Valerie Vizcarrondo Pride is an American eventer, producer, trainer and eventing judge. Her top ride is the Oldenburg gelding Favian, and she events under the Blue Clover Eventing banner. Here, Valerie shares her top tips for achieving a more effective lower leg.
The recent Badminton Horse Trials saw record dressage scores, illustrating again the importance and influence of this phase.
As eventers, we have to be very versatile with our leg position and stirrup length, as we have to change the lengths around so frequently, depending on what phase we are riding (or practising). We have to adapt from a long dressage length to a short, two-point seat length immediately between phases, and yet we need to be effective and secure within our position in each phase.
Honing our lower leg position on the flat
Some may say that an eventer’s dressage position can’t be as well established as a pure dressage rider, but this is why we need to allow sufficient time to practice, and hone our lower leg position on the flat. Of course, we should be mindful of our lower leg positions when training at all times, but there are some exercises we can do specifically, to really hone those skills. Working without stirrups is the obvious go-to lower leg improver, and does so much for our whole body position, and core strength too – (the bedrock of an effective and still lower leg; just look at Charlotte Dujardin’s position and strong core!) You could ask a friend or your trainer to regularly lunge you on a horse (any horse!), so you can really focus on your position and lower leg.
Improving the seat Working without stirrups will encourage us to lengthen our leg, and be able to ride with a longer leg on the flat. Some people make the mistake of throwing themselves in the deep end and lengthening their stirrups too much for flatwork, so they have that admirable long, lower leg; but this is counter-productive, e.g. if we aren’t actually balanced or secure enough to ride with this longer length. This person with too-long irons may end up gripping with their knees, tipping forward and pointing their toes down in order to reach the stirrups, which totally destabilises their seat.
We need to develop our long lower leg first, and THEN we’re ready to go down a hole, rather than forcing it to happen. Another quick exercise we can do every day during the warm up is to pull our knees up to the front of the saddle, lift them out off the saddle, then drop them down again. This exercise will help ‘open the hips’ and place our legs where they should naturally sit, under our centre of gravity.
(Opening the hips is key to achieving the desirable lower leg we’ve discussed. The lower back connects to our legs at the hip; so tight hip flexor muscles make it harder for the pelvis to rotate properly, which can cause the lower back to overcompensate and take too much strain, and makes the sitting trot look stiff. Another reason why the core needs to be strong, to support the lower back!)
Jumping and galloping Being balanced with shorter stirrups for jumping and galloping is due to being secure and balanced in the saddle – it’s all about an independent seat, which as we have discussed, is improved by opening and mobilising the hips and pelvis. A huge factor in being able to have a shorter stirrup length is making sure your horse in ‘on the aids’, and in front of your leg, as nothing makes your more unstable in the saddle than having to kick to move along, and keep the pace! On the XC field, our stirrups need to be short enough to absorb our horse’s galloping movement through our knees and ankles; but not so short that our centre of gravity ends up too high. A good exercise for improving our balance in our two-point seat is to trot and canter around in the arena, while standing up in our stirrups the whole time.
What stirrups work well for eventers? To achieve the right leg position (and be strong and affective in this position), it’s key to use stirrups that are correctly weighted (something that only happens with well-engineered stirrups, the kind with a slightly higher price point, I find!). Remember, the iron needs to hang down and be ‘found’ again in the event of losing a stirrup over a fence.
I really advocate the RR T3 stirrup from Royal Rider – it is shaped to optimise the correct position of the foot, and offer greater balance of the rider’s body; however it’s offset, to allow the foot to free itself quickly. My students all use these stirrups too, as safety really is paramount. I easily ride ten horses a day, so need a stirrup iron that I don’t have to think about! Your stirrups should be around one inch wider than the width of your boot at the ball of the foot, e.g. half an inch (12mm) of space, on each side of the boot. Most people raise the stirrups two to three holes between flatwork and jumping length. Ideally, the bottom of the stirrup iron should be between the ankle and the heel, in flatwork.