How to Keep Your Heels Down & Toes In When Riding
Do you pull your lower leg up and use your heels instead of your calves when you put your leg on?
This is a common fault that can impact on the effectiveness of your leg aids.
So, how can you improve your position so that your heels stay down?
In this article, we discuss the importance of the correct leg position for dressage riders. Also, we’ll give you some helpful exercises to practice that will cure you of the heels-down and toes-out habit!
The correct dressage rider position
When sitting in the saddle, you must aim to keep a clean line from your ear, through your shoulder, hip, and heel. That position will help you to develop a balanced, independent seat.
If the line is broken, your balance will change, and that can negatively affect your horse’s way of going.
One of the most common causes of a loss of correct rider position is tension. If you tense up, your muscles tighten, and that often leads to your lower leg being drawn up and your heel raised.
Ideally, your leg should hang down without tightness and tension.
Exercises to help you keep your heels down
Here are some exercises that you can use to help you to stretch your leg down longer and lower your heels.
Exercise #1 – Half-seat position
Look closely at someone from your yard who showjumps or rides cross-country. You will note that these riders have their stirrups shorter than you do for dressage.
That shorter leather length puts the rider’s calf in close contact with the horse’s barrel.
You can develop the same contact with longer stirrups. To do so, you need to be able to use your ankle and Achilles tendon as a flexible shock absorber as the horse moves underneath you.
Only use your calf for forward and sideways leg aids.
To ride correctly in half-seat, raise your seat a few inches out of the saddle, taking your weight over your knees, through your calf, and down into your heel.
You’ll need to drop your heel right down, feeling the calf muscle and tendon stretching as you do so.
Begin by riding the exercise in the walk. When you have found your balance, move on to riding in half-seat in the trot and canter.
Taking the weight onto the ball of the foot, rather than into the heel is a common fault that’s seen in riders when they first begin learning to ride in half-seat.
Exercise #2 – Staircase stretch
The second exercise involves using a staircase and a large exercise ball. (We also advise you to have an assistant ready to catch you just in case.)
Stand on the bottom step of the stairs (do not try this exercise at the top of the stairs!) and allow your heels to drop down over the edge of the step.
Allow your calf muscle to relax completely, and drop your heel right down. You should feel the back of your lower leg stretching.
Now place a large exercise ball between your calves as you stretch. That will show you that you can use your calves to squeeze inward while stretching down into your heels at the same time.
Exercise #3 – Lunge work
This is a simple exercise that you can ride on the lunge line or at walk if you have a quiet horse.
First of all, lengthen your stirrups.
Stretch your heels down and make circles with your toes. Rotate your ankles in counterclockwise and clockwise circles, focusing on keeping your calf supple and your heels deep.
On the lunge, you can continue to ride this exercise in trot and canter. However, you should only attempt that off the lunge if you have a steady, trustworthy mount.
Horse’s conformation and training
Another consideration that will affect the rider’s ability to ride with a long leg is their horse’s physiology.
A tall, long-legged rider who is mounted on a small horse is always going to struggle to maintain a correct heel-down position.
A horse with a wide barrel will make it tricky for a rider to control their lower leg, especially if she is short-legged.
These issues are further compounded when the rider wears spurs. It’s virtually impossible to use the spur unless the heel is drawn upward or the rider’s toes are turned out.
Finally, the horse must be trained to work forward from the lightest of leg aids. A horse that sits behind the leg will always encourage the rider to draw their heel up in an attempt to kick the horse into action!
How to stop riding with toes-out
Another common positional fault is turned out toes.
Apart from looking untidy, toes-out can cause the following problems with the rider’s position:
- Turned out knees
- Thighs lifting away from the saddle
- Inability to use the lower leg
Only if you ride with a flexible ankle and your toes facing forward, will you be able to use the inside of your leg correctly.
To assess how you’re doing, take a look at the outer seam of your boots that run down the back of your calve after you’ve ridden. If the seam is coated in grease from your horse’s coat, you’ve been riding with your toes turned out!
One effective way to train your toe to stay forward is to place your hand underneath your thigh from behind and lift your thigh away from the saddle, pulling the upper part of your thigh backward.
You’ll most likely find that you have to keep repeating the process of repositioning your thighs throughout your schooling sessions until muscle memory takes over and keeps your leg in the right place.
Problems riding with toes-out and heels-down
Sometimes, toes-out can happen when a rider overcorrects their heel position.
It’s often the case that the rider jams their heels right down and strains to keep their toes pointing in, only to find that they start gripping with their upper leg, unbalancing themselves.
Focus on the position of your pelvis, your seat, your upper thigh, and the correct line from your ear, shoulder, hip, and heel. That will place your toes exactly where they should be.
Toes-out and heel-up are usually problems that are caused when the rider becomes tense and tight. Concentrate on relaxing into the saddle and absorbing the horse’s movement through your seat, and your leg position should sort itself out.
Riding with your heels down and your toes facing forward is not just about aesthetics and “looking the part.”
If you ride with your heels up and your toes sticking out, it’s highly probable that your basic riding position is flawed. Also, toes-out and heel-up can be indicators that a rider is very tense and tight.
On a dressage score sheet, there is a collective mark for the rider’s position, the effect, and correctness of the aids. So, working on your riding position will pay dividends both in terms of the collective marks and your ability to apply your leg aids correctly and effectively.
If you have any other tips or advice, please share with us in the comments box below.
- How to Use Your Upper Leg
- How to Lengthen Your Lower Leg
- How to Stop Your Legs From Swinging When Riding
- How to Use Your Outside Leg