“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!! 🙂



Above the Influence: Corners

One of the most important parts of any ride is balancing your horse through a turn.  When your horse rounds a corner, you can help make sure that he is balanced and strong.  It might seem like a minor detail, but being balanced through a turn can mean the difference between a mediocre ride and a fantastic ride whether you are in your backyard or an arena of scrutinizing onlookers.

When your horse is balanced going around a bend, it will give a more powerful, steady ride.  It may take a lot of help and support from you at first, but it will eventually become something your horse does naturally and will increase his strength and self-carriage through all aspects of your riding.  Start off with this exercise at the walk and work up from there.  Keep in mind that if this is something neither you nor your horse are used to doing, it will be a lot of work at the start, but if you work at it a little every time you ride, it will get easier before you know it!

Anky van Grunsven and Salinero

To ride a balanced turn, you first have to find your center of balance over your horse.  You don’t want to be leaning back too far or bent over his neck in front of the saddle.  Your body should be upright and supple.  Next, you need to get your horse to bend around the turn.  I’m not talking about a huge movement here.  Ideally, you want to see the outside corner of his eye as you are rounding the turn.  Don’t over-bend him so he is curled in a ‘U’ around your leg because over-bending him will actually make it impossible to balance.  By getting him slightly bent in the direction of the turn, you can push him in the direction you want to go with your legs and reins.  In order to bend him, you need to have firm contact with the reins.  You don’t have to be pulling his lips off his face, but you want to feel a nice line of connection from your hands, through the reins, to his mouth.  You will be using an inside opening rein to cause his head to tilt inward and allow his front end to move into the turn.  Be prepared with your inside leg to apply pressure at the girth to keep him from drifting into the center of the ring.

This horse has a nice bend and is sure-footed. You can see the power in his hindquarters as he pushes himself around the corner and doesn’t let his rider pull him.

You want to push your horse around the turn, not pull him.  What does that mean? That means, use your legs to push him as you round a bend and move him up into your hand.  The weight (pressure) applied with your legs should be just a little stronger than the weight applied with your hands so that you help hold your horse together and balance him as he turns a corner.  When most of us learn to ride, the easiest way to learn to steer is by using either a direct or leading rein to turn your horse in the direction you want to go.  To ride a truly balanced turn, you need to add leg to the equation.  Use your inside leg to push your horse’s hindquarters through the turn and your outside leg to keep the energy up through the turn.  If your horse is very responsive to your legs, the pressure will be almost even, with a slightly greater weight on your inside leg.  If your horse is not the most responsive your your leg, it might take a little bit of effort at first to help him push his hind end around the corner.   Keep in mind though that you have to be aware of where his hindquarters are going.  You don’t want to push so hard that they end up swinging around the turn and ending up on the outside so he is on an angle when you complete the turn.  If this happens, use a little more pressure with your outside leg, slightly behind the girth.  Be aware of the position you are in though.  If you are walking or trotting, you are putting your legs into the position for cantering, so be prepared to add a little extra weight in your hand to keep your horse from changing gait!

If your horse tends to stumble or trip, especially around corners or circles, I’ll wager a bet that its because he’s not balanced.  If you can help him balance himself as he rounds a bend, you will begin to notice a more sure-footed, energetic horse underneath you.  No matter what your discipline, helping your horse learn to be balanced will make your ride much more enjoyable for everyone involved!

This seems like a big chore for something that seems so insignificant, but if you start thinking about a balanced corner every time you have to turn, you will find that it helps strengthen and support both your horse and yourself and it will create an easier ride every time.

The smaller the turn you make, the greater your contact must be. Keep your eyes up and looking where you want to go. Keeping your head up also helps you stay balanced which positively affects your horse’s balance around the turn.

Lynn Palm, the rider in the second picture also has a great article on this topic, found HERE.

Above the Influence: An Introduction

One thing that my college riding instructor was very good at explaining was why you use certain aids (or cues, for Western people!) to get your horse to move, bend and speed up or down.  If you understand what part of the body your aid is effecting, you can get your horse to do just about anything for you.  So in this series,  I’d like to take some time diving into how we influence our horses from the saddle and explaining the ‘whys’ that go with the ‘hows.’  By understanding how the movements you make in the saddle effect your horse, you can become a much more controlled and effective rider and your skill level will increase drastically.

George Williams rides Rocher during the USEF Selection Trials for the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team. (June 19, 2008 - Photo by None/Getty Images North America)