It’s the old adage of riding instructors, and if we were paid a pound every time we said those two words we’d all be millionaires.
Last week someone asked how they could get their heels down on a Facebook group. And there were hundreds of comments. Some keyboard warriors obviously got involved, and some suggestions were useful, others not so.
Really, you could write a dissertation on the subject, but I thought I’d try and sum up the topic for you.
Firstly, your ability to put your heels down depends on part on your conformation. Some people have longer, stretchier calves and tendons so their heels naturally drop. If you have short, tight calves then the first thing to do it regular stretching. We do these horrible stretches in Pilates which I find really painful, because of my right calves. You lie on your back and with the help of an exercise hand lift one leg up as far as it will go without the knee bending. And just hold it there. Eventually your muscles relax and lengthen. Perhaps my New Years resolution should be to do this stretch more often. Another way of stretching is to stand with the balls of your feet on a step, and let your heels drop off the step. This is quite an easy one to do on a daily basis.
The next thing you should know about putting the heels down is that they shouldn’t be forced down. This locks the knee, brings the lower leg away from the horse, and puts the heel in front of the vertical ear-hip line, making rising and maintains your balance harder.
Instead think about the heel being marginally lower than the toe, but the weight of your foot being in the heel. Imagine a loads of marbles rolling round your foot. Point your toe down and the marbles (your weight) go forwards. Lift the toe and drop the heel so they roll back towards the back of the foot.
The reason we want the weight off the toes is that you’re less likely to go head first over the horse’s neck, or at worst, collapse forward onto the shoulders and neck, which already carry 60% of the horse’s body weight.
Which brings me onto ways of keeping the heels below the toe. Firstly, our favourite sitting trot without stirrups, and the possibly dropping your stirrup length.This deepens the seat, opens up the hip joint, lengthens the leg and gives you the vertical ear-shoulder-elbow-hip-heel line we all desire. Having the leg longer puts less strain on your calf which makes it easier to keep the lower leg in the correct place and balance.
With children I spend a lot of time practising standing up out of their stirrups. Either standing tall, or maintaining jumping position. In order to stay up our of the saddle they must keep the weight into the heels. Otherwise they pitch onto their pony’s neck. They usually enjoy this challenge and you can soon see the difference in the security of their lower leg position. A little girl I taught last week proved this because after doing jumping position with a very strong lower leg her rising trot improved massively and she was more effective with her legs in keeping the pony trotting.
I would always say don’t stress about keeping your heels down because forcing them can creat just as many other problems; just work on a few stretching exercises and keep remembering to relax the knee to allow the weight to drop into the foot, lowering your centre of gravity and making you a more secure and balanced rider.