What Are Toe Touches?

Toe Touches are an on-the-horse exercise during which the rider stays seated and reaches down with his hand to touch his toes, one foot and one hand at a time.

There are two types of Toe Touches:

Same Side
Cross overs

Why they are beneficial

Co-ordinationtoe touches

  • co-ordination increases when the student has to keep certain body parts still while moving others. This is the elementary stage of developing independent aids.


  • Teaching maneuverability on the horse’s back increases confidence.
  • Older beginner riders, taller beginners, or youngsters who are in awkward growing stages,  may feel vulnerable about leaving their upright position to reach for their toes. Successfully completing toe touches can increase their confidence.


Flexability, stretching and balance kind of go hand in hand. Any stretching exercise will help riders become more flexible.


Good experiences build trust both in the rider’s image of what they can do and their trust of the horse they ride.

How to do Toe Touches

In the beginning the rider stays seated in the saddle and leans down toward the toe with one hand while steadying their movement with the other hand on the withers.

Same side

Same side implies that the rider will touch the left hand to the left toe or the right hand to the right toe.

The rider reaches down to touch his toe on the same side eg. Left hand to left toe. The same process is repeated for the right side.

Cross overs

are more difficult because they involve reaching across the horse’s neck to touch the opposing toe with the fingers

How to Teach Tow Touches

Be very serious about safety when you teach toe touches.

  • Be sure your horses are comfortable withtoe touches riders moving into these positions.
  • Have an assistant hold the horse by the reins or with a lead.
  • Make certain that the horse’s girth is tight enough that the saddle won’t slip.
  • And have the rider do the toe touch toward the center of the arena so there is no danger of their helmet hitting the wall, the fence, or of something unusual such as falling between the horse and the wall.

Start out having your rider do toe touches while the horse is standing still. Later, as your riders advance they can do toe touches at the walk with a leader, then when they are proficient in control they can do them off lead.

The first few times you teach a rider toe touches, be happy with a strong effort. In other words, if they can not reach their toe because of fear or stiffness, be pleased with a good strong try.  This sets your ground line for future lessons because each time you will ask for a little more until your rider can easily reach his or her toes.

As soon as possible, encourage heels down. This increases the rider’s stability.

Ask first for one toe touch at a time.  When you rider is able to perform the toe touch have them do several on the same side before switching to the other side.  The number will be according to the age, ability and attention span of your student.

Your classes direction will be according to the direction their head is leaning.  Touching the left toe they should be on the left rein, touch the right toe they should be on the right rein.

Your command may go something like this

“At a halt, left hand to left toe, 10 times.”

“At a halt right hand to left toe 5 times.”

What to Look Out for

  • Watch out for the opposing leg.  Frequently as your rider leans forward to touch their left toe, their right leg will swing up.  This can make it possible for the rider to slip off the horse to the left.  The goal is for the opposing leg to remain in place with the heel down.
  • Hands that pull on the reins for balance.  Sometimes when a rider uses one body part it seems like all parts move in unison. It’s okay for your beginner to press his hands into the horse’s neck or on the pommel or saddle horn, but the hand should not fly into the air or pull on the reins, especially when they do cross overs and reach under the rein hand.
  • Also watch that your rider doesn’t “chase” her foot. Chasing is when the leg slips back as the hand reaches for the toe.

Adding Difficulty to Toe Touches

  • Same side  toe touches can be made more challenging when you instruct riders not to lean on the horse with their rein hand.  This requires more strength and balance.
  • Difficulty is increased when the rider has to do toe touches and steer but this also provides a good lesson in weight aids because most horses will veer in the direction of the rider’s displaced weight. In other words, if the rider leans to touch the left toe the horse may turn that direction because of the rider’s weight shift.

I’ve used Toe Touches frequently when I teach.  I love how they help riders to progress. How do you use Toe Touches?

A special thank you to Joy and her lovely Nokata Horse, Nike, and to AFox Photography for allowing me to use these great pictures.

Thanks for reading The Riding Instructor!

Barbara Ellin Fox

Barbara Ellin Fox TheRidingInstructor
  • I like to use toe touches in lunge lessons because it helps me make an example of the importance of a riders body parts needing to move independently. I call the lower part of a riders body their “seat belt”. It doesn’t matter if they are touching their toes, leaning back to touch the horses bum, or leaning forward for a scratch the ears, the lower leg should not move. The example you used of the foot chasing was perfect. As soon as that leg went back, the rider lost her balance.

    • Hi Annette,
      It’s hard for riders to move the upper body and keep their legs still and I agree the lunge line is a perfect place to use your example. When the rider doesn’t have to control the horse they can concentrate on separating the body parts. Growing kids have the extra burden of changing during growth spurts, too. Toe touches can be a challenge for riders over fifty, especially if they are new-ish to riding. Lunge lessons are the perfect place to help them. Thanks for commenting! Barbara

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