and fit of your saddle
Your saddle should not only fit your horse correctly, but it should fit you too!
- The seat should be the correct size for your bottom.
- It should allow you to form the correct three-point seat with an upright pelvis (see below).
- It should allow your legs to drop into the correct alignment without any knee blocks getting in the way or encouraging your leg out of the correct position.
Often, riders have an incorrect or unstable leg position because the saddle is not a good fit for them and it’s preventing them from sitting in the correct alignment and balance.
Related Read: How to Fit a Dressage Saddle to Both Horse & Rider
5. Your balance and seat when in the saddle
The ability to sit in a good balance with a deep and independent seat is not a skill that can be developed overnight. Yet, it is this balance and seat which allows your legs to hang down naturally without gripping.
Therefore, newbie riders will often find they need to ride with shorter stirrups than more experienced riders who have already developed a deeper and more balanced seat.
In the beginning, the shorter stirrups will help the new rider to keep their balance and their body in alignment. As they improve, they will naturally start to adopt a deeper seat and a longer leg and stirrup length.
How do you know if your stirrups are too long, too short, or just right?
Before we look at how to go about finding your correct stirrup length, let’s first take a look at some of the indicators that will help you to identify if your stirrups are too long, too short, or just right.
What happens when your stirrups are too long?
If your leathers are too long your feet will rattle around in the stirrup irons. The irons may also slide off the balls of your feet, either towards your heel or you may lose them altogether.
As you try to reach for your irons to keep them on the balls of your feet, your legs may straighten and you won’t have an appropriate bend in your knees. This means that your legs cannot be flexible and you will find it more difficult to absorb your horse’s movement.
You may also develop a tendency to point your toes down, again in an effort to prevent losing your stirrup irons, which can cause you to lean forward.
Your legs may also swing back and forth. This constant movement creates a lot of ‘background noise’ for your horse making it difficult for him to decipher your leg aids.
All of this will result in an unbalanced position and unstable seat making it very difficult for you to influence and balance your horse. In extreme cases, you may also find yourself using the rein for balance, which is not good!
What happens when your stirrups are too short?
Riding with stirrup leathers that are too short can cause you to force too much weight into your ankle, pushing them too far down to the point where they can no longer be as supple and flexible.
Short stirrups will make you feel as though you are perched on top of the horse as opposed to being able to sit deep in the saddle, making it difficult (if not impossible) for you to give clear seat aids.
In rising trot, the angle of your hips should be open at the top of the rise. If your stirrups are too short, you may feel as though you don’t have enough time in the rise to get to this point.
During the sitting trot and canter, short stirrups will make it difficult for you to swing your hips and follow the horse’s movement, making you feel the need to lean forward out of alignment.
What happens when your stirrups are the correct length?
When your stirrups are the correct length your legs will hang vertically and naturally due to their own weight, creating a passive and breathable contact with your horse’s sides.
You will be able to maintain the perfect position with a balanced upright seat and you will not feel as though you need to grip with your legs to keep yourself in the saddle, nor will you feel as though you need to lean forward/backward or rely on the reins for balance.
This results in you being able to give clearer, more effective, and lighter aids. Your horse is more likely to be responsive to your leg and you will have a greater influence over your horse to help balance and improve his overall way of going.
How to establish the correct stirrup length
Here are four simple steps that you can follow to help you find your correct stirrup length.
In order for your legs to hang correctly, you must first be sitting the center of the saddle with a three-point seat and upright hips.
A three-point seat is created by both your seat bones and your pubic bone. (Hence, the “three” points.)
You should have most of your weight distributed evenly over your two seat bones whilst, at the same time, maintaining light contact with your pubic bone and the saddle.
The underside of your seat should be in contact with the horse and your pelvis should be upright.
This is the ideal position of the seat because it puts you over the horse’s center of gravity in the most balanced and secure position possible.
Once you’ve established the correct three-point seat, ensure that you are sitting centrally in the deepest part of the saddle and then take your feet out of your stirrups and let your legs hang down naturally long and relaxed.
Do not try to hold your legs purposely on or off the horse. Instead, just allow them to drop straight down whilst maintaining your ear-shoulder-hip-heel alignment.
Whilst your feet are out of the stirrups, adjust the length of your leathers so that your stirrup irons are in line with your ankles.
This should give you the correct stirrup length…in theory.
Next, put your feet back into your stirrup irons and see how you feel.
As mentioned above, this technique is theoretical. It may not work for everyone and it certainly shouldn’t be used as a one-size-fits-all approach, but it is a good place to start.
From this point, you don’t want to be making your stirrups any longer because you need to have a slight bend in your knees so that you can absorb the horse’s movement. So, if you can comfortably reach your stirrup irons and you feel secure and balanced in the saddle, and you are able to maintain a good leg position, then this is the correct stirrup length for you.
If, however, you feel that your legs are not secure and that your feet are rattling around in your irons, then start to make your leathers shorter, a few holes at a time, until you can tick all of the above requirements.
Things to bear in the mind…
When you are establishing the correct stirrup length, you obviously want to have to same stirrup length on both sides so that you are able to sit centrally.
A mistake that many riders make is they assume that the holes in each of their stirrup leathers are in the exact same place and that both pieces of leather are indeed the exact same length. Unless you have just purchased your leathers, then this may not be the case.
It’s very common for one leather to have stretched further than the other. This can be caused by the rider putting more weight into one stirrup iron than the other, or, more commonly, it’s caused by frequently mounting the horse from the ground causing the left leather to stretch over time. For this reason, it’s good practice to frequently switch your leathers over.
So, don’t take it for granted that both of your leathers are the same length and that the holes are in the same place, always check.
Another consideration when it comes to equal stirrup length is the flocking and fit of your saddle.
It’s important that your saddle is level, not only for your horse’s comfort but also to help you sit centrally and to drop equal weight into both stirrups.
Over time, the flocking on one side of your saddle may compress more than the other. Again, this could be due to a crooked rider and/or constantly mounting the horse from the ground.
If your saddle hasn’t been checked in a while, then we recommend hiring the services of a professional and experienced saddle fitter to ensure that your saddle is evenly balanced.
How to correctly lengthen your stirrups and leg
At the start of their dressage career, many riders immediately drop their stirrups by a couple of holes thinking that they need to do so in order to ‘look the part’ and in order to get that ‘long dressage leg.’
However, dropping your stirrups too soon can cause a lot of problems. (See “What happens when your stirrups are too long” above.)
In order to lengthen your leg comfortably and effectively you’ll need to work on developing your own core strength, suppleness, balance, and a truly independent seat.
Related Reads: How to Improve Your Core for Dressage
A good way to do this is to do some riding without stirrups, preferably on the lunge.
Riding on the lunge without stirrups means that you are free to focus only on your own position and balance, allowing your legs to drop naturally in a relaxed manner, without having to worry about where the horse is going.
Work on the lunge also allows you to let go of the reins, preventing you from using them to help balance yourself (you can grab hold of the pommel of the saddle instead if you need to).
Alternatively, you can do some normal ridden work without stirrups, but this is only effective once you can comfortably follow the horse’s movement; uncontrollable bouncing around in the saddle will not be good for you or your horse. If this is your only option, then stay in walk and take your stirrups back for trot and canter work if you think you’ll bounce around.
Stirrup length in a dressage test
Entering a dressage test doesn’t automatically mean that you have to ride with long stirrups; the judge is not measuring the length of your leg.
No dressage judge will mark you down just because you ride a little shorter than the perfect ‘dressage leg’ stereotype!
Dressage riders usually have longer stirrups to allow them to sit deeper in the saddle, to use their seat more effectively, and to give clearer aids. Whereas showjumpers and eventers (during the cross-country and jumping phases) ride with shorter stirrups to allow them to get up and out of the saddle so their horses can jump freely without them sitting heavily on their backs.
That being said, to some extent, the length of your stirrups will affect your dressage scores because if you look in the collectives, you will notice marks for “rider’s position” and “rider’s results.”
“Rider’s position” refers to the correct alignment (ear-shoulder-hip-heel) and balance, which, as we’ve seen, will only be possible with the correct length of stirrup.
“Rider’s results” refers to the correct and effective use of the aids. Again, as we’ve seen, your aids can only be effective and clear if your stirrups are of the correct length.
So, although you will not lose marks directly for your stirrup length, you can lose marks indirectly if your stirrup length prevents you from a) sitting in the correct balance and alignment, and b) inhibits the effective use of your aids.
When deciding if your stirrups are the right length, the most important considerations are your horse’s comfort and your own balance and effectiveness as a rider.
The correct length of stirrup allows you to remain vertically aligned, with your legs hanging quietly and naturally of their own weight, helping you to keep a consistent position and remain in balance with your horse.
An incorrect stirrup length can cause your legs to constantly move around and/or grip, create a lot of background noise, and inhibit and unbalance both you and your horse.
Finally, never be tempted to try to ride with longer stirrups just so that you ‘look’ more like a dressage rider! It is possible to gradually lengthen your leg, but this takes much time and practice.