In this article and the three following articles, I will be taking a look at some of the common problems with rider position that, if left uncorrected, will be a hindrance both to the rider and the horse. Although all parts of the rider’s body are connected and they will all influence each other, I will be starting at the bottom and working my way up, since I feel that correct position and balance is the result of a good base.
This is one of the most critical elements of balanced, relaxed riding, yet one of the most common problem areas. We’ve all heard the term “heels down,” and have been told that it must be done. Sounds simple, yet it is so difficult to actually do.
First, lets take a look at why it is such a common problem. I’ve often found that understanding the problem, understanding the reason behind why it is as it is, often relieves a great deal of frustration and makes it easier to solve.
The Everyday Heel
Humans remain upright and balanced as they walk by using their toes and ankles to make thousands of tiny corrections and adjustments to keep the body balanced above them. The foot has an inordinate amount of bones, ligaments and muscle for such a small area. It is at once extremely powerful and sturdy and flexible, sensitive and reactive. Everyday as we walk, we push off of the toes, bringing the heels up. Pushing and balancing on the toes and using our ankles to help stabilize us as we move is instinctive. If we stand on a small, narrow log or a narrow plank, one that does not have enough room for the entire foot, we would find that we would instinctively place our weight on the front part of the foot, the toes, in other words, so that we can balance effectively. This is even more pronounced if we have nothing for our hands to hold on to. Think of when you jump over a small ditch. On the landing side, the toes catch the body’s weight, balancing it and providing some cushion for the impact. All of this is natural and instinctive, and our bodies have learned to depend on the toes and ankles and foot actively working and tensing and DOING something. The rest of the body has learned to allow the foot to do most of the work.
Keeping these things in mind, it should come as no surprise that when the ball of the foot is placed on a small, narrow ledge such as a saddle stirrup, with the expectation (and hope) that the rest of the body will remain balanced above it, that the ankles and toes would immediately and instinctively spring into action to try to do the job.
The Rider’s Heel
The problem with allowing the ankles and toes to do the work of balance is that it IS work. In order to try to balance our bodies, the foot has to tense the muscles and ligaments and tendons. Unfortunately, when sitting on the back of a moving horse, any tension or resistance in the foot/ankle area will result in a struggle against the motion of the horse. The ankle area needs to be a shock absorber for the motion of the animal we are riding, plus the long stretch of the calf muscle, ligaments and tendons that is achieved when the heel is lowered has a pulling effect, that keeps the rider closer to the saddle. When we ask our feet to balance us, they must use those muscles and the way those muscles in the foot ,ankle, heel, and lower leg are used results in the heel coming up and the ankle tensing, the toes tensing and grabbing and the calf muscle shortening. All this is great if you want yourself propelled forward, as in taking a step. It’s not so great when you do NOT wish to be propelled forward, which is what happens when a rider falls by rolling off the horse’s shoulder. This is the most common way of falling exactly because the toes, ankles and heels have done what they do thousands of times a day: they thrust the person forward. The instinct of the lower leg and foot to DO something to balance the person causes the person to shift the weight onto the toes. On the solid, immovable ground, this results in lightness and agility. (Think of boxers and gymnasts and martial artists.) On a moving horse, however, this results in a “fight” against the motion of the horse. Because we are struggling, we become more tense and the rest of the rider’s position begins to suffer.
What riders have to realize is that this is an instinct and a natural way of moving for us. For many people, it will take a great deal of concentration and, just as importantly, a great deal of physical re-training to have the type of foot and ankle that we need to have to ride a horse well. The foot needs to learn that for the duration that it is in a stirrup, it is “on hiatus.” It’s not supposed to go to work, in fact, it’s not ALLOWED to go to work. It is no longer allowed to act as a balancing mechanism. The ankle, foot, and toes must be soft and relaxed, providing a passive weight-bearing area and allowing the ligaments and tendons to “bounce” freely with the motion and absorb shock. As the leg muscles stretch as a result, they will drag the rider into the saddle more firmly.
There are several exercises to help achieve this.
One of the most helpful is done off the horse and can be performed pretty much anywhere there is a step or ledge. Find a step or a small ledge and place the ball of your feet in the edge with the heels hanging off the edge, with the feet approximately shoulder length apart. Make sure you have something to hold on to, so as not to trigger the foot’s instinct to provide balance. Quietly stand there, allowing your body weight to push your heels down lower than the step. Use your hands to steady yourself and concentrate on totally relaxing the ankle. After it has sank as far as it will go, slowly raise yourself up on your toes. Stand on your toes for a minute and concentrate on how that feels. Then slowly allow your ankles and feet to relax and drop the heel down as far as possible. Repeat five times. Do this several times a day, if possible. When this begins to feel fairly comfortable and secure in the lowered position, begin to let go of the handhold. Eventually, work up to squatting and standing up, without a handhold, and without tensing up the foot or ankle. If you have steps, you can even progress to walking up the steps in the “heels down” position.
When mounted, a good exercise is to stand up in the stirrups while the horse is standing still, hold onto the mane and relax the ankle and lower the heel. After a minute, raise the heel above the toes, pause, and then slowly and deliberately lower the heels again. Concentrate on how it feels to drop the heels. You’d be surprised how “confused” the feet get when they are trying to do their instinctive job as a balancing mechanism and you are consciously trying to drop the heels! Often, it truly does take practice just to be able to drop the heels more than a mere centimeter or two. When you feel you have this under control, progress to doing the same thing with the horse walking.
Another good mounted exercise is to assume a “jumping” position using a firm handhold in the mane. This again places all of the rider’s weight in the stirrups, the same as the above exercise. Hold this position, relax the ankles to drop the heels and cue the horse to walk and trot.
Notice that I’ve always used the term “relax the ankles” to achieve the heels down position. I’ve found that too many times people are actively PUSHING their heels down. In my experience, thinking of “pushing” will encourage too much effort, resulting in tension. I’ve found it far more helpful to simply relax the ankles and allow the weight to sink. Try not to think of it as a physical effort, but rather a relaxing of effort. Concentrate on relaxing and picturing your legs as filled with sand and being long and heavy and, like sandbags, molding themselves to the horse’s sides. Practice these exercises consistently and you will be well on your way to a lovely, long, relaxed leg and soft, lowered shock-absorbing heel.