You know it’s important to keep your heels down when you ride a horse. Did you know that rather than ‘pushing’ your heels down, you can allow your heels to get lower by learning relaxing your calf muscles? Rather than stretching your calves, you can learn to passively lengthen them!
Below, I’ll teach you how to use Hanna Somatics to unwind your calf and lower leg tension so your heels will comfortably and naturally rest level or lower in the stirrups, in your true neutral.
From neutral, it’s easy to lengthen your leg, apply your aids, and keep from gripping or wobbling as you build your balance and independent seat. Plus, your ankles won’t hurt anymore!
Why is it so hard to keep your heels down when you ride?
Do you have the ‘bad habit’ of leaning forward and riding with your toes lower than your heels? It’s not your fault!
Not being a confident rider can cause you to unconsciously slouch forward into a fetal position. Or, if you do a lot of core strengthening workouts, (or practice ‘sucking in your gut’) you might have inadvertently trained your stomach muscles to hold some chronic tension, which pulls you forward. Sometimes it could even be your saddle making you tip forward and point your toes down…
One thing that I know for sure is that most of us carry chronic tension in our calf muscles. This calf tension causes our brain to unconsciously pull our heels up! It’s even worse if you wear high heels or boots all the time. Calf tension affects us all because the calf muscles have to work so hard, contracting literally with every step we take to propel us through the world.
For some of us, having tight hip flexors (aka psoas muscles) can also cause your whole leg to shorten – hop over to this post to learn how to release your hip flexors, or read on to learn how to lengthen your legs through the calves.
Join me in a short Somatics for Riders session to unwind your calf tension and instantly get a longer leg!
So, why should you ride horses with your heels down, anyways?
It’s not just because it looks pretty!
The main reason to keep your heels are level or a little lower than the ball of your foot is safety.
When your heels are down, here’s how it works:
- your ankle can act as a shock absorber
- your foot will not slide forward in the stirrup (very important to keep you from getting stuck if you should fall off or be wearing improper footwear).
- you will find it much easier to sit in the correct ear-shoulder-hip-ankle alignment in your saddle (when your heels creep up, your balance tips forward)
- when cantering, galloping or jumping, a shorter stirrup and deeper heel will keep you safer and more comfortable (you can brace in the stirrups to keep from being thrown forward when landing a jump or if your horse slows or stops suddenly).
How do you keep your heels down when riding a horse?
Not by forcing them!
The best way is to have completely relaxed leg muscles – this will allow your ankle to bend easily and your knees and hips to flex to help the ankle absorb the shock of your horses movement. If you have chronic tension in your calves or other leg muscles (and let’s be honest, most of us do!) then you will have to fight this tension to get your heel lower.
Anytime you are fighting your own body, it creates bracing/tension and usually leads to aches and pains during or after riding.
It’s likely that you have tension in some other muscles that could be contributing to your overall stiffness or difficulty following your trainers instructions. If you’re ready to tackle tension in the most important areas for equestrians, join me for 7 days of Somatics for Riders – a FREE Challenge that will get you riding better in a week, or less!
Don’t pull your toes up!
When you pull your toes up, instead of letting your heel down, you are using the muscles on the front of your lower leg. This does not create the same shock-absorbing or balancing effect as a correctly lowered heel.
Pulling your toes up can also lead to pain in the knee and front of the leg, or cramps in the foot and toes, ouch!
Somatic Exercises to help get your heels down & lower leg still
The way I help riding students lengthen their calf muscles is with Hanna Somatics. Instead of doing traditional calf stretches, which actually don’t necessarily help to relax your calf muscles or help your riding position, you can reset your tension levels with Somatic Movement!
Hanna Somatics is the secret to a supple body.
In the video above I showed you how to do some seated exercises to release calf and foreleg tension. When you want to relax your calves but don’t have a chair handy, here are some standing versions of the exercise you can do anywhere, anytime!
Standing Calf Release Exercise
Stand comfortably on two feet at hips width apart on flat ground – barefoot or in flat shoes is ok. If you have on heels or boots, take them off to do this exercise! Position yourself near a wall, chair or fence that you can reach easily to balance yourself.
Carefully push yourself up onto the balls of your feet, as if you were trying to reach something up high. Then slowly, SLOWLY, lower your heels back down until they are resting on the floor again.
Repeat this raising and slow lowering of your heels 5 times. If you time it with a slow breath, that should be slow enough to trigger your nervous system to reset your calf muscle tension back to neutral.
For example: Raise up on your toes as you inhale for 2-4 seconds, and slowly come back down as you exhale for 5-8 seconds.
The trick is to come down slowly enough that you are forced to use the motor-sensory cortex part of your brain to do it, rather than your autopilot system… there is a whole lot of interesting science behind the way Somatic Movement can work to quickly and effectively reduce muscular tension, but I won’t get into it here.
Repeat this exercise once or twice a day for a few days, and do it before you ride (while grooming, perhaps?). You will notice that your heels start to automatically sit lower and in a more correct position in the stirrup.