Can't get your heels down when horseback riding? The problem may not be your heels!
I've been asked a lot recently about why riders have such a hard time keeping their heels down. A heel that is not "down" may not have anything to do with the heel itself, but rather the knee and the calf muscle.
Many times the heel is not down because the calf needs to be stretched. A soft calf allows for the heel to drop below the toe when the foot is resting on the stirrup bar.
When the heel is "down", it drops just below the stirrup bar. The more important thing, however, is how FLEXIBLE the calf and ankle are and how they absorb the movement of the horse.
The ankle plays an important role in absorbing the movement of the horse under your body. It's a shock absorber. If you have too much pressure on your toe, your calf muscle and knee are stiff and rigid.
On the other hand, if you force your heel too far down, the back of the calf and knee also becomes stiff. The front and back of your calf as well as your knee should feel soft and springy.
If you feel like your heel is up, chances are you're gripping with your knee as well. You need to point your kneecap down to lengthen your thigh and drop the whole length of your leg.
The following is a simple exercise that will help stretch your calf to keep it soft and springy. Once you've found the correct place for your upper and lower leg around your horse, "anchor" that feeling both mentally and physically. Through anchoring, your muscle memory and subconscious mind take over and automatically make positive position corrections!
Stand facing the wall about 3 feet away.
Take 1 step forward with your left foot.
Place your hands on the wall in front of you. Bend your elbows slightly. Point your shoulders, hips, and feet directly toward the wall.
Bend your left knee slowly. Control the amount of stretch you feel in your right calf muscle. Both heels stay on the ground.
Keep your right knee (back leg) straight, and hold still for 15 seconds.
To stretch the other calf muscle (soleus) in the same leg, slowly bend your right knee, making sure to keep your right heel on the ground. Hold 15 seconds.
Slowly push yourself back to starting position.
Switch legs. Repeat both the straight knee and bent knee stretches on the other leg to completely stretch your calf.
A Happy Horse