“Keep your heels DOWN!”
What rider hasn’t heard this a multitude of times? And what riding instructor hasn’t said this to the point of near despair? That one sentence has been spoken into the air for so many generations that you’d almost think future riders would be born with their heels down.

But they’re not. Furthermore, in the course of daily life there are very few opportunities which cause a normal person to use their feet in a heels down position. Consequently, muscles, tendons, and ligaments must be conditioned to this unusual position. Let’s talk about how to get your heels down in this three part article. This first part talks about why  do riders need to get their heels down.

Since this’ll be a voluntary action from the rider, a wise instructor will get the rider’s mind engaged in the process of learning and conditioning for heels down. Without a clear understanding of what it’s for, what it looks like and how to and not to get heels down, a rider won’t make it very far out of the starting blocks in their riding career. Well, they might get out of the blocks but they’ll continue to progress in peril.

Keeping the heel down is a basic building block in the foundation of good riding. Notice I didn’t say the first basic building block. That’s because it’s one of many building blocks required to create a good foundation. Some of the foundation is taught concurrently and some is not. Frequently it depends on the age and ability of the student.

Keeping the heels down is one of the most important fundamentals in riding. Unfortunately if steps are not taken to get the beginner firmly grounded with their heels down, it will come back to haunt their riding later on. There are no quick fixes, short cuts or special stirrups that can replace learning this fundamental.

Take a look at this check list of reasons for keeping the heels down:
The biggest reason that the average rider needs to be able to keep their heels down is that it will help to keep them safe. And safety should be the number one concern of riding instructors.

One of the sensations we try to develop in riders is that of a lower center of gravity. A correctly “downed” heel will distribute the rider’s weight into the saddle and around the horse as opposed to on the ball of the foot.

And a downed heel keeps the rider in the saddle when sudden moves occur

“heels down = weight down = more security in the saddle”. Less unnerving wobbling. Wobbling causes students to feel very insecure.

BALANCE – prevents balance from pivoting on the ball of the foot

SEAT – all of the above allow the rider to develop a more secure seat

AIDS – helps the rider to use the leg and weight aids better because the leg is trained to be longer and steadier

Picture this – your student is out on a trail when her horse leaps to the side because a plastic grocery bag that’s stuck in a bush, flaps in the wind. Her heels come up, her weight goes up, her hands go up and the horse effectively steps out from under her. Or her heels go down, weight stays down, hands stay down and she rides out the spook that would have otherwise landed her on the ground.

Or picture this– Your student is learning to post . Trotting along the rail the lesson horse does a sudden strong downward transition ( not unheard of in lesson horses). Do your student’s heels come up and she flops forward on the horse’s neck or worse, falls off? Or do the solidly down heels anchor the student so that she unceremoniously plops back into the saddle.

In either case the rider with the heels down is safer, avoids injury, and just as important, avoids a blow to self confidence. The heels up rider pivots off the ball of the foot, loses balance forward, and even if she doesn’t fall off, receives a blow to her confidence making the experience very unpleasant. And very unnecessary.

And while I’ll agree with anyone who wants to make a case that other forces are involved in these two scenarios, I maintain that the first line of defense when wanting to avoid accidents, insecure riders and strikes against the confidence is to develop “heels down” in your students.

Safety, security, balance, seat and aids are 5 crucial building blocks necessary to develop riders who love what they do and want to move forward in knowledge and experience. Without any one of these 5 building blocks, the forward progress door is slammed in the rider’s face.

Explain to your students why having heels down is important. You’ll engage their minds in the development process and your students will make better progress. Keeping heels down is a basic that should to be taught from the first day your student mounts up and it should continue without compromising. Heels need to be watched and corrected at every riding stage. Since it is a “basic”, its proper use will be effective at all levels.

I’ll explain more about “HEELS” in part 2 of “Get Those Heels Down!”.

Here’s to good riding and a safe trip,

Barbara Fox

The Riding Instructor

Looking for part 2 of Get Those Heels Down? https://theridinginstructor.net/101/get-those-heels-downpart-2/

And part 3 is here   https://theridinginstructor.net/107/get-those-heels-down-part-3/

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Barbara Ellin Fox TheRidingInstructor
  • Of course we want those heels down. However, the calf muscles can stretch only as much as the opposing shin muscles are able to unlock and elastically contact. So, think “toes up” whenever you hear heels down!

  • Thank you for the wonderful article! My husband is just learning to ride at 59, and the heels down issue makes me despair as well, for the horses comfort and wellbeing as well as his safety. Interestingly he seems to find excuses for why he can’t do it at his age but he also has excuses for other issues, so I’m rather suspicious!

    Wonderful articles!

    • Thank you, Joann. Kudos to your husband! It’s not the easiest, learning to ride a little later in life but also never too late! Stretching those calf muscles before he mounts will be helpful. I use an elastic band at the ball of my foot and stretch and flex with it holding each position for the count of ten. Also, stretching the legs out on the fence before he mounts up… hold the fence and place the leg on the rail, count to ten. The stretching and flexing go a long way to help with flexibility. I think anything your husband does to stretch; legs, calves, back etc before he mounts up will pay off in the saddle.

    • An exercise I have found useful to my less flexible students is to stand with the balls of the feet on steps holding the railing. Bend your knees slightly and let your heels drop. Feel that lovely stretch in the calves? To take it a step further, slowly raise up slightly on your toes and then gently back into the heels down position. Be sure your feet aren’t going to slip off before doing this. For example: doing this in socks on wooden steps would be a BAD idea. There are plenty of reasons for tight calves including being a biker or a runner or simply wearing high heels most of the day.

      • Hi Joyce, I love this exercise and your explanation. I can almost feel those socks slipping and then the face plant! There are few things we do that stretch the calves naturally, yet it feels good and is so helpful for the heels and ankles. Thank you for your comment. Barbara

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