“Heels Down!”

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!

With practice, your heel will sink down naturally.

With practice, your heel will sink down naturally.  

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.

 

Getting your heels down will be second nature after a while.

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.

This is a horse who would have definitely had something to say about being jabbed in the side.  Melissa's good lower leg and heel position allows her to correct Concorde with other aids without being distracting.

This is a horse who would have definitely had something to say about being jabbed in the side. Melissa’s good lower leg and heel position allows her to correct Concorde with other aids without being distracting because of a swinging or clenching leg.

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.

Bryn -- heel

“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!! 🙂

 

Confidence is Key

It is natural for every horse person to feel slight apprehension at doing something on or with their horse which has previously not had a pleasant outcome.  However, what many people don’t realize is how strongly our apprehension can affect our horse and the performance they give us after that point.  For example, say you are a trail that you have ridden on without incident more times than you can count, but one day something unforeseen scares your horse and he leaves you sitting in the dirt while he high-tails it home.  It is only normal that you would feel a little timid at that spot or throughout your ride the next time that you are out on the trail.  Unfortunately, if you get tense, so will your horse.  It is very important to look at each ride or time spent with your horse as a fresh start.

Your horse will react to your emotions and feelings.  That is because your body automatically (and sometimes involuntarily)  conveys your mood and emotions.  If you are nervous, your muscles tense and your body curls in on itself ever so slightly to create a barrier  against the thing causing the nerves and to give you a “safe” space.  Your horse will be able to feel that defensive position that you are in and become tense himself, since [clearly] there is something to be nervous about near him.  So if you are nervous when you go back out on that trail, fixing the problem from last time will be infinitely more difficult than it should be since your nervousness will likely cause an unwelcome reaction, which could in turn just make you more nervous.  Thankfully, the opposite is also true.  If you are relaxed and confident, your posture will straighten and your muscles will relax. A horse will be much more willing to cooperate when he senses this confidence.  If you go back onto that trail with the mindset that it is a new day and this is a new experience, your horse will be harder pressed to find a reason to balk.

One of you has to be confident in order to accomplish any task.

Most of the time, the confidence is left to you since you are the one capable of thinking through a situation all the way to the outcome(s) and acting on a continuing train of thought.  So how will you know if you are ready to go back to that scary trail? After a scary, unnerving or traumatic experience, go back a few steps in your training and skill set.  Either go back to the arena and work on something you can do well to build your confidence back up or handwalk your horse out to that scary spot and work through the issue from the ground where you may feel more comfortable and more at ease in handling him if he gets snorty or spooky. Don’t be ashamed or embarrassed to give yourself a pep talk before returning to the scary obstacle and focus on breathing deeply and steadily to keep your muscles relaxed.

Remember, each ride is entirely new, even if its a ride you’ve done a hundred times before.

Think about the times before that you’ve done that particular thing successfully.  If you’d never attempted it before, the give yourself a pat on the back for trying and take what your learned from the experience to make it better for the next time.  I guarantee that when you get past the nervous bump, the personal reward of accomplishing the task successfully will be the thing that sticks with you for the long haul!