Heels down? - The Horse Forum
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post #1 of 23 Old 06-14-2019, 09:36 PM Thread Starter
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Heels down?

HOW on EARTH do I keep my heels down.
ten years ago when I learned to ride my instructor told me to imagine a weight pulling my heels waaaaay dooooown and I don't remember ever really having a problem with my heels.
but now that I'm riding again, that is my BIGGEST PROBLEM!! I think one of my issues is that when I re-started, I started to ride bareback so it didn't matter too much where my heels were as long as they were kind of down and in a position where I could use them (I know, I know, I still need to have my heels down riding bareback because it helps everything else, but I'm a beginner so bare with me) but I take dressage lessons and do dressage on my own so now it's a big problem. I have a habit of lifting them up and bracing with my calves to hold on, especially while cantering, and it throws everything off. I'm good about it when I'm thinking hard about it, but then my shoulders fall in, or my hands get too loud, or this or that! I feel like I probably just need to get more secure in my riding, but it also feels like this is really hindering my EQ and my confidence!
I know that the stirrup should be beneath the ball of your foot, and the length of the leathers isn't a problem. I have heard spreading my toes, pulling my toes up, stretching my calves down; and I have a great pair of riding boots that are just the right length for my absurdly long calves that help a bit... but has anyone figured out a good trick for helping you keep your heels down? really anything can help! thanks in advance :^)
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post #2 of 23 Old 06-14-2019, 10:02 PM
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Lifting your toes really can help.

Try imagining that alllll your weight is in your heels, do this at a halt if you need to. Try standing in your stirrups at the walk, or two-pointing at the walk or trot. Your heel is your base.

Are you tensing up at the canter? Gripping with your calves will likely just make you stiff and the pressure could push your horse faster. Again, imagine your weight is in your heels and your legs are long. Toes to the sky, heels to the ground.

Slipping your feet out of your stirrups and making yourself keep your heels down will really make you appreciate stirrups.
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post #3 of 23 Old 06-14-2019, 10:15 PM
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Doing lots of stair stretches in between rides can help. Stand with the balls of your feet on a stair, and hold a railing with one hand to support you so you don't slip or fall. (We don't need you tearing an Achilles tendon after all.) Let your weight sink gently into your heels and let them drop down past the edge of the stair. Go slowly and relax. Think about letting your calves relax and release.

When you start getting more flexibility with it, you can do gentle little bounces up and down and just enjoy feeling that relaxed springiness in your lower leg. Really think about that feeling, and try to take a mental photograph of it, if you will, that you can reference later. It helps with muscle memory.

The main thing is to take your time to encourage that flexibility and to explore that feeling. Soooo much easier to work on relaxing and dropping your heel when you're NOT on a moving horse!!
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post #4 of 23 Old 06-14-2019, 10:46 PM
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The idea of riding with heels down is to prevent the rider’s foot from slipping forward in the stirrup. When riding bareback, this is not a problem. When riding bareback, it is natural for a relaxed rider’s toes to be lower because the foot connects to the leg near the heel.

I think you’ve already realized your problem with keeping your heels down when riding with stirrups since you state: “I have a habit of lifting them up and bracing with my calves to hold on.”

The key is to release muscular tension. If this tension is released, gravity alone should pull your heels slightly lower than your toes because the heel is not supported by the stirrup as the front of the foot is.

If you think about it, much of a rider’s weight is hanging on either side of the horse lower than the horse’s backbone. Therefore, a rider would need to lean quite far in order to fall off. If a rider releases muscular tension, gravity will pull this weight downward giving the rider stability through a low center of gravity. Releasing muscular tension will also allow the rider’s body to more easily follow the horse’s motion so, once again, there is no need to “hold on” with one’s legs.

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post #5 of 23 Old 06-14-2019, 11:23 PM
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Originally Posted by TXhorseman View Post
If you think about it, much of a rider’s weight is hanging on either side of the horse lower than the horse’s backbone. Therefore, a rider would need to lean quite far in order to fall off. If a rider releases muscular tension, gravity will pull this weight downward giving the rider stability through a low center of gravity. Releasing muscular tension will also allow the rider’s body to more easily follow the horse’s motion so, once again, there is no need to “hold on” with one’s legs.
This is very true!

And I'm going to add to this: the leg muscles that will balance and stabilize your seat most effectively are under and behind you, not the ones that squeeze inwards. What I mean by that is, you use your butt muscles and the backs of your thighs to adjust and correct your balance by pressing slightly down as needed to adjust the alignment of your upper body, but not by clamping to the sides of the horse -- ever. (You also use your abs to control your body's position and stability.)

Squeezing inwards with the legs to "grip" adds tension and raises your centre of gravity, so you're more likely to pop out of the saddle, not less. Inward squeezes are only for aids, and ideally they happen independently of whatever you're doing to stay on! A rider in good balance can swing their leg completely out off the sides of the horse, from about the mid-thigh on down, and still stay fairly secure, because the balance itself is coming from elsewhere in the body.
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post #6 of 23 Old 06-15-2019, 12:56 AM
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Here's a video that might help! So much of Natasha Althoff's videos and content are valuable for so much more than just dressage, even if that's what she focuses on.

My suggestion to you is this: 1) follow the advice in that video about not having stirrups too short and not gripping with your knees, 2) try trotting without stirrups to develop the correct muscles and a longer leg, and 3) make sure to STRETCH before you ride (stretching advice in a video below.)

It's about your back and core, not your legs. 'Heels down' has a few different purposes. One is as an indicator of where you are in core strength, and if you're able to use your core strength to keep yourself upright while you flow in motion with the horse. If you aren't sitting up straight and engaging your abs and core (yes, that so rudely includes your groin muscles) then where are your legs? Are they relaxed, but prepared to give cues to your horse?

The second purpose of 'heels down' is as a way for you to allow downward impact energy to flow down through your stirrups, which is a part of moving with the horse and actually 'riding' rather than having every muscle tense up (which I affectionately refer to as 'planking' on the horse.) We work to have everything be very fluid, and our 'core' is what holds us up straight.

(In anything involving fast movement and jumping, heels down has yet another purpose that I think we all know and can appreciate. Those who don't do it end up dusting themselves off.)

Keeping your heals down, in stirrups, during the sitting trot is one of the hardest things you can do, so here's another video that might be helpful:
One of the things she says is to absorb the impact of the trot 'bounce' down through your ankles and into your heels. You can see her do it. And really, that's the secret. Stirrups should have very little to do with keeping you in the saddle unless your horse is having a mental moment. And hey, it happens, particularly if you and your horse are learning together. Don't worry about it too much unless whatever you're doing is causing the incorrect behavior in your horse. Having discipline drives you to be better, having fun is what keeps you smiling in the saddle.

Hope that helps! =)

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Last edited by Feathers7; 06-15-2019 at 12:58 AM. Reason: Removing excess space
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post #7 of 23 Old 06-15-2019, 01:48 AM
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Heels are really a symptom of what's happening in the rest of the leg. Tight hip flexors, incorrect reflexes, saddle fit, gripping, ect.

As you've said, you get tense, grip, the heels come up. Staying on isn't about gripping, it's following their balance. I'm tried, so I don't wanna type too much. With dressage, your feet drop into the stirrups without any force. They don't need to be down much, but having them down and the leg still correct shows the release of tension in the leg.

1. Lunge lessons. No stirrups. No reins. Steady horse. Just focus on the seat, pulling yourself deeper. Relaxing the legs and seat and follow through positive tension.
2. Ankle circles. Drop the stirrups (cross them if doing trot+ work) and write the alphabet with you toes. Yes, your toes will be down. That's fine for this exercise. While you are doing the ankle movements, you can't grip with the leg. With your feet out of the stirrups, feel how the leg stretches and the feeling of using your leg while doing the circles. You don't need force to turn. Do this walk, trot, and canter as able.
3. Leg swings. Stirrups crosses, each leg is brought forward and back from the hip. One at a time then both. Don't move the seat, don't wiggle side to side. Just hing the hip. It'll kill your muscles at first. Don't do too much. This will release the tightness in the hip and leg the leg hang longer.
4. No stirrup work then pick them up, then drop once you start tightening again.
5. Forward horse. A lazy horse makes people do bad things with their legs. It's way, way easier to establish a good leg position when the horse is going on his own and you don't feel the need to kick every stride.
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post #8 of 23 Old 06-15-2019, 11:50 AM
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Quite often people in dressage have their stirrups too long. They are trying to get that "long leg" they see on advanced riders. But a beginner riders should gave about a 93 degree angle of opening behind the knee. Of course, the knee is more pointed downward than on a jumper type seat, but there is still reasonable bend behind the knee. When stirrups are too long, the rider ends up fishing for them, which brings the toe down, heel up.

Try riding with stirrups up a notch next lesson.

Also, next time you ride, real try to notice if your shoulders are tensed upward, and you neck sort of " turtling" down into them. This will often be part of the riders tensing, and shortening the body, so can help with lengthening if you drop shoulders. ( Think of pushing your elbows down toward your hips).
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post #9 of 23 Old 06-15-2019, 02:10 PM
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Yea, very good point. Dont ride with too long stirrups in an attempt to have a long leg. You can have a long leg with shorter stirrups while developing your seat. Too long stirrups makes you reach and tense and is counter productive. Lengthen gradually.
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post #10 of 23 Old 06-16-2019, 09:38 AM
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It depends on your horse and how comfortable you are with your horse
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dressage , heels , tips

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