It is possibly one of the first things you heard when you initially took up the reins. Yet, it is one of the most enduring struggles riders have in the saddle. And even when it is mastered on the flat, it seems to crop back up again when a jump is required!
Heels down is one of the most important things to ‘do’ when riding a horse. There are a lot of reasons why mastering this seemingly simple thing is vital to developing as a rider. I say ‘seemingly’ because, if it was so simple we wouldn’t be having this conversation, would we?
So many riders struggle to firstly ‘get’ their heels down and then keep them there. It feels like as soon as they take their attention away from it, they just pop straight back up again!
However, keeping your heels down, whether on the flat or over fences, doesn’t have to be that difficult…
Why Heels Down Matters So Much
If we get back to the real basics of horse riding, staying on is probably the first and the most important element to riding. Keeping your heels down is the best and easiest way to ensure this happens *most* of the time!
When your heels are down, you are taking responsibility for your own balance. Meaning that regardless of what is going on underneath you, you will stay in balance and in the saddle.
Now, of course, there are a few exceptions to the rule; your horse falling over is the big one. However, the simple fact of the matter is if you can master your ‘heels down’ your rate of falls will decrease dramatically.
Staying on is not the only benefit of keeping your heels down. As I mentioned, heels down help balance you in the saddle. This balance is how, later in your riding, you can help support and develop your horse.
Think of when riders are most unbalanced; transitions, landing over a jump etc. This is the times when riders also struggle most with keeping their heels down.
Foot Position is Everything
If you are struggling with keeping your heels down, it may be due to how your foot is positioned in your stirrup. Often we hear that the stirrup should ‘rest under the ball of your foot’. However, in practice, this simply doesn’t work.
The stirrup should rest diagonally underneath your foot. From the ‘ball’ of your foot across towards your little toenail.
By having the stirrup at this more diagonal angle, you now allow your ankle joint to move. Your ankle joint is essential to your ‘shock-absorbing system’ when riding your horse.
Again, think of when things can get a little ‘bumpy’ in your riding… This is where many riders lose their stirrups and it is due to the ankle joint being unable to work effectively.
How Your Foot is in the Stirrup
It is also important to recognize that how the stirrup is turned will also play a big part in your success with heels down. So many riders put their foot into the stirrup the wrong way around. It prevents you from using your ankle joint effectively.
But also, having the stirrup turned the wrong way can cause your foot to become stuck in the stirrup if you do take a fall. Being dragged by your foot is not what any rider wants.
To prevent this from happening, simply make sure you turn the stirrup out as you place your foot in it. As the stirrup falls down from the saddle, the side closest to your horse’s nose is where your little toe will be. The side closest to your horses tail will be on the side of your foot by your big toe.
Simply put, make sure you turn the front (as in closest to your horse’s shoulder) of the stirrup out and then place your foot in it.
Your Ankle as a Hinge
So how does your ankle joint work as a hinge? An easy way to see this in action is to find a small step. Put your foot on the edge of the step, where the stirrup would be placed if you were in the saddle.
Make sure that your knee is above your toes. This part is vital in order for you to really feel what will be like when riding. Then simply push down on your heel. ‘Weight your heel’.
Can you feel how your ankle now allows your heel to move up and down? This is how it will work when you are actually riding and shifting your weight to remain balanced while you ride.
Obviously the movement will be slight; the aim is always to refine ourselves so that the conversation is a ‘secret’ one between rider and horse.
But that movement does have to happen in order for you to effectively move, and balance, while in the saddle. In order for you to effectively ride your horse.
So, Heels Down; How Far Down?
Now, this is a matter of opinion… I often see riders with their heels wedged down as far as they can possibly go. The sole of their boot is as close to verticle as they can get it! This is not what we want to aim for with our heels down!
When riding flatwork on a balanced, well-schooled horse, your heels can be just marginally lower than the ball of your foot. To the eye in the arena, it will look as though the sole of your boot is horizontal.
Having your heel weighted does not always require you to have it pushed down.
However, if riding a young, ‘naughty’ or ‘spooky’ horse, I would suggest having your heels noticeably down. This will firstly help you to remain balanced. But also, it allows you to use your thighs to keep you in the saddle if needed. Maybe if the horse throws a buck or jumps to the side…
I also believe having your heels more noticibly down over jumps is essential to allow your ankle joint to work correctly.
Putting Heels Down into Practice
This is one area that I absolutely feel it is essential you get on ‘autopilot’ in your riding. Your heels need to fall down without you having to continuously think about putting them there. It will take effort initially.
Use areas of the arena to ‘remind’ yourself to put your heels down. Corners, half halts, posts, lights – choose something that you do or pass by regularly and associate that with checking your heels.
Once you have it on the flat, you can then begin to do the same over jumps. I see so many riders flying over jumps, leaning on their horse’s necks. This is wrong!
Your horse needs you to remain balanced, on your own, over jumps so that he can do his job. Look at photos of yourself on the flat and over fences. If you applied the ‘Click Your Fingers Rule‘, what would the outcome be?
Remember, that even if all else is in correct alignment, it is REALLY difficult to remain balanced on something that is moving while standing on your tippy-toes…
Working On It
Start small; in the walk perhaps. Build to the trot, then the canter. Pay attention to those areas where bigger questions are being asked of your balance; transitions, the sitting trot, jumping over fences…
The Two-Point-Seat is a great way to practice this while feeling how important the stirrup position and your ankle is to get it right.
And this is definitely one of those ‘things’ that is well worth getting right…
Other resources to help you with this topic:-
- Applying the ‘Click Your Fingers Rule’ to Your Riding
- Position Faults that Are Potentially Holding You Back In Your Riding
- Identifying Causes Versus Symptoms in Your Riding
- Confidently Getting Started Over Jumps
- Staying with Your Horse Over Jumps
- Join the free Facebook group HERE
- The Daily Strides Podcast on iTunes
- Daily Strides Podcast on Google Play
- The Daily Strides Podcast on Stitcher Radio
- Join Daily Strides Premium
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