Why should heels go down?

I have noticed, over the years, riders are reminded to put their heels down by their coaches over and over again, and as the rider thinks about it in the moment the heel goes down, but shortly after, the rider thinks about something else, and there is no longer weight in the heel. So the coach says again “put your heels down.” Sometimes it is all they say, just “put your heels down”. A broken record of four words.

As riders become more experienced, they eventually find their own balance, which comes with a certain mindfulness and control of the heel, allowing them to appear more stable in the tack, and capable of doing more things.

Less experienced riders seem to struggle with exactly how much pressure to put on their heels, when to put their heels down, and when to use them to make their horses perform better.

I find it is easier for me to know HOW and WHEN to put my heel down, rather than simply jamming it into a locked, sometimes too painful, position. To me, heels down is actually having the ability to control your balance, not necessarily a severe angle to show off the bottom of your feet, but remain fluid enough so your horses respond favorably to your leg. Especially in the hunter ring.

 

WALK

At the walk, I actually don’t put pressure on my stirrup or heel. Instead, I “lift” my toes up in my boots first to try to touch the roof of those boots. It is a different energy. I am not straining my hamstrings, and I am still getting quite a bit of flexion in my ankle which “drops” my heel without jamming it.

Why? The horse will react to a rider pushing so hard to get the heel down. I don’t want the horse to react to that movement. They are sensitive enough to be like “hey? are we going now?” If I lift my toes upward first, the horse doesn’t feel negative energy, and I can give better controlled leg aides without confusing him. The length of my leg actually grows when I am not straining to push my heel down from the hip.

TROT

The posting trot is an up/down motion.

In posting trot I sink my heel as I come “down” to the bottom part of my post, so my heel drops naturally and without negative energy, and I try to keep it there for the “up” of the posting trot. Some people make the mistake of lifting the heel as they sink to the “down” part of the post, and then try to put weight in the heel as they come up out of the saddle for the “up” motion.

I prefer the timing of sinking the heel on the “down” part of the post and leaving it there when I post “up”. The energy, again, is different, and the sensitive horses will not be reactionary to my leg. If I remember to think about lifting my heel up in my boots at the trot as well, I have complete control of where my lower leg is placed on the horse, and can use it in a more effective and attractive manner.

Does practicing the Two-Point help? Yes absolutely, when performed correctly. Remember, the Two-point (to me) is the high part of the post or the “up”. Most people go further forward or lean over. I don’t. I can keep my heel underneath me and lift my butt out of the saddle to the high part of the post. I keep my leg in the same position, lifting the toes in the top of the boot.

CANTER

The canter has a different timing.

I put my heel down AS the horse takes his lead leg forward. Many riders do the opposite, but their timing is forced, not natural. If the heel goes down AS the lead leg goes forward, you have ten times the control of how to use your lower leg without pissing the horse off. The legs grow longer as well as stronger, useful on riding different types of horses.

Later, when the horse jumps, your timing of your heel going down with the lead leg will allow you to land in your heel for a safer, smoother experience.

Cantering the horse and thinking about the timing of the heel going down also makes your muscles less tired because when done properly, the muscles have a tiny moment when they relax before following the motion of the lead leg again. The muscles flex, and when the muscles in your leg flex, guess what? They build strength on their own. Think about a squeezing one of those rubber balls in your hand to improve strength or reduce stress. You squeeze the ball and let go right? Otherwise, squeezing and holding the ball for an hour will actually hurt you. So you have to squeeze the ball then release it to allow the ball to come back to size. My legs follow the canter much the same way.

Here, a pony rider gives an example of cantering with the heel down. Over time and experience, the leg will not ‘grip’ too tightly which will make this rider more adept to hotter blooded animals.

You can tell from the ground which riders can follow with their legs first because when you watch the midsection of the rider, the hips are not stiff, but loose and following. Riders who are tiring themselves by jamming the heel down and holding the position are usually holding their bodies elsewhere in the same stiff way. I don’t think the horses like particularly stiff riders.

Indeed there are multiple moving parts on a rider and a horse, so talking about the heel down and nothing else may seem a bit unfair. The level and experience in a rider changes over time and experience, but I really try to think about the heel as I am riding, (no matter what kind of horse),and it gives me a moment to feel the energy in my own body as well as my steed. If you are willing to try something new, you might be surprised to where it takes your level of riding.

Jump

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Everything I have practiced on the flat will come into play for the jumps. If I begin trotting a trot pole to a cross rail, I will step into my heel at the pole and hold it there over the jump so I LAND in my heel on the back side. If you struggle to do this on your own, try this imagery. It is a bit like trying to touch your toe to the horse’s shoulder as they take off over the jump. You can’t, but imagine if you could. That slight motion to try will actually keep your leg underneath of you when you jump. If your leg is underneath of you when you jump then you have now discovered the ability to land in your heel on the backside of the jump.

Not your toe, not your knee, not your bum, but actually landing in your heel.

Cantering fences is the same as trotting the fences, only I start to move my heel slightly forward three strides away from the fence. By that time I should have committed to a pace to get me to the jump, so I no longer need to tell the horse to go forward. If he is not a baby, (just learning how to jump), I should trust he is going to see us through to the other side.  However, if he jumps too high, too low, too perfect, or too awful, my leg will always catch me on the backside, regardless of antics or awkwardness.

Here this rider shows what it is like to ride with your heel down cantering fences.

 

 

If I am riding a baby baby, I will actually be sure my leg is further in front of me than normal until I know for sure he is not going to clear the jump like an orangutang. Allowing or not controlling the leg to slip back will actually scare a young horse and make them quick off the ground. a big no-no in the hunter world. I depend on this when trying new horses or minimally broke horses.

In the hunters, we prefer to have the horses look and appear smooth, jump slower than a jumper or eventer, and have the capability of never changing pace. Controlling the lower leg better will control the pace as you go around the ring.

You may see top professionals actually flip their lower leg up and back when jumping a larger fence and wonder why. These riders can really control parts of their bodies which defy gravity, but they do this to invite the horse to jump higher. For 90% of us out there, we don’t need be so extreme..  Sometimes, you will see pictures of me actually lifting my heels exactly over the top of the jump, for exactly the same reason. It may not look like I have no depth of heel, but I can actually FEEL when to squeeze the belly upward to create more arc in the bascule. It is so slight, but it is my way of creating an illusion that the horse is jumping better than he really is.

 

 

Do not be fooled when you see riders exaggerate the lower leg, or ‘swing’ their legs back, they might be geniuses at work trying to create magical unicorns for your viewing pleasure.

This is a judged sport, after all, and outside of equitation, it is the horse being judged….

Flaws

Riding with stirrups too short or too long. Riding with stirrups too short will actually make it harder to concentrate on the heel going down with the right timing. I have found people who ride shorter are actually trying to fix the problem of “losing” their stirrups, but the knees will separate from the tack or turn “out” over a jump” and change the balance entirely of the rider. The stirrup should be long enough so the bottom hits your ankle bone which sticks out from your foot. If you cry out in pain when your ankle bone clonks it, you are probably at the right length. If the stirrup bar hits higher, you are riding too short.

Too long a stirrup will force the toe to keep contact with the stirrup, lifting the heel for balance. If you are struggling to keep your heel down on the flat, you really need to try and adjust to the ankle bone. Most riders with too long a stirrup have very weak or bad leg position over the jumps because they are more worried about losing equipment rather than controlling the leg.

This is an example of me riding with too long a stirrup, which I will have to adjust before I find my way back to the show ring. I am not losing my balance, but the leg is by far weaker in contact and smoothness of the ride. Granted a five month hiatus will do that to a person. As I become stronger, the stirrup length will become more appropriate.

 

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Does it matter which kind of stirrup you ride with?

I mean it shouldn’t, but this is all about experience in the tack. I ride in a Sprenger stirrup because I prefer the heavier weight compared to the lighter composite material. I also like how they flex, and my knees say thank you to me every day. But stirrups shouldn’t affect your ability to control your heel. If they do, you have bigger issues. Ride in what you are most comfortable in, but ride with your heel in mind rather than the stirrup.

Good heels make for good balance. Good luck!

 

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