Twenty years, or more, so ago when you learnt to ride it was “heels down, toes up!” I was teaching a client, a mother who’s getting back into riding now her daughter has a pony, and we were discussing the old school methods in her lesson and how equitation has moved on.
Being repeatedly told to put your heels down causes the rider to force their heel down – creating very stretchy calf muscles – which causes tension through the back of the leg and up to the thigh and seat. It also causes the lower leg to swing forward so you lose the vertical shoulder-hip-heel line. Which means that in order to stay balanced in rising trot the knee will get tight.
Next time you sit on a horse, try forcing your heels down. Can you feel your lower leg slide forwards? Can you also feel your thighs change and almost lighten your seat? All of this combined with a tight knee will push the rider out of balance and make the seat less effective.
The opposite foot position of course, is when the calves are tight and the heel sits higher than the toe. This means the rider has their weight in their toes so their centre of gravity is pushed forward. If the horse stops or slows down or changes direction, they’re far more likely to become unseated. Tight calves can affect the tightness of the whole upper leg, in a similar way to when the heels are forced down. Both extremes of position put tension into the leg muscles. Which, in both situations negatively affects the effectiveness of the seat.
So what is thought of now to be the correct lower leg and foot positioning?
The leg should drape around the horse, from the hip, with minimal amount of tension through the muscles so the the seat and inner thigh can subtly control the movement of the horse. Now, the precise angling of the foot depends on the riders anatomy. The weight wants to be favouring the heel – imagine your sole is covered with marbles and you are angling your foot to encourage the marbles to roll towards your heel. But the heel should only be fractionally lower than the toe, so you are close to horizontal. This means the lower leg is more stable in the rising trot and is the best position to support your body weight.
For some people, who have long, supple calves, their heel will naturally drop much lower than the toe, but while doing so you want to keep the leg tension free. The majority of us are tight in our calves, which means our heels and toes tend to be fairly level. In this case, it is the jamming of heels down that compromises the relaxed and correct leg. If a rider is tight in the calf and it is jeopardising their riding ability then it’s best to try some calf stretches off the horse to relax and lengthen the calf muscles, which will help improve the lower leg, rather than trying to just push their heels lower than their toes.
I rarely spend time telling my riders to push their heels down; I’ll ask them to drop the weight into their heels if they look tight in the calf or their weight has pitched towards their toes. If they do have a real problem with the lower leg position then I find working without stirrups, or standing up out of their stirrups whilst trotting helps them shift the weight around their feet so they can find the leg position that keeps them in balance – this exercise stops the knee getting tight because they’ll fall onto the horses neck whilst the lower leg flies out behind, akin to superman, and if the heel is forced down they will fall back onto the cantle.