Why do you keep your heels down when riding a horse

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Girl riding a chestnut horse, side view
Girl Riding A Chestnut Horse, Side View

If you take lessons, Heels down! might be something you'll often hear from your coach or instructor.

When you hear this you may think that you should shove your heels down, letting your toes point upwards. But forcing your heel down will stiffen your leg and force it out of the best position for cueing your horse and maintaining a secure seat. You may also find your torso tipping forward and your hands holding onto the reins or saddle for security as you are jolted with every step. We have all seen riders that seem suspended between the stirrups and the reins. This is uncomfortable for both horse and rider. So just jamming those heels down isn't quite the way to go about having a secure and safe leg.

A Simple Solution

Instead of jamming your heels down, let your weight drop into your heels rather than onto the ball of your foot and into the stirrup. You really only want your heel to be slightly below horizontal, not pointing straight down. This is almost impossible to hold for any length of time and can cause muscle fatigue.

Remember the ideal position is sitting with your ear, shoulder, hip, and heel in a perfect vertical line. Forcing your heel down, or letting it float up with most of your weight on the ball of your foot will distort this line. Letting your weight fall down into your heels allows you to stay relaxed and lets your leg sit against your horse more comfortably, effectively and securely.

Center of Gravity Trick

If you alpine ski, snowboard, water ski, do martial arts, or play other sports that require you to keep your center of gravity low, you may already know the sensation of letting your weight fall into your heels.

You can try standing in the horse stance used by martial artists to get the idea. Stand with your feet at shoulder width or slightly wider and sink so that your knees are at about a 30-degree angle. Now try to shift your weight onto the balls of your feet. What happens? 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, throwing its head back and hollowing its back. Alternatively, your back may become stiff and hollowed out. This will make it harder to move with your horse. 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.

If you are having difficulties letting your calf muscle flex to let you drop your heel, here are some tips:

  • Make sure you are wearing comfortable riding footwear. Stiff boots or half-chaps that bunch or pinch over the front of your ankle may make it uncomfortable to drop your heel.
  • Make sure your stirrups are the correct length. You'll want the bottom of the stirrup to be even with your ankle bone when you are mounted with your legs hanging free. Too long and you will be reaching with your toes for the stirrups. Too short and you may feel cramped and inclined to jam your heel down. Dressage and jump riders may appear to lengthen or shorten their stirrups. In fact, many dressage riders don't actually lengthen their stirrups at all. It's their proper position and flexibility that gives them the long-legged look. So, when you are starting out, use your ankle bone as a guide.
  • Strengthen and stretch your calf muscles.

Exercises for Calf Muscles

  • Standing calf stretches are easy to do against a stall wall before you mount up.
  • Try strengthening standing calf raises.
  • Warm up and stretch all of your muscles before riding.
  • Stretch your tendons by sinking your weight down into your heels every time you go up a flight of stairs. If you have no stairs, stand with the balls of your feet on a curb or step and see how far down you can get your heels, aiming for a little more each day.