So, it was definitely my hands that needed immediate attention and improvement.
Am I the only one whose legs continually contracted up towards my body like testicles in cold water?
Most of my other bad habits could be somewhat camouflaged for now, since I was officially a "training level rider". But it is pretty hard to camoflague the fact that your feet are hovering in the pockets of air somewhere inside your stirrups, without actually pressing down on them. Anywhere. Or to hide the fact that your knees are protruding past the front of your saddle. Even the blind can tell something is amiss when the rhythmic sound of boots bobbing off of floating stirrups now and then follows you wherever you go. (Be sure to wear spurs to add a flashy metallic *ting* to your musical ride).
Curmudgeon! Seriously? Didn't you practice riding without stirrups to learn to LENGTHEN YOUR LEG?
Ahhh yes. Riding without stirrups. The cure all, magical panacea to oh, so many equestrian woes. Hands up if you have ever heard a hunter rider who is pooh-poohing the difficulties of dressage utter a phrase something along the lines of this...
"Oh it must be so easy to sit the trot in a dressage saddle. You have such LONG stirrups! Really it must be like riding in no stirrups at all! And that is EASY!"
Yes, it is, my hunter/jumper friends. If you are anything like I was, trotting with no stirrups IS easy, no doubt. As is cantering, and jumping stuff as well. In fact - if you are a somewhat competent rider, all of these things can easily be done bareback too. Apparently if you REALLY master these skills and team them up with a death grip crest release and a $100,000 ex-jumper, you are well on your way to a big Maclay Eq win.
If you were or are a good little hunter princess, at some point in time you probably put a lot of effort into mastering the hunter "ride with no stirrups" leg. This lovely look is created by first firmly bending the leg into the appropriate right angles - shoulder/hip/heel alignment! - next, the toe is jammed aggressively skyward, heel aggressively down - lastly, this whole assortment of angles is superglued to the horse's side, never to move or jiggle regardless of what the horse may do with his shoulders, hips or heels, or what alignment he may try to put them in.
Yes, any hunter trainer worth anything uses a few minutes of "no stirrups" like some sort of sadistic tool on their students. Come on now kids, cross 'em over the pommel - you know the drill. I even had an instructor at one point in time who bragged about riding whole courses with no stirrups AND no girth, while her mighty coconut cracking thighs clamped her saddle perfectly in place.
(I have no idea what became of her, but I wouldn't be surprised to hear that she has continued on with her tradition of bragging about useless skills - perhaps she has switched to dressage and now pontificates about how she can execute poorly ridden GP test in a bitless bridle. In retrospect, I do wonder why - if this story was true - she didn't put these mighty gams to use performing erotic feats of strength at the Sword and Shield or Pure Gold. She could have earned enough money to buy a decent horse then and wouldn't have had to put up with teaching us stupid bouncing kids).
And so, around we all went, doing a pinchy kneed "rising trot", which consisted of gluing the lower leg to the horse and pivoting around awkwardly from the thighs up, gradually sanding all of the skin off of the insides of our knees. Or, "sitting trot" - which entailed slowing your horse down to a virtual crawl (also known as "collected trot" in hunter circles) and firmly vise-gripping the entire lower body around the horse's barrel, eliminating any wiggle anywhere. The good news for hunters is (as you soon find out in dressage), clamping on to your horse's body with your legs blocks any looseness or swing, and does generally cause your horse to grind down to a barely moving shuffling trot, which makes keeping everything firmly adhered in place quite simple. Ahh it feels so right, doesn't it?
Anyway, where am I going with this - oh yes. Perhaps if you are one of those prepubescent Spanish riding school boys I mentioned way back when, with unspoiled by hunter/jumper coach, non-coconut cracking thighs - riding around with no stirrups actually helps you to accomplish something - your leg hangs effortlessly, elegantly draping down your horse's sides like seaweed or wet toilet paper or my greasy hair after a week of backwoods camping (or whatever it is that Sally Swift tells us we are supposed to visualize).
However - If you are a hard core recovering hunter rider - you only think you are putting in some virtuous saddle time that is taking you closer to long legged, loose hipped Nirvana. You are probably wrong, Pinchy-Pinches-A-Lot. Unless you have some good eyes on the ground helping you out to beat your old habits into submission (i.e saying "stop pinching with your knees - stop pinching with your thighs - stop pinching with your calves" regularly), you are wasting your precious time. The day will come for no-stirrup work. That day is probably not today.
Yes, readers, it sucks. But you some day have to learn to ride with your feet actually in contact with the stirrups. So you might as well uncross them now. (When the day comes that you no longer hear *ting*ting*ting*ting*... maybe give it another go).