I rode bareback from 4 years old to 11 years old before my dad bought me my own saddle. That saddle had a barrel racing horn, so dad took a hacksaw and cut the horn off and then put a two inch trailer ball through the swells and that was my horn. If you got a wrap over the ball it wasn’t popping off. From 8 years old until 11, when I got my saddle, I roped with no stirrups. My dad pretty much had to make me use stirrups because I thought they felt terrible and I had learned to use my legs and groin to hold my balance. I could lean out and heel one without leaving contact with the horse.
It seems like people who ride longer stirrups tend to ride their horses a little better to me than someone with a lot of bend in their legs and short stirrups. I don’t think it would be a bad idea if you use shorter or longer stirrups to experiment with your stirrup length and see if you might like a different length. Maybe it would help your feel for your horse or give you better balance in your delivery.
Most good ropers use their right stirrup a little shorter than the left and I like that. I can use the right stirrup to help me stay to the inside in the corner heeling and I like to push away from the right stirrup to widen my horse when heading. I heeled some steers bareback last year for a video on my website and I love the way you can feel a horse underneath you bareback. You can square a horse up and really get a good stop heeling a steer bareback, it’s just hard to dally!
I think that some people don’t like to stand up in their stirrups to rope because they get off balance then think they need to sit down. They end up sitting down in the back of the seat so they can’t control their delivery from there. You can still stay down in your seat and stay to the front of the saddle making contact with the seat and the swells. Heelers especially need to stay forward and keep in contact with the seat and swells in the swing and delivery.
People like Clay Cooper and I learned to ride and rope without stirrups, and it taught us an important part of heeling: how to stay down in contact with the horse to the front and also finish our delivery. Stirrups are added as a secondary balance help. What I’m trying to tell you is some of you might be using your stirrups too much for your balance rather than using the feel of your legs around the horse to balance and cue your horse.
I like stirrups that are wide so I don’t slide my foot through too far and lean too much, but I see a lot of my students that have a big foot and a little barrel racing stirrup or a oxbow stirrup. They can’t balance because if they bend forward their toes drop down too much and they can’t raise up. Go to the edge of a cliff and put your toes off the edge and then lean forward, you will fall off the cliff and the same thing happens in a thin stirrup if your toes are too far through and when you lean forward you can’t raise up.
Some people like to sit up straight and rope; some like to bend over when they rope; some like short stirrups and some like long. But, whatever you decide, I suggest you experiment and see if some little change in your stirrup length, either shorter or longer, can really make a huge difference in your balance. Also, experiment with adjusting the right stirrup.
A common problem I see with too short of a stirrup, is when a person delivers they either set back or they turn their horse off to the left when they deliver if they are heading or heeling. When you lean out too much, your left hand will always move out to the left to counter-balance you. It’s easy to see as soon as a rider leans right, his left hand swings left.
I hope this encourages you to think about your saddle posture and to try a few new things. If you don’t like the results you’re getting, try something else!