As a riding instructor, you find many ways to phrase things and many interesting ways to explain things. Especially when working with beginners, certain things always seem to be brought to attention in any lesson. One of the things that I find myself repeating over and over and over again is “heels down!” Out of all of the repetitive phrases I use, this I believe is the most important to creating a stable rider who is able to advance in level and ability. We know that a good hoof is crucial for a good horse, but I also believe a good heel is crucial to be a good rider!
What is so important about the heel? I have seen (and also experienced) more successful rides through spooks, bucks and bolts when riders keep their heels down. I attribute this to several factors, the main one being the distribution of weight. No matter what style of riding you are doing, your heel needs to be where your weight is. By dropping your heel, you allow your weight to sink into your legs and the further down that you bear your weight, the more stability you will have in the saddle. If the heel is up and the toe is pointing towards the ground, the rider’s weight will most likely be settled in their rear end or higher, which forces them to do a balancing act on the saddle. In this scenario, if a horse jumps to the side or bucks, the rider will have a harder time keeping their balance in the middle of the saddle and will end up clenching the horse’s sides with their legs in an effort to maintain their seat. Many times, this just serves to spook or aggravate the horse further and sends the pair into a vicious cycle that ends with either the rider sitting in the dust or the horse (thankfully, in this situation) deciding that today isn’t actually when he wants to audition for the rodeo. By dropping the heel, and therefore lowering the area where the rider is bearing their weight, when the horse is naughty, the shock is absorbed more easily and the rider is less likely to be displaced from the saddle.
Dropping the heel also encourages better position in the upper body. When the heel is down, I have found that riders are less likely to hunch or lean forward. Let’s be honest, it can be scary to get up on that horse for the “beginner” phase of riding (and sometimes well beyond!). One of the body’s natural reactions to fear or nervousness can be to try to shrink away from the scary thing or tense up. It goes against what your natural instincts tell you to do to let your heel drop down in the stirrups and pull your shoulders back. Therefore, it is one of the things that riders need to be reminded of often before it becomes second nature.
The last big issue I find associated with the heel is gripping and clenching of the lower leg. Your leg is an aid for directing and guiding your horse. If a rider’s heel pops up, oftentimes it begins to bump, dig into or clench on the horse’s side. This is not only aggravating for the horse, but confusing for him also. Some horses need continual pressure on their sides to be motivated to go forward – especially some of the dead-broke school horses you often try to place beginners on – but the pressure needs to come from a proper application of the entire lower leg against the horse’s side rather than a fear-induced stabbing of the heel into the innocent creature’s ribs. Additionally, when the rider does get on a horse which does not need as much motivation to move forward, boy are they in for a *treat,* so it’s best to fix the problem before it ever has a chance to really become one! Keeping the heel down allows for a steady pressure and a leg that doesn’t swing out of place.
“Heels down!” “Toes towards the sky!” ” Let your weight sink in your heel!” “Pull your toes up!” “HEELS!!!!!” However you choose to say it, never underestimate the importance of the heel!! 🙂