Problems With Heels

Knowing what the problem is in your heel goes a long way with how to correct your heel position. Two especially common problems are curling the ankle (which can result in pain in the outside of your calf) and lifting the heels to signal the horse.

Lifting toes instead of dropping heels will cause ankles to stiffen. Lifting the toes is easy and you can see how it feels sitting in your chair.  Try it and you’ll feel your ankle stiffen and the muscles along the shin tighten.  You have achieved getting your heels down but you have added a great deal of tension to your lower leg.  “Toes Up” is better used as an exercise to stretch and strengthen muscles, rather than a method to lower the heels.

Foot in the Stirrup Incorrectly
Foot mispositioned in stirrup will cause ankles to stiffen.  Stirrups that are “home” (foot all the way in) rob the ankle of it’s ability to flex making it very difficult to use the leg aids correctly.

Lifting the Heel to Use it

The tiny rider in the picture below is sitting over her feet and would probably have a good heel if she were not lifting it to make her pony move.  Lifting the heel happens when the riders and horse are not matched in size.  For instance a tiny rider on a big barreled animal or a long legged rider on a pony.  Unfortunately, lifting the heel is a difficult habit to change, so care should be taken to mount riders on horses that suit their size.  Lifting the heel also occurs when the rider’s stirrups are too long.   The correction is to shorten the stirrup leather.

Curling Ankles
Curling occurs when the rider places more weight on the little toe and tries to turn toes so they are parallel to horse.  This is another fault that takes an active effort to correct.   Most people can’t, because of conformation, make their feet hang parallel to the horse’s side unless they roll their ankle out and press their little toe on to the stirrup. Often when you look at this foot position you’ll notice that the whole ball of the foot does not press onto the stirrup.  The result is a cocked or rolled out ankle that can’t allow the heel to go down and a rider whose ability to use the lower leg correctly is diminished.  Often riders who curl their ankles will suffer pain or numbness in the ankle or in the muscles on the outside of the calf.  The rider’s toe must be allowed to turn out slightly in a position that permits the foot to step flat all the way across the tread of the stirrup.  Any correction to the turn out of the toes comes from repositioning the leg from the hip down, not the ankle. This repositioning takes time as the rider conditions her muscles, tendons and ligaments to a new position.

Fist-y Feet
Tension crops up in riders in many different ways. Sometimes it’s hard to know what’s going on inside a riders boots! Kids come to lessons in boots that they will “grow into” and sometimes you have to ask.  The same goes for riders who clench their toes.   Inside those boots could be toes that are wadded up into toe “fists”, tightening the wrong muscles and blocking the heel.  To begin to correct this habit, ask your riders to wiggle each toe, one at a time, from little toe to largest and largest to little toe.  This will help the toes to relax.

Boots too Tight in the Ankle
Paddock shoes are the biggest culprit here.  Riders lace them tightly as if they were ice skates. Ice skate need to be tight to support the ankle. A flexible or loose ankle for an ice skater is sure to spell disaster.   Paddock shoes need to be loose in the ankle to allow flexibility. Loosen those laces.  Make sure boots fit well and are broken in.

Ankle Cocked In
Another faulty heel position is the ankle that is broken inward with a heel that is well down.   The ankle is rigidly flexed inward creating stiffness.  The heel is down but the usefulness of the leg is diminished and the rider will not have the ability to apply subtle aids.

Lack of Flexibility
Some ankles are less flexible than others just by the nature of a rider’s conformation.  This rider may find it hard to get the heel down more than slightly.  If the rider has the weight down through the seat, leg and into the heel properly, the slightly downed heel should be very functional.  Lack of flexibility due to injury should be treated the same way.

Working to Condition Heels
Letting the weight sink into the heels is as much a mental exercise as it is physical. Riders need to picture the flow of weight from the head down to the heels.  They need to think about the feeling of becoming heavy in the lower extremities.  Adults, especially, carry a lot of tension between the shoulder blades.  This tension cause the center of gravity to rise, which countermands many of the good things we try to achieve in lessons, including good heels.  Picturing the weight flowing, not just to the seat but through the seat will help.   Even youngsters can understand the importance of having their heels down and can think about the lowering weight. Youngsters love to give vivid examples in riding class. Encourage them to describe ways of “thinking” their weight into their heels.  Let them use their quality imaginations, instead of just giving them directions.

In a Nutshell
If the rider understands why heels should be down and how to get them there, normally the rider will work consistently towards developing good heels.  It’s the “buy in “ factor.  If students “buy in” to the principles, the principles become their own. However, if the instructor doesn’t place good heels high on the priority list, neither will the student.

How to Do it
In the physical realm, tendons don’t stretch a lot but you don’t need a huge stretch in order to have good heels. Since the sustained heels down position is an unusual position for anyone to adopt when they aren’t riding, it stands to reason that a little bit of work  to stretch those rather unstretchable tendons ought to pay dividends.  Suppling and loosening your ankles will help your heel position and your relaxation.  And strengthening your feet will help the general strength and flexibility of the ankle, heel, foot overall.

But They Only Ride Once or Twice a Week
It’s hard for a student to become a terrific rider when their weekly hours on horseback are so limited. But a large share of riding progress is proportionate to conditioning.  Conditioning makes the rider more flexible and stronger. Giving riders exercises to work with when they’re away from the horse will help a rider’s progress. Plus it develops a connection between lessons.

Stiffness in the lower back effects many parts of the body during riding, including the heels. A tight lower back diminishes the ability to raise the foot high enough to reach the stirrup and it can effect the looseness of your hips.  Tight hamstrings can keep a rider from being able to drop their weight into the heels.

Un-Mounted Exercises

Stretch back Muscles and Hamstrings
Good old  Toe Touches- stand up straight, roll forward and down slowly trying to touch the floor with your fingertips. Hold to a count of 12.  Roll up slowly.

Loosen Ankles and Stretch Calf Muscles
Sitting in a chair with calves vertical lift toe off floor by flexing ankle. Hold for a count on 12. Then release and lift the other toe.

Ankle Circles both directions
Rotate your foot to the left 12 times.  Rotate your foot to the right 12 times.

Strengthen Arches
Holding a door frame, stand on one foot.  Raise up on toes so your are standing on the ball of your foot, lower back down.  An average person should be able to do this 25 consecutive times without losing strength.  (Added advantage of strengthening calves and thighs)

The Step Stretch
To stretch tendons and develop the sensation of having weight in the heels, stand on the bottom step of a stair and slowly stretch down into your heels.  Hold the wall to keep from falling.  Don’t bounce because bouncing can cause muscle tears.

If you don’t have stair you can purchase a foam half round.  It works as well as a step, and it’s portable.

Stretch the Arches
Stand with the half round directly under your arches.  Do this without shoes for a count of 15.


Stretch the Calves
Stand about 3 feet from a wall with feet flat on the floor.  Lean forward a place hands on the wall. Hold for 15 seconds.  Do not over do this.  Adjust the distance your feet are from the wall according to your own body.

Mounted Exercises

Standing and Balancing
Have the rider hold the mane or neck strap and rise up in the stirrups, letting the weight sink into their heels.  Knees are slightly bent for shock absorbers.  Be sure the seat isn’t pulled forward onto the pommel.  This should be practiced at the walk and trot. This exercise has the added benefit of working on the rider’s balance and helping them to find their center.

Two Point
2 point is an exceptional exercise for heels down.  Have riders hold mane or neck     strap to steady themselves as the sink their weight into the heels.  Don’t encourage neck leaning because this will allow weight to be taken on the hands instead of in the heels.  Practice at walk, trot, and canter, also over poles.

Ankle Circles
With feet out of stirrups have riders practice the same ankle circles that were described above.

While standing in the stirrups have riders practice rising and lowering the ankles just like the did on the stairs.

What Does It Take?
Developing strong basics takes work and developing a good heel position is a very important basic, not just a cosmetic point that is important for horse shows. In order to help your students develop the habit of good heels, you need to place it high on your teaching priority list, right from the start, and you must keep your eye on it during early riding development years.  It’s much easier to develop good heels from the start than it is to to correct bad heel habits.  If you believe good heels are important it will be much easier to convince your students.  Once your student is convinced, it will take practice and conditioning but in the long run, this will develop sound riding basics that will last your student a lifetime of riding, something that’s well worth the effort.

Thanks for reading this 3 part series “Get Those Heels Down!”.  I hope you’ll put some of these ideas to work with your students….or even with yourself. “Heels Down” is definitely an important part of our riding foundation.

May every minute you ride bring you satisfaction and joy.

Barbara Fox

The Riding Instructor

Here’s a quick link to part 1 of Get Those Heels Down!

Here’s a quick link to part 2 of Get Those Heels Down!

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Barbara Ellin Fox TheRidingInstructor
  • Hello, I came across this page when searching for ankle pain/horse back riding. My daughter who is now 13, has had chronic ankle pain for 4 years. It started when she was riding 2-3x a week, taking lessons. We have yet to solve the mysterious pain. I am starting all over from square one and going back to the fact that she was riding at the time, even though the pain came on suddenly one evening. (when she happened to have been ice skating that day.) I am reaching out to see if anyone here has insight to how/why a child would have chronic foot pain possibly from the riding. We have seen every type of doc, had every test, tried lots of different treatments, etc. but she still has the pain. It will flare up at times to the point she can’t walk and otherwise, it is a constant dull pain. Thank you for any insight. I am a desperate mama advocating for my daughter! Thank you!

    • Hi Leigh,
      I’m always in favor of mothers advocating for their daughters and I’m certainly not qualified to give medical advice. I assume you’ve had all of the xrays and scan necessary to rule out any physical issues. You did not mention if your daughter is still riding. Also you mention the ankle and then the foot. I have seen riders develop pain in their ankle and the outside part of the calf when they do not step flat onto the stirrup iron. This usually occurs when they have pressure on the little toe and are not stepping down on the ball of the foot and is usually the product of trying to prevent the toes from turning out with out correctly positioning the thigh. Secondly, not all riders are built to have their heels well down. I know this is like spitting in the face of the riding Instructor queen but some people are not as flexible in the ankle or have minor differences in their leg structure and it prevents them from being able to do what the instructor demands. They can counter act the heel by developing a deep seat and a good leg. Another thing- if your daughter wears paddock shoes with laces you should know that they are not meant to be highly done up like ice skates. In ice skating we want the ankle tight for support and strength. If we do that in paddock shoe the rider is restricted from getting the heel down. So I would be interested in knowing if your daughter has this ankle pain when she rides without stirrups or even bareback. Eliminate the stirrups and see if that is causing any of the trouble.

      I can’t think of anything to do with heels down that would cause pain in the foot. I’m sure you have had her checked for plantar fasciitis or heel spurs. I know that plantar fasciitis is an issue for kids that are growing especially ones that will be tall and have larger feet. Stirrup work should help plantar fasciitis but paddock shoes probably wouldn’t help.

      I hope one of the instructors or riders that reads RI will have more advice for you. I hope this helps a little bit. Barbara Ellin Fox

  • This has been a constant fight for me personally I come from some old school instructors whose battle cry was “TOES IN, HEELS DOWN” along with having been in an accident as a child that left me walking on my tip-toes until I was thirteen and realized what I was doing. This all led to a gripy knee and a pivot action if the horse miss stepped. A very wise instructor corrected me by having me keep my foot at least level and slightly turned out at the toe. As long as I feel the weight down the back of my leg from the seat bone down I have no problems with balance. I thank you for mentioning riders with physical limitations, there are ways around these problems we just have to search them out and play with what works best for us.

    • Jan
      If perfect builds and condition were a requirement for riding well and enjoying it, there wouldn’t be many riders!


  • Thanks for this article! I have a student who participates in competitive cheer 6 days per week and rides 2 days per week. She always looks stiff, is curling her toes and her weight is on the outside of her foot! I have had her spend much of her time riding in a two- point jump position. Her position has improved but I am looking for more ways to help her relax while she is riding! I can now have a discussion about her position and maybe add some relaxation exercises to her plan!

    Becky/Liberty Meadow Farm

    • You’re welcome! And thank you for your comment. The toe curling habit can also be an indication that something is not right in the hip and the rider is compensating at the ankle. Another thought, every once in a while you will find a student whose conformation just will not allow them to have the classical leg. A person who is knock-kneed can have a lot of difficulty keeping the knee close and the calf close at the same time. Sometimes you will find them wrapping their leg around and getting on that little toe. I wish you and your rider the very best of luck in your lessons together.

    • I had a friend who was very stiff, straight arms, leant forward so much her feet would swing back almost to the hoses flanks. We tried everything, then one day we had no saddle, so I dug out an old racing saddle, well that changed a lot of things. As you may imagine there is nothing to them, no knee rolls, no contoured seat just flat and the stirrups just hang and so when you are moving they swing. I had the idea of putting her stirrups up, short, not as short as a jockey but nearly, lol. The results were quite remarkable, she suddenly was forced into sitting straight and and relaxing her weight downwards, her legs had to be relaxed or she would have boinked off and her arms had to bend as her weight couldnt be counter balanced with her ‘flank’ feet, lol. It seemed the saddle could hold her in her strange position before, however she got no such luxury with the good old racing saddle. When we got the original saddle back, if she reverted to type id put her stirrups right up, and voila! Hope this helps 🙂

      • Samantha
        That’s an interesting way to help an unbalanced rider. I like that you really dug in to your mental tool box to come up with a solution. Thanks for sharing it with us. If I might make a suggestion – have you checked to see if her regular saddle is balanced? An un balanced saddle or one that doesn’t fit the horse correctly can really put a rider in an awkward position. Thanks for sharing your comment with us. Kudos to you for helping your friend.

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