Why “Heels Down” Is Right Out

traditional approach to "heels down" that causes too much tension in the leg
Remember that old "heels down" mantra most of us have been tormented with since the very first day we swung a leg over a saddle? It's no joke. It actually causes a lot more problems than it fixes.

 No matter your level of riding, we’ve all been there. Constantly fighting to keep those heels down. It’s a mantra that get drilled into us from day one. But is the old mantra of heels down doing more harm than good?

The Mechanics of “Heels Down”

First, let’s look at the mechanics of “heels down.” Putting your heels down means you are pushing them down. This requires you to shift your weight to the back of your foot. This, incidentally, shifts your weight through the rest of your body, pushing you back in the saddle. If you’re not careful, this can cause bracing. It can also cause tension through the leg as you attempt to force all that weight back on your heels, again leading to bracing and unbalancing your seat.

traditional approach to "heels down" that causes too much tension in the leg

If you’re a rider who has problems constantly gripping with your knees, your problem might actually be in your ankles. Forcing your heels too far down causes you to grip with your knees due to increased tension through the leg.

Tension through the leg also leads to sore joints, especially in the knees. So if you are a rider who suffers from knee and ankle pain, that tension may be coming from the fruitless battle to keep your heels unnaturally low.

Related Content: The Art of Neck Reining

The tension caused by forcing your heels down can even have long-term negative effects on your horse. A stiff seat and braced knees prevent the horse from moving freely. In some maneuvers it prevents him from achieving the bend he needs and in others it prevents him from achieving the straightness he needs for correct movement. This leads to him cheating and finding creative ways to work around your stiffness.

After awhile, this affects his muscles tone because he is not able to use his body correctly. Depending on the degree of tension he has inherited from you, he may begin to experience long term soundness issues. The most common soundness issue caused by a rider with a tense seat and braced legs is back pain. It is all too easy in these cases to unwittingly cause your horse to hollow his back and move incorrectly, meaning it can actually prevent you from achieving true collection.

Forcing your heels too far down leads to bracing and unbalances your seat.Click To Tweet

The Solution

Stop worrying so much about where those heels are. Instead, focus on shifting that weight to the balls of your feet. The balls of your feet should be directly over the bar of the stirrup and taking the bulk of your weight. This will increase you balance and stabilize your seat. Then, instead of putting your heels down, tilt your toes up. Let your heels fall where they fall.

a more natural approach to heels down that releases tension in the leg

Focus on achieving softness in your leg. Your leg should drape over the horse’s side. There should be no stiffness in the joints. You cannot expect your horse to be soft and supple if you as the rider are not soft and supple.

Keep in mind though, every rider is different. Some riders will naturally have their heels down further than others. Don’t focus so much on what others are doing as opposed to what is comfortable and works best for you.

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