Written by: Lindsay Grice

Why it’s important to keep your heels down.

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Peter Bruce Photo

“Heels down!” is a persistent refrain we all hear as young or new riders. Funny, I never had an inkling to ask “Why?”

Here are three reasons to keep your heels down:

  • Stability and safety. To lengthen your leg deep and around your horse for jumping or quick movements. A secure, anchored position if your horse spooks.
  • Fairness to horse. Dropping your heels provides a pause from your leg aids. A “Yes” to his correct response.
  • Show ring success. Judges penalize loose legs and lost stirrups. For instance, a lost stirrup earns a 10 point penalty in AQHA equitation or horsemanship.

Believe it or not, sometimes practice doesn’t make perfect! Sitting trot and two point position are excellent standard rider drills. Nonetheless, either exercise out of balance can create some unhelpful side effects.

  •  Too much two point. I meet riders who’ve been coached to step down in their heels to the exclusion of other equitation essentials. Jammed, inflexible heels may evolve from riding with all your weight in in your stirrups, without influence of seat. When I’m judging, I note these riders struggling with the sitting trot. When our legs are jammed down, they lose their shock absorbing or communication ability. The usefulness of the leg is diminished and the rider will not have the suppleness to apply subtle aids.
  • Too much sitting trot. Rehearsing a deep seat develops following hips and a stable core. However, without quality two point time, riders may “practice” reaching down for their stirrups with their toes instead of stepping down into their heels. Some western and dressage riders I coach struggle with lost stirrups when switching saddles or styles, to hunt seat equitation for example.

All disciplines benefit from mixing a healthy balance of full seat and half seat work into their routines.

Heels Down Check List

Is my position balanced? A rider with his ear, shoulder, hip and heel aligned perpendicular to the ground isn’t likely to pitch forward or backward. Picture the balance needed to stand in the back of a pickup truck, driven over a bumpy field. It’s common to see riders with their legs too far forward. Glance down – you shouldn’t be able to see your toe peeking out in front of your knee. Stirrup leathers (or western fenders) should be perpendicular to the ground.

Is my saddle balanced? Poor saddle fit makes for a losing battle in the pursuit of equitation goals. If your saddle doesn’t fit your horse, you’re facing an uphill struggle or a downhill slide. Countless times, I’ve climbed aboard a student’s horse only to find it’s their tack influencing their seat to the back of the saddle, with legs sliding forward. Or I’ve discovered a saddle elevated behind, tipping me forward. It’s no wonder their legs naturally pendulum backward.

Is my stirrup the correct length? While stirrup length is a few inches longer for western and dressage than for hunter seat, regardless of discipline, your knee and ankle joints must bend and flex in order to function as shock absorbers. Stirrups too long? You’ll find yourself reaching for them with your toe, losing suppleness and effectiveness in your ankle. Too short? You’ll be unable to sink into the saddle, sacrificing the influence of your seat aids. Aim for your stirrup to touch the bottom of your ankle bone. A little higher for jumping, with slight variations for rider preference and conformation.

Does my horse have enough impulsion? A dull horse never affords his rider a chance to rest and reposition the leg. Who can focus on deepening their heels when riding is an aerobic workout? If your leg represents the back of an imaginary box, your dull horse has likely become content to rest on it as he would on the butt bar of a trailer! Horses seek freedom. Self-carriage develops when your horse discovers a “sweet spot” inside that box, whereas leaning on any of its boundaries is uncomfortable. If he responds promptly when you ask for more energy, immediately lower your heel and soften your leg to send him the “thank you” message.

I coach riders to allow their toes to turn out a little bit, flexing the ankle in and enabling them to communicate more effectively to the horse. A “toe in” position causes the rider to pinch the saddle with her knee, losing contact and stability with her calf.

In lessons, we practice rider position exercises in three-minute segments, like commercials in between other work. This avoids muscle fatigue that could lead to sloppy practice, developing another bad habit en route to correcting an existing one