One of the fundamental lessons that instructors teach children when they
are learning to ride is to stretch their heels down but I find that riders often
take years to master the ability to do this consistently.
I think the 5 greatest difficulties for riders to stretch their heels down involve
• firstly, overcoming the protective mechanism of the fear response which pulls the rider forward into a ball and pulls the heels up
• for a rider who hasn’t yet established an independent seat, full control of the lower leg and heel is almost impossible
• keeping their heels down without pushing their seat out of the saddle
• preventing the lower leg from rotating forward at the same time so that the support of the lower leg if ahead of their center of gravity
• forgetting to push the heel down and falling back to a default position with the heels slightly raised So I think the first step towards getting the heels down is to establish a balanced, relaxed seat. Assuming the seat is well on its way, the best way I know how to position the lower leg involves a 3 step process as follows:
• Take your feet out of the stirrups and stretch the toes and legs as long as possible down the horses side to “try to touch the ground”
• With your toes stretched down, close your calf against the horse’s side. You may need to relax your groin to turn your knee and toe slightly outwards to get your lower leg against the rib cage depending on the length of your leg and the depth of your horse’s chest. This may feel different for your horse so be careful he doesn’t jump forward
• With your legs still long and your calf on the horse’s rib cage, bring your toe up.
Try this exercise in halt and walk first. Most riders find that when they trot, their knee and heels start to draw upwards so you may not be able to maintain this length of leg for long. When this occurs, come back to walk and repeat the exercise before picking up trot again. Most riders also find that when they maintain the position of the lower leg better, the horse is naturally more forward. This can be welcome on a sluggish horse and often the unconscious reason that the lower leg slips forward on a forward moving horse.
The stable position of the lower leg along with the balance of the independent seat are probably the most fundamental concepts for riders of all abilities to master.