I have been researching this for a while now. I hope you find it helpful!
Why Heels Down?
- Lengthens leg and calf, which increases contact with the horse’s side, allows better aid communication.
- Lowers your weight which acts as an anchor for your body, to keep you in the saddle during expected and unexpected movement
- Keeps the foot from slipping through the stirrup
- Demonstrates flexibility and therefore the ability to act as a shock absorber
- All of this equals correct riding balance and helps keep the rider safe
It’s Not Just About Heels Down
- It’s about correct overall posture and seat, which includes and results in heels down. Therefore, many teachers focus on correct seat and the heels will take care of themselves.
- “My thinking at the moment is to correct major faults that impede the horse eg. using reins for balance or being ‘behind the motion’, and concentrate on control of the horse at all levels varying from being able to take a horse away from the rail in walk, to canter circles. Once control over the horse is established, and along the way control over the rider’s body, legs and arms must develop then worry about heels.” (9)
- “Balance and the ability to flow with your horse is much more important than having your heels down. An artificially deep heel, especially in a beginner rider, will cause tension in the ankle, knee, hips, and up to the lower back. Riders will often get pain in one of these areas from straining too much to keep the heels way down. It almost always causes you to brace through your lower back as well.” (10)
- It’s about having a relaxed and flexible lower body (hip, leg and heel)
- It’s about keeping your leg relaxed and long, releasing all the joints.
- It’s about keeping your heels flexible which allows them to help keep you stable in the saddle. Think of it as having ‘oily joints’, that your heels are a well-oiled spring, “moving with your horse rather than being static and tensing against the movement. A fixed, too-low heel is just as detrimental to your biomechanics as riding with your toes down and perching on the stirrups.” (1)
- “The more important thing, however, is how FLEXIBLE the calf and ankle are and how they absorb the movement of the horse. The ankle plays an important role in absorbing the movement of the horse under your body. It’s a shock absorber. If you have too much pressure on your toe, your calf muscle and knee are stiff and rigid. On the other hand, if you force your heel too far down, the back of the calf and knee also becomes stiff. The front and back of your calf as well as your knee should feel soft and springy. If you feel like your heel is up, chances are you’re gripping with your knee as well.” (5)
- “to have the ankle flex softly downward [is] to anchor the rider’s leg and body. If the heel is jammed down when riding, the opposite of what we are trying to make happen occur! The rider then loses one of its major shock absorbers and instead of providing an anchor for the rider, the ankle becomes a spring board to launch the student out of the saddle with every stride” (8)
- “I have found it more effective, particularly for those wishing to ride more than one discipline, to use the concept of relaxed ankles in conjunction with weighted legs (as opposed to weight in the seat). The problem here is that we tend to think of being on a horse as “sitting” on a horse, when in reality, we actually straddle the horse. If you were straddling something, let’s say a small ditch, you would instinctively use your legs to hold your pelvis and upper body directly above your feet, even if you were to bend your knees. However, when you sit in a chair, your legs no longer feel they need to support the body, your feet go out in front of you, and you sit back on your buttocks.…. you do NOT “sit” on a horse, you STRADDLE a horse.” (6)
- It’s about ankle stability and flexibility together. It’s not loose ankles, but stable ankles that allow the up/down movement needed to absorb motion. Note this is a fairly high level fine motor skill that requires precise body awareness and control, and isolation of body part. (8)
- Relax or “release” the muscles that are contracted – go through all the joints and muscles from hip to heel in order to discover what muscles above your heels are tense and consciously pinpoint and release them, letting the heels just drop. (1)
- “in the course of daily life there are very few opportunities which cause a normal person to use their feet in a heels down position. Consequently, muscles, tendons, and ligaments must be conditioned to this unusual position. … Since the sustained heels down position is an unusual position for anyone to adopt when they aren’t riding, it stands to reason that [it will take] a little bit of work to stretch those rather unstretchable tendons” (4)
- Rider will shove their heels down, tightening the wrong muscles.
- Rider will push their leg forward and ruin their position, resulting in a hollow back and butt out.
- Rider will tense throughout their body and pinch with their knees, resulting in heels creeping up, especially on the tenser side.
- Rider thinks that to have relaxed heels their ankle must be loose, causing it to roll out and be unstable.
- Riders bring their heels up and back to ask the horse to move forward/faster.
- Shorter stirrups – easier to get heels down rather than constantly reaching for stirrups
- Check saddle fit
- Ask the rider to “focus more on where her leg is and keeping her position stable. If she forces her heels down, she braces her whole leg and she can’t use her leg effectively that way.” Focus on soft and supple. (2)
- If they pinch with their knees, work on relaxing every muscle from the hip to the ankle, using stretching and relaxation exercises to train their body to feel the relaxation and maintain it. Lunging can help with this.
- Explain how to correctly aid the horse to move forward/faster without bringing the heels up and back, instead using pressure from the inside of their calves to make the aid more subtle.
- When they look down, they should only see the tip of their boot.
- Use all the senses
- explain heels down (what, why, how) with words
- show a picture of correct heels down riding posture
- have them watch another rider with correct heels down posture
- pick your foot off the ground and show them what heels down looks like
- film or take a picture to show them what they look like (sometime they have no clue what they look like and may think their heel is further down than it really is)
- put their body in the right position
Experiment. Saying it a certain way may make it click for a certain rider
- “Keep your heels slightly lower than your toes” (10)
- “drop your heel” (7)
- “Relax your ankles” (6)
- “Toes Up” may work better than “Heels down” (1)
- “Weight in your heels” (1)
- “Stretch into your heels” (1)
- “Relax your leg and stretch into your heels” (1)
- “Relax your leg and let it drape around your horse” (1)
- “long leg” instead of heels down (9)
- “Let your weight flow down through your heels” (1)
- “Let your weight drop into your heels rather than onto the ball of your foot and into the stirrup.” (3)
- “Step to the back of your foot” (1)
- “Step into your heels” (8)
- “Sink your heels toward your horse’s hind feet” (1)
- “Sink your weight into your heel and keep your leg on – don’t force your heel down if your conformation won’t allow it” (1)
- “Have ‘oily joints’ – think about your heel being a well-oiled spring, moving with your horse rather than being stiff against the movement.” (1)
- “Release your tense muscles in your ____________” (pinpoint which muscles are tense for them) (1)
- “Heels down, chin up, shoulders back, look ahead, drop your weight, stretch your legs down, ride off your thigh not your foot.” (1)
- “Shoulder back, heels down, elbows soft, straighten your wrists.” (1)
- “Knees back…push/stretch through your knee.” (1) – physically push their knee down and the leg will move back
- “Point your knees down” (5)
- “Always think of your legs as being the heaviest part of your body, pulling you downward into the saddle.” (6)
- “Concentrate on letting go and allowing your weight to flow through your muscles, so the joints widen and muscles relax and lengthen, and you grow taller– all the way from your waist down through your hips, knees, and ankles, with the help of gravity, down into your heels.” (1)
- “let the ankle go and let that joint space grow, both front and back…think about lengthening/letting go even more the back of your ankle so the heel falls back and down.” (1)
- “imagine having to touch the horses hocks with their heels and keep the toe up. they must use the whole leg to do this from the hip” (9)
- Encourage riders to come up with their own examples of thinking about how to lower their weight into their heels – “Let them use their quality imaginations, instead of just giving them directions” (4)
Heels Down Stretches
Off the horse stretches – do before riding or as homework. When bodies are unaccustomed to heels down, it helps to daily stretch those muscles and get used to the feeling.
- Down Dog (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adho_Mukha_Svanasana)(1)
- Stair Stretches – (stretch tendons, develop feeling of heels down) put the ball of your foot on the edge of a step/stair and let the heel drop (do this every time you go up stairs!) (1) “Don’t bounce because bouncing can cause muscle tears.” (4)
- Stair Heel Raises – like stair stretches but instead of dropping the heel, rise slowly up on tip toes, do 40 2x a day
- Regular Heel Raises – (strengthens arches, halves and thighs) Hold a door frame or against a wall, stand on one foot, raise up on toes until standing on base of foot, lower back down. “An average person should be able to do this 25 consecutive times without losing strength.” (4)
- Calf Wall Stretches both legs – “Stand about 3 feet from a wall with feet flat on the floor. Lean forward a place hands on the wall. Hold for 15 seconds. Do not over do this. Adjust the distance your feet are from the wall according to your own body.” (4)
- Calf Wall Stretches one leg – Stand facing a wall, an arm’s length away. Lean into it, bracing yourself with your arms. Place one leg forward with knee bent, but put no weight on it. Keep the other leg back with knee straight and heel on the ground. Keep your back straight and move your hips forward until you feel a stretch. Hold for 20 seconds. Relax. Repeat with the other leg.
- Touch Toes – (back and hamstrings) “stand up straight, roll forward and down slowly trying to touch the floor with your fingertips. Hold to a count of 12. Roll up slowly.” (4)
- Toe Raises – (loosen ankles and calves) “Sitting in a chair with calves vertical lift toe off floor by flexing ankle. Hold for a count on 12. Then release and lift the other toe.” (4)
- Ankle Circles – “Rotate your foot to the left 12 times. Rotate your foot to the right 12 times.” (4)
- Arch Stretch – (stretches bottom of foot) find something round or half round, stand with it directly under your arches without shoes for 15 sec
- Balancing on Heels – Have the rider hand with feet shoulder width apart or wider and sink until their knees are at a 30 degree angle, then have them try to shift their weight onto the balls of their feet. What happens? They fall forward, then overcompensate You will probably tip forward. If you were on the horse, you might try to correct this by throwing your torso back and then using the reins for balance. Then your horse will say ‘ouch’ as you inadvertently tug on the reins. Or your back may become stiff and hollowed out. Now try shifting your weight back onto your heels. You’ll probably feel much more stable and relaxed in this position. Even standing, you will be in the ear, shoulder, hip, heel alignment.
On the horse stretches
- Ankle Circles – “Rotate your foot to the left 12 times. Rotate your foot to the right 12 times.” (4)
- Heel Raises – stand in stirrups, lower heels like in Stair Heel Raises above
- 2 point – sink weight into heels, hold mane or grab strap but don’t lean on them or weight will be taken off the heels; at the walk, trot, canter, over poles; the longer the better, from a whole lap to a whole lesson in two point
- 2 point without hands – on the lunge line or with a leader
- Stand Up – (stretch calves, find balance) stand in stirrup straight up, holding mane or grab strap, letting weight sink into heels, knees bent slightly to absorb shock, seat above heels not leaning over pommel, at the walk and trot
- Leg Relaxation – Have the rider sit on the horse and ask them to let their leg relax as you hold it and move it all around – forward, backward, off the horse, on the horse – turning the ball of the femur in their hip socket while they focus on relaxing the hip so their leg can go anywhere without it affecting the position of their seat.
- Toes stretches – spread your toes, this relaxes the foot and helps keep heels down
- Leg Stretches – no stirrups, have the rider stretch their legs down with their legs/knees/heels all facing forward, parallel to the horse. Coach them to “let go of the knee and lengthen that joint, letting your weight travel down the front of your thigh, straight down, then through the knee, down and back through the lower leg and ankle, making sure no part of your leg (or seat) clamps on or pinches the horse” (1)
- Leg Elongation – (fix knees and heels creeping up and forward) take feet out of stirrups, “one leg at a time, move your entire leg out away from the horse, so that no part of your leg is touching the horse. Bring your knees down and underneath you, as they would be if you were standing, then let your legs gently fall back against the horse’s ribs. [as you] mentally place your body’s weight down into your legs.” (6)
- Ride No Stirrups – drop your leg as far down as you can and try to get your knee under your hips, carefully stretches groin ligaments, maintaining a comfortable and relaxed position; progress from walk to trot. Put feet back in stirrups without moving leg forward to back, to maintain the hip/heelline.
Heels Down Exercises & Games
- Put some sand or bean bags on top of the rider’s toe, and they must ride with it staying in place.
- Ride without stirrups. “Stirrups are just for decoration”
- Simon says – touch your right toe with the left hand (done correctly the heel goes down and the toe comes up to meet the hand)
- (all the above from (1))
- “LOTS of flat work without stirrups and LOTS of standing in the two point for SEVERAL LAPS around the arena” (2)
- Mental Image Game – have riders come up with their own mental images for heels down, such as hanging sandbags or anvils off them, fill their heels with sand or water, etc. get crazy!
For more reading, I highly recommend this great article “Get Those Heels Down!”
- (1) http://www.chronofhorse.com/forum/archive/index.php/t-173616.html
- (2) http://www.chronofhorse.com/forum/showthread.php?173616-OK-so-does-anyone-teach-quot-heels-Down-quot-anymore/page3
- (3) http://horses.about.com/od/learntoride/a/heelsdown.htm
- (4) http://theridinginstructor.net/94/94/
- (5) http://barnmice.com/profiles/blogs/tips-to-help-your-put-your
- (6) http://www.themanestreet.com/authors/lauramartlock/training/legs.htm
- (7) http://blog.magolla.com/2009/08/heels-down-query-up.htm
- (8) www.symmetrytrainingstables.com/content/docs/Equestriannese.doc
- (9) http://www.newrider.com/forum/archive/index.php/t-105342.html
- (10) http://www.lovehorsebackriding.com/horseback-riding-tips.html
Note: This is not professional advice, this is a blog. I am not liable for what you do with or how you use this information. The activities explained in this blog may not be fit for every rider, riding instructor, or riding center depending on their current condition and resources. Use your best personal judgment!