straighten legI've already written about the heels of the rider before. In that post, I explained why I think we should not be forcing our heels down while we ride. Even though we've been told again and again to get those heels down, and it might in fact look good to an uneducated observer, forced heels cause all sorts of problems for the rider and even for the horse.

From collapsed heels to tightened calves and thighs to stiffened seat and lower back, forcing your heels down can affect the clarity and effectiveness of our aids to the horse. And while I said in my article that forcing ain't the way to go, I didn't mean that we should placidly accept the fact that we can never ever get the heels to be lower than the stirrup.

There is one main reason to lower the heels - to lengthen the leg and position it so that the rider's center of balance is evenly distributed on the horse. Many people explain that the rider's legs should be hanging softly in line with the hips, so that if the horse were taken out from underneath the rider, she could still be in a balanced enough position to stay standing up.

So what can we do if our heels don't drop on their own, if we shouldn't force them down?

Do we completely give up on the concept and hope that it's fine to ride along with a stiff leg with tight ligaments and tendons? Well, not really.

In my previous article, I did mention an off-the-horse technique you can use to develop more stretch through the backs of your legs. However, there is an exercise you can do on the horse that will also be of benefit. Try this especially in walk, then canter and finally the trot (yes, even if you post the trot).

You can try it first at the halt just to get the feel.

The secret to dropped heels is in the release of your muscles, ligaments and tendons from your hips all the way down. Here's how.



1. Stand up in your stirrups.

Stand right up. Get your knees straight and go high enough that you are well off the saddle.

2. Lean forward.

Slowly tilt your body so that your thighs are resting toward the pommel. At this point, your thighs will hold your balance for the moment.

3. Let your feet go as far back as possible.

Once you have balance on your thighs, your feet will be free to slide back. Your knees should still be straight at this point. Push the feet past the girth just for a few seconds.

4. Sit down straight in the saddle.

Now sit toward the front of the saddle (don't lean back into the cantle). Make sure you aren't leaning forward or backward.

This is obviously the point where you allow your knees to bend again. But keep your feet in the same position you had them when you were still leaning forward. This way, your hips open enough to allow your feet to fall naturally (well, it might not feel very natural!) under your seat. Ideally, if you had a plumb line drawn from your hips to your heels, your heels would line up with your hips.

Your knees should be straighter now than before. The angle in your knees will be more open, and your leg will feel longer.

5. Allow your heels to drop.

The key is to allow.

Don't let your toes go right through the stirrups. Make sure the balls of your feet are on the stirrups. 

At this point, if you were able to really lengthen out your leg, straighten your knees a bit and sit toward the front of the saddle, you should be able to let your heels take up the extra length by dropping below your stirrups.

And voila, you will find a magically longer leg with heels that want to hang toward the ground! 🙂

I often like to hold on to the bucking strap (or the horn in a western saddle) to really stabilize my seat toward the front of the saddle. This allows me to open my hips more and free my legs to do the stretching that is needed.

Now what?

Well, keep your new position in each of the gaits! Easier said than done, I know! But you won't get there without the practice so get on with it!

You have absolutely no excuse at the walk! Every time your horse is walking, you check and fix your leg position.

As you get better, you won't have to stand up in your stirrups to establish the open hips and long legs. You should be able to find the "feel" just by briefly taking your legs up off the saddle and then extending your leg down.

You might be able to even correct your leg position within the horse's movement. 

If you have a chance to give this a try, let us know how it worked out for you. Or give us other leg position fixes.

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Read more here:

What Do Leg Aids Mean? All riders regularly use their legs to give messages to the horse, but most of the time, the legs mean go faster or change gait.

#1 Rider Problem of the Year: Confusing Aids: At some point, we have to move away from separating our aids and becoming more “holistic” with our messages.

The #1 Rider Problem of the Year: The Leg Aid:  You probably know from experience – kicking the horse along often does not get the response you really want

Bend: How to Drift Out On Purpose: There is a time that it is perfectly fine, or almost advisable, for you to allow the horse to drift to the outside, seemingly contradicting all rational reasoning.

Impulsion: How Two Easy Strides of Energy Might Solve Your Problem: If the stride is longer, the hind legs can reach further underneath the body and support the horse’s balance with more strength and agility.

 

11 Comments

  1. When I teach I tell my students to lift there toes, and not to force the heels down, its a totally different movement, try it off the horse and you will see what I mean, forcing heels down makes the heels and calves tight. Lifting the toes gently doesn’t do that, and it takes the heels lower.

  2. …. Any chance you could post pictures for those of us (i.e. me) who are visual learners and have trouble converting words to pictures 🙂 thank u!

  3. I find that relaxing my leg and letting my knee drop down (not into a longer stirrup, just relaxing my knee down) allows my heel to drop also. Because of my conformation my heel will never drop more than slightly below the stirrup but slightly below is all I find I need. The key is relaxing the entire leg. We don’t realize how much we grip or pull our knees up until we try to relax the leg and knee.

  4. I have had so many riders tell me they have been told to lengthen their stirrups to get a longer leg and deeper heels, but all this does is have them dance on their toes and pinch at knee causing the hip angle to close up and thigh to get shorter & tight. Yes I was always told to get my heels down. I spent a lot of hours on a lunge line w/o stirrups to develop a relaxed & hence a longer leg. I have always had tight Achilles & Hamstrings and always spend time mounted & on the ground stretching them as well as my hip abductors & extensors. Whenever I forced my heel down, I found myself putting too much pressure on the ball of my foot and my leg ended camped out in front kitchen chair style. I ride with a supple relaxed led and lift my big toe towards the inside of my knee. This gives me a strong functional leg. I have my students envision taking a step backwards with their leg to bring it better under their hip. I use & have used exercises like you mention in your article. I do not feel that having a heel that only drops an inch below or even level with the stirrup has made me less of a rider. Because I am balanced with a strong core & anchored seat with relaxation and weight flowing out my heels, as described by Sally Swift, I am well anchored and communicating with my horse

  5. There is one simple stretching exercise that helps develop the correct position of the rider’s thigh. Once the thigh is in place the rest of the leg follows easily. Have your student grasp their ankle with the hand on the same side an gently lean back allowing the hip angle to open to its fullest. Tell them to stretch their knee down so it is pointing at the ground. Maintaining the stretched thigh, allow the lower leg to drop gently back down into position. This exercise can be incorporated into the rider’s warm-up.
    Cheers!

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