leg2Everywhere we go, people focus on the one position fault that is easiest to identify: the heels. In general, it is perfectly obvious if the heels are up, level or down.

I know that everyone has always told you to get your heels lower. You've probably been told that you have to drop your heels so that you can have better balance and contact with your horse's side. They've said that the longer leg stabilizes your balance and gives better aids.

All over the Internet, people give good advice: "Try to get your heels lower. Then your position will be perfect."

So we grin and bear it. Despite the discomfort, we push those heels down. We grunt and groan while we try to keep the heel down through the transitions, bends, and canters. We do what we gotta do to make it look good.

Why We Shouldn't Force the Heels Down

Some of us have an easy time getting the heels down. If you are one of those people, you will wonder why the rest of us have to work so hard at it. For other people, overall body tightness plays a factor in how they can release through the legs.

When you push down, you drive tension into your leg. Invariably, the tightness in the heels cause the knees to pinch on the saddle. The knees cause tightness in the thighs and then you find your seat has an uncontrollable tendency to bounce against the horse's movement.

Aside from the effects on your body and position, you also affect the horse. The tight knees prevent the horse from moving freely and might contribute to sluggishness in the horse's movement, reluctance to swing through the back and in the long term, even gait abnormalities.

There is no way to force your heel down without causing some sort of unwanted result. The tension in your heels can transfer all the way up the leg and into your seat.

What To Do Instead

In order to get your heels down the way we see in the equitation books or by more advanced riders, you need to develop suppleness through your joints and tendons. This requires a long-term commitment to changing the way your body moves. You simply cannot force the joints and tendons to position themselves in a way that helps both you and your horse without either having natural softness in your legs, or by developing it over time off the horse's back.

There are several ways to train suppleness into your leg. Many activities can help - dancing, gymnastics, yoga - anything that helps to stretch and loosen and strengthen especially the legs.

If you are not the type to cross-train, you can work on the same thing by standing on the edge of a staircase. Hang your heel off the edge of the stair and let it lengthen so that it drops below your toes. Then stay there for a minute or so, just letting the joints and tendons learn to release in that position.

Once you are on the horse, the key is that the whole leg has to stretch - right from the hips. The hips release, the knees soften and the calves sit even closer to the horse's side. Only then will the heels stretch below the toes - all on their own. It's not good enough to just push those heels down.

When you first get the "real" stretch, it feels incredible. The leg really truly becomes long and you feel like you've wrapped your legs right around the horse in a wonderful bear-hug. The hips open enough to let the legs dangle down so that the legs and seat seem to just flow effortlessly along with the horse's movements. There is less struggle to stay with the horse because you supple into the horse. The best part is that your ankles just naturally "drop"- in the sense that they couldn't possibly be anywhere other than below your toes.

There is no force, no push, no positioning. It just is.

In the Meantime...

Riding more frequently will definitely help. But remember one thing: don't force the heels.

If you ride with level heels, then ride with level heels. Although you shouldn't ride with lifted heels, be aware of the opposite extreme: the forced heels. If you do push your heels down, be cognizant of the effects on your seat. If you notice your seat perching in the saddle, or your knees pinching on the saddle, lighten up the pressure on your heels.

Know that correctly dropped heels are a product of  suppleness and length in the leg. Work on changing your body, not on just the appearance of your position.

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31 Comments

  1. Heels should never be forced but they do need to drop enough to transfer the center of gravity of your body downward. As in Martial Arts, we need to weight our heels to maintain center and balance, especially important when on a moving, self-thinking horse! I ask all of my new students to stretch their heels while standing on a stair step in between their weekly lessons. It only needs to be done a few times per day (only minutes) but it’s a very effective method. People who are serious will do it and it is not a long time before their heels drop naturally and their position becomes much more stable. The ones who are lazy and don’t do it take much longer to become better riders. Correct position isn’t about looking pretty…it’s about functioning effectively!

  2. This makes sense of why I always used to long to be allowed to try stirrupless work with my feet however they felt natural – forcing my heels down was the only way I could get them down and so my legs were all tense and I had no chance learning to sit the trot. Now my muscles have changed over time I can keep the heels down or at least level without tension, but at that time the focus on my heels was sabotaging the very feeling I was striving for.

    I feel vindicated 😉

  3. Two things that helped me keep my heels “down” (I’m one of those people who can get the heels level but not much lower): The stirrup is merely a resting place for the ball of your foot–your foot should be light in the stirrup, not pushing down on it fiercely. It’s more a question of lifting the toes up than pushing the heels down. Secondly, in dressage at least, if you allow your knee to relax and stretch down (NOT push down), your heels will naturally drop also. Hope this helps someone else!

  4. I do much of my riding and teaching bareback and I don’t focus on heels down, but I agree about the effects of tightness in your thigh and leg muscles. In addition to the stiffness you mention, it will cause your calves to splay out away from the horse’s sides instead of draping against your horse’s sides like wet spaghetti against the wall of the pot you boiled it in. This causes a number of problems. Without your calves resting against your horse’s sides, you aren’t as stable and will lose your balance more easily. When the horse moves, your legs bump its sides, rather than move in harmony with him, both startling the horse and desensitizing it to your leg pressure. You can’t use your legs to steer with because you don’t really control them as long as they are tight. Pulling your legs in against the horse’s side is not the answer since that is pressing on the accelerator and will make the horse go faster. You need wet spaghetti legs! I usually address this problem by leading the horse around the round pen, with my human student sighing until that muscle melts and the legs relax softly against the horse’s side.

  5. I had a trainer in college tell me a wonderful mental trick to get that relaxed, open hip leading into the long leg. She said to think of your butt and your horse’s back like Legos- you were connected via your seat bones, and God himself couldn’t pry you apart. To this day, any time I find myself gripping, I just have to think ‘Lego butt’ and my position and connection to my horse instantly improve.

  6. I really appreciated this one! As an older rider with short legs, I have a hard time with this! Sounds like i need to start doing some stretching exercises for sure.
    It is nice to know the reasons you should not force the stretch though!

  7. Due to an injury as a child, I cannot even force my heels down and have done the stair exercise to maintain a level heel. It was Sally Swift who helped me with imagery of ice cream cones melting down the back of your leg and off your heel. This reminds me to keep the weight down the back of my legs, and still remain soft. I am happy to see an article that takes the pressure off those of us who don’t have naturally soft and elastic heels. In my case horse back riding has been a therapy and has kept me walking without pain–not bad for a 58 year old woman.

  8. Reblogged this on The Rubber Curry Comb and commented:
    Thank you! I am forever correcting the “heels down toes up” myth. I like the heel to be marginally lower than the toe, but in general the foot is horizontal. I get my riders to think of their feet as having lots of marbles in, if their heels come up too much all the marbles roll to the toe and they are unstable, heels jammed down and there are no marbles left in the toe. They should have marbles all over their sole, but with slightly more towards the heel. By getting them to think of moving marbles it gives them the ability to be more subtle in their positional adjustments. And don`t even get me started on the chair-seat effect of jamming the heels down …

  9. I’m one of those hateful people with endless Achilles tendons that allow my heels to go a ridiculously long way down without forcing, but no amount of natural suppleness will automatically give me a good, deep, relaxed seat. For me, “heels down” starts in the lower back. Supple lower back, relaxed hips, long thighs, knees resting softly against the saddle, toes pointing straight ahead, calves gently closing around the horse’s body. I try to imagine simply melting into the horse until *not* being in harmony with him is quite unthinkable. The image I give my students is “All your weight is sitting in two lead balls, each exactly the same mass, one in each heel. That weight pulls you down into the horse; you can’t fall because your own weight is holding you there. Imagine that, and ride like that.”

  10. I enjoyed reading this and it is certainly a valid article. In addition to what you have said, I would like to add that tension in the foot especially curled toed is a huge block to allowing the leg to stretch and the heel to lower. Spreading your toes and lifting them can have a releasing effect on some of the negative tension

  11. This makes me feel much better for not forcing my heels down as much as much teachers tell me to. My biggest issue is keeping my toes forward!! I cannot seem to get them to point forward almost at all. I’ve been trying to make myself walk and stand pigeon-toed to stretch and use those muscles and it’s not working 🙁

    1. To straighten the leg while riding, try repositioning your seat from the pelvis. Physically pick up your thigh and rotate the leg inward. Your knees should point forward too. It’s not really about the toes but the whole leg.

  12. I have great heels and I often ( nearly always ) see the problem I’m trying to correct in others focused on their heels. My leg comes forward. A forward leg will have a giving heel at the expense of quality of the aids; this is almost as bad as a high heel/standing on your toes.

    Suppleness of the heel, starting up at the open hips, is what we should all be focused on. I’m glad this article,and it’s comments, reminded me of that.

  13. It wasn’t until I started riding bareback that I was able to find out what my helper/instructor/friend meant by “get your legs off the horse” and “get your heels down”…of course, I was riding a fat, barrel-chested, flat-backed Haflinger too! Once I started riding bareback, I was almost instantly able to balance better, using the horse instead of the saddle, for my balance, and was almost immediately able to ride the trot. I am also pigeon-toed, worse on the right side, so putting my legs with toes forward and up and heels down was awful. Riding bareback, with no stirrups, I am able to relax my legs and make contact when needed. It improved my riding like nothing else has to this point.

    Bareback makes you sit up exactly in a natural straight line, balancing with the horse, and with your legs in the best position for you AND your horse (as long as you aren’t gripping for dear life, but are relaxed). Saddles will sometimes force you into an unnatural position and an unbalanced position.

    I LOVE riding bareback. You are connected to the horse in ways that aren’t possible with a saddle between you. You are balanced, and use leg cues naturally.

    The old cowboys up here tell stories of not being allowed to use a saddle, or not even being able to afford a saddle when first hired on, and having to learn everything bareback. I’ve heard of many schools making students drop stirrups in early lessons.

    I say, just ride bareback. I’ll never ever forget the exhilaration I felt when I got up the courage to lope bareback for the first time. And talk about boosting your confidence:

    If you can do it bareback, there’s no stopping you in the saddle!

  14. This is a great post. I agree that heels are what a lot of people look at and people do tend to try to force them down. Forcing anything anywhere or trying to keep something in the “perfect” spot makes for stiff riders.

    I find that 2-point work and telling my students to relax their knees and all their joints and just let everything bounce down through their heel helps. I tell them they need to have loose, bouncy joints because they are their shock absorbers. I also like the scissors exercise for connecting their seat and lengthening their leg…they drop their stirrups, point their toes down and move their leg from the hip, one forward, the other back without bending their knees. This helps deepen their seat and lengthen their leg.

  15. Great article! I could not agree more. I see so many riders who are stiff throughout their body and it starts in a heel that is unnaturally forced down. I love firnhyde’s statement that heels down starts in the lower back.

  16. Reblogged this on cavalarices and commented:
    bem interessante! ajuste de pernas. não é apenas uma questão de abaixar os calcanhares, mas de alongar a perna inteira, desde o quadril. forçar o calcanhar a abaixar é forçar uma posição de pernas que é tanto desconfortavel para o cavaleiro quanto para o cavalo.

  17. If, instead of focussing on “correct” position, the rider focusses on “contact” with the horse, actually feeling the horse’s body through the seatbones, suddenly all becomes clear. I ride out a lot with my mare. Lots of miles at a long walk, slow jog, or a happy go lucky run that we pick up whenever the terrain is inviting. I just let my body relax and “beome her body” and she’s light as a feather. Think soft. Soft ankles, soft hands. Soft neck and shoulders, let your shoulders swing along with your horse’s stride. It probably will never win you a blue ribbon but it sure makes riding fun and comfortable (and you don’t fall off, which is a bonus).

  18. I am an older (44) rider getting back into it again. My fitness level is not where it should be, but I am working on it. I have a short leg that is longer from hip to knee than knee to foot. My right knee has a torn ACL ( old injury but I am “fine” and am too young for a knee replacement and a repair failed due to marked arthritis). As such, I tend to rotate my toe out and grip with my knee and the back of my calf. I am working on my position and have trouble with seat position and leg position. My question is regarding stirrup length. Should I ride with a longer stirrup to encourage a deeper seat? My stirrups are currently at my ankle when my feet are out of the stippups. Also if there are any other tips- I would love to near them. Thank you.

    1. In general, I don’t think your stirrups should be longer than your ankles. I don’t have any shortcuts for you. Just keep working on the “loudest” problem and start picking away from there. It really helps to have a good eye on the ground (and mirrors). If you can get someone to lunge you, that can be a powerful way to develop your position as well. But most importantly, I think riding is going to be a wonderful way to keep your arthritis in check and your joints as limber as possible. 🙂

    2. Hello Endea, and firstly, you are 31 years younger than me so don’t go saying older rider, OK?

      Secondly, in all fact, you heels should never be forced down, nothing should be forced up down or sideways. Think of your TOES and not your heels. I ride with my toes. Constantly moving up and down in the stirrup along with the pace of my mare. Your ankles should be soft, your feet should be soft, and the only thing which should be Wonder Woman hard are your core muscles which means your abs and glutes. Soft hands, soft fingers, legs draped like “angel wings” and soft soft soft feet which actually will act like your toes on an accelerator or a brake (the “whoa” on a horse should come from the seat and feet, and not as popular myth decrees, from the reins).

      I hope all of this is absolutely crystal clear, but I bet it isn’t.

      Happy trails.

      Judy

  19. Thank you so much ladies. I appreciate your thoughts/advice/comments. I will just “keep on keeping on”. And enjoy my time in the saddle and on the ground with my horse. It is about getting better over time

  20. Thank you so much ladies. I appreciate your thoughts/advice/comments. I will just “keep on keeping on”. And enjoy my time in the saddle and on the ground with my horse. It is about getting better over time

  21. Thank you for this article! It certainly is about the entire leg, and really the use of the entire body. From day one of lessons, I teach riders the deep seat that I was taught in Europe; mostly the Austrian seat with a bit of French and German seat influence. It starts with “standing still” exercises to open the hips, use and flex and lift the upper body, and then to ride off the inside of the thigh instead of the backside. In the exercises we do ankle flexibility exercises to see how much the toe can be raised and how far the toe can twist in different directions. We can then gauge just how much natural flexibility the rider has at the ankle. One of the greatest gifts I can give a student is to show them how far they can move in the saddle before feeling like they will fall and that too is part of early teaching. From the first day, we work alternately without and with stirrups, on the lunge line. Doing this often corrects early problems with the position of the legs, and keeps a rider from putting too much weight on the stirrups and trying to use them as a “brake”. But also, they will not freak out later if they lose a stirrup. It takes patience and practice, but often the best position is developed from “doing things” and not just practicing the position, which often causes the dreaded stiffness. I ask the rider to pull the flap of thigh muscle (from the underside) toward the back and away from the saddle, which helps them to understand the feeling of riding off the inside of the thigh, instead of the backside of the thigh as most are prone to do. From there, the position and range of the lower leg and calf application is added. If riding more off the inside of the thigh, the rider will not have to worry about trying to position the feet forward…they will be in place naturally. I do not worry too much about the heels although the rider is reminded to “raise the toe” and not to “lower the heels”, as it seems easier to grasp and understand. Giving a student reasons for doing things, and then later showing them how the application is effective, really helps to get them excited about working on a more ideal position. I usually feel if the heel is level with the toe or up to one inch lower, that is adequate. One important reason to raise the toe is that it tightens the inside ridge of muscle of the calves which can then be better used to apply calf aids. Ah, well, there is a lot to this, but when it all comes together, it is a lovely, lovely feeling.

    1. Thank you for all your ideas, Linda. I’m familiar with all of them and agree that they are indispensable to good riding, for beginners and more advanced riders. Lunge line – the best!

  22. I too struggle to keep my heels down without popping up out of the saddle. This article gives great clear advice. Off to do some hip opening yoga stretches now, before my riding lesson this morning. Thank you for your advice.

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