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Heels Down! (The Why, Common Issues And Helpful Exercises)

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In this article, you'll learn the biomechanics behind the essential 'Heels Down' technique in horseback riding, discover solutions to common hurdles, and receive a selection of exercises aimed at enhancing your posture, balance, and connection with your horse.

Struggling with your heel position in horseback riding?

You’re not alone. This widespread challenge affects riders at all levels, impacting balance, control, and communication with the horse.

Often, obstacles like limited ankle flexibility and muscle stiffness make this key riding position a tough nut to crack.

This article dives into the biomechanics of ‘Heels Down’, and its critical role across riding styles, and offers actionable solutions to common difficulties. You’ll find exercises and strategies to improve your riding, ensuring safety, control, and a better connection with your horse.

Whether you’re into dressage, jumping, or just love riding, perfecting ‘Heels Down’ can significantly enhance your equestrian journey.

Join me to unlock expert tips and practices that will refine your riding skills.🐎💫

Related Post Coming Soon>> The Most Common Beginner Mistakes in Horse Riding You Should Know

‘Heels Down’ is Crucial in Riding

Let’s take a look at the biomechanics of riding with heels down. This is a crucial aspect of effective horseback riding.

This position is not just about looks; it has several useful benefits and involves a complex interplay of muscles, joints, and balance.

Why Heels Down

For Ankle Flexibility and Strength:

When a rider keeps their heels down, it requires dorsiflexion of the ankle joint. This is where the toes are lifted upwards, and the heels are pressed down.

The gastrocnemius and soleus muscles, which make up the calf, play a key role in enabling this movement. They must be both strong and flexible to maintain the position without causing strain.

For Stability and Balance:

Keeping the heels down creates a lower center of gravity, which aids in the rider’s stability on the horse.

This position allows for better absorption of the horse’s movements, particularly during trotting and cantering. The rider’s lower leg acts as a shock absorber, reducing the bouncing effect and allowing for a smoother ride.

For Effective Communication with the Horse:

Heels down position improves the rider’s ability to use leg aids effectively. It ensures that the leg is in the correct position to apply pressure cues to the horse.

This position allows for subtle and precise cues, essential in disciplines like dressage, where communication between horse and rider is key.

For Preventing Stirrup Loss:

A lower heel helps to keep the foot properly positioned in the stirrup. When the heel is up, there’s a greater risk of the foot slipping through the stirrup (which could cause getting your foot caught) or out of the stirrups, which can be dangerous.

Watch YouTube Video>> Solving Losing Your Stirrups

For Spinal Alignment and Posture:

Proper heel positioning helps align the rider’s body correctly over the horse. It encourages a straighter spine and prevents slouching.

This alignment is essential for maintaining balance and effective control, especially in maneuvers that require precision and agility.

For Muscle Engagement and Core Stability:

Keeping the heels down is not just about the lower leg; it engages the entire body, including the core, thighs, and back muscles.

A strong core is crucial for horseback riding as it supports the spine, aids in balance, and allows for fluid movement with the horse.

For Safety Aspect:

From a safety perspective, the ‘heels down’ position can provide better control during unexpected movements from the horse, such as spooking or jumping.

Benefits Of Heels Down

The “heels down” position in horseback riding is essential for several reasons, particularly regarding balance, control, and communication with the horse.

Here’s a detailed look at each of these aspects:

  1. Balance:
    • Lower Center of Gravity: Keeping the heels down lowers the rider’s center of gravity, which is crucial for maintaining balance, especially during movements like trotting, cantering, or jumping.
    • Stability in the Saddle: This position helps the rider to stay anchored in the saddle. It prevents bouncing and unnecessary movement, allowing the rider to move more harmoniously with the horse.
    • Shock Absorption: When the heels are down, the rider’s legs act as natural shock absorbers. This is particularly important in disciplines that require a lot of movement, such as jumping or cross-country riding.
  2. Control:
    • Effective Use of Leg Aids: A lower heel position ensures that the rider’s leg is in the correct position to apply leg aids. This is vital for guiding the horse, whether it’s for speed, direction, or performing specific movements.
    • Stirrup Stability: With the heels down, the foot is less likely to slip through the stirrup, which can be dangerous. This position helps keep the foot securely in the stirrup, providing better control over the horse.
    • Preventing Unwanted Movement: By stabilizing the lower body, the rider can prevent unintentional cues that might confuse the horse. This is particularly important in dressage, where precision and subtlety in cues are paramount.
  3. Communication with the Horse:
    • Subtle Cues: The heels down position allows for subtle communication with the horse through the rider’s legs. It helps in giving precise cues for advanced movements, especially in dressage.
    • Responsive Riding: This position enables the rider to be more responsive to the horse’s movements and behaviors, allowing for quicker adjustments and smoother riding.
    • Building Trust: Consistent and clear communication aids in building a trustful relationship between the horse and rider. When the horse understands and responds correctly to the rider’s cues, it creates a harmonious and effective partnership.

Common Challenges in Achieving ‘Heels Down’

Maintaining the “heels down” position in horseback riding can be challenging for many riders, especially those who are new to the sport or those dealing with certain physical constraints.

11 common problems as A Result Of Heel Position

  1. Lack of Ankle Flexibility:
    • One of the most common issues is limited flexibility in the ankle. This makes it hard to maintain the heels down position, especially for extended periods.
  2. Calf Muscle Stiffness:
    • Tight calf muscles can restrict the downward movement of the heel. Riders may struggle with stiffness in this area, making it difficult to achieve the correct leg position.
  3. Poor Core Strength:
    • Core strength is essential for overall balance and posture on the horse. A weak core can affect a rider’s ability to maintain the correct posture, including keeping the heels down.
  4. Incorrect Stirrup Length:
    • If the stirrups are either too long or too short, it can hinder the rider’s ability to keep their heels down. The right stirrup length is crucial for proper leg positioning.
  5. Balance Issues:
    • Some riders may rely too much on their stirrups for balance, which can lead to pushing the feet forward and raising the heels, rather than keeping them down.
  6. Habitual Posture Problems:
    • Riders who have formed habits of incorrect posture, such as slouching or leaning too far forward or backward, may find it more challenging to keep their heels down.
  7. Tension in the Legs and Feet:
    • Excessive tension or gripping with the legs and feet can lead to a raised heel position. Relaxing the lower leg is key to maintaining the correct posture.
  8. Inadequate Warm-Up:
    • Failing to adequately warm up before riding can lead to stiffness in the muscles and joints, making it harder to achieve and maintain the heels’ down position.
  9. Lack of Practice and Muscle Memory:
    • Like any skill, maintaining the heels down position requires regular practice. Without it, riders may struggle to develop the necessary muscle memory.
  10. Footwear Issues:
    • Unsuitable or uncomfortable riding boots can also impact a rider’s ability to keep their heels down. Proper equestrian footwear is designed to support this position.
  11. Physical Limitations or Injuries:
    • Previous injuries or certain physical limitations can make it difficult for riders to achieve and maintain the heels down position.

10 Misconceptions And Mistakes About Heels Down

Addressing misconceptions (incorrect beliefs) and mistakes about the “heels down” position in horseback riding is important for rider safety, effectiveness, and overall performance.

Here are some common misconceptions as well as mistakes that riders often make regarding this aspect, with corresponding corrections and realities.

1. Forcing the Heels Down Aggressively:

Misconception: The heels must be pushed down as far as possible.

Reality: Overforcing the heels down can lead to tension in the legs and loss of flexibility, making it difficult to absorb movements and potentially causing discomfort or injury.

2. Neglecting Ankle Flexibility:

Mistake: Focusing solely on pushing the heels down without considering ankle flexibility.

Correction: Work on exercises that increase ankle flexibility, as this will naturally help lower the heels without strain.

3. Ignoring Overall Body Alignment:

Misconception: Heels down is only about the position of the feet.

Reality: The heels down position is part of overall body alignment. Proper posture, core stability, and balance are equally important.

4. Stiffening the Leg:

Mistake: Stiffening the leg to keep the heels down.

Correction: The leg should remain supple and relaxed. Tension in the leg can make it harder to communicate effectively with the horse.

5. Overemphasis on Heels at the Expense of Other Techniques:

Misconception: As long as the heels are down, other aspects of riding technique are secondary.

Reality: Heels down is one component of good riding technique. Balance, hand position, seat, and leg aids are also crucial.

6. Using Stirrups to Push Heels Down:

Mistake: Pushing against the stirrups to force the heels down.

Correction: The downward position of the heels should be a natural extension of correct posture and leg position, not forced through the stirrups.

7. Lack of Proper Warm-Up:

Mistake: Not warming up sufficiently before riding, leading to stiffness.

Correction: Engage in pre-riding stretches and exercises, focusing on the lower body to improve flexibility and reduce stiffness.

8. Inadequate Footwear:

Misconception: Any sturdy boot or shoe is fine for riding.

Reality: Proper riding boots with a slight heel and supportive fit are essential for achieving and maintaining the heels’ down position comfortably.

9. Ignoring Individual Physical Limitations:

Mistake: Trying to achieve the same heel position as others despite physical limitations or differences.

Correction: Recognize and work within one’s physical capabilities. Adaptations or specific exercises might be necessary for those with physical constraints.

10. Focusing Solely on Heels for Balance:

Misconception: Balance comes mainly from keeping the heels down.

Reality: Balance is achieved through a combination of factors, including core strength, seat position, and even distribution of weight.

Improve ‘Heels Down’ Position With These Tips and Exercises

In this section, you’ll discover a treasure trove of tips and exercises dedicated to perfecting your ‘heels down’ position in horseback riding.

These practical insights will empower you to enhance your balance, control, and communication with your equine partner.

Let’s transform your riding experience with these valuable techniques.

12 Tips To Improve Heels Down

Maintaining the “heels down” position throughout different riding movements is a fundamental skill in horseback riding.

Here are some tips to help riders develop and maintain this position effectively:

Related Post>> Foot Placement In The Stirrups: How Far Should Your Feet Go In?

  1. Develop a Strong, Balanced Seat: Cultivate a secure seat by engaging core muscles and maintaining an aligned posture, which naturally aids in keeping heels down. Deeply sitting in the saddle, particularly during transitions and complex movements, reinforces this balance. Ensure the ‘heels down’ position is a natural outcome of this balanced posture, rather than a forced stance.
  2. Focus on Whole-Body Alignment Pay attention to your entire body alignment. Keeping your head up, shoulders back, and back straight can help maintain proper leg and heel position. Avoid leaning too far forward or back, as this can disrupt your balance and affect your ability to keep your heels down.
  3. Correct Stirrup Length: Ensure your stirrups are at the correct length. Too long, and you’ll struggle to reach down; too short, and it will force your heels up. The right stirrup length offers you support without compromising your ability to keep your heels down.
  4. Enhance Ankle Flexibility: Regularly engage in exercises that improve ankle flexibility. This practice helps keep your heels down effortlessly and reduces strain. Focus on continuous improvement of ankle flexibility, as it aids in shock absorption and allows for minor balance adjustments.
  5. Maintain Leg Relaxation: Keep your legs relaxed to prevent involuntary heel lifting. Let your weight naturally sink into your heels to maintain a stable position.
  6. Consistent Leg Positioning: Avoid swinging your legs or changing their position excessively, as this can make it difficult to maintain the heels down. Strive for a steady leg position with knees slightly bent and feet positioned directly beneath your hips, aiding in a balanced and effective heel placement. However, the ‘heels down’ position should be dynamic, not static. It should adapt to the horse’s movement and the demands of the discipline.
  7. Incorporate Off-Horse Exercises: Engage in exercises such as calf raises and stretches outside of riding to bolster ankle strength and flexibility, contributing to improved riding performance.
  8. Practice Transitions and Movements While practicing transitions (walk to trot, trot to canter, etc.), focus on maintaining your heel position. During movements like turns, circles, or jumps, be extra conscious of your leg and heel position. Practice transitioning between movements while maintaining an effective leg position, paying attention to how your heels respond to different speeds and maneuvers.
  9. Practice on Varied Terrain: Work on maintaining your balanced seat and ‘heels down’ position while riding on uneven terrain or executing complex maneuvers. This will enhance your understanding of how these elements contribute to overall stability in diverse riding conditions.
  10. Use Visual and Mental Cues Visualize your heels being weighted down. Mental imagery can be a powerful tool in maintaining proper position. Set up cues for yourself, like checking your heel position at specific points around the arena or during certain movements.
  11. Ride Without Stirrups Practice riding without stirrups. This can help improve your overall balance and strengthen the leg muscles, making it easier to maintain the heels down position with stirrups.
  12. Regular Feedback and Corrections Work with a trainer or instructor who can provide immediate feedback and corrections. Video recording your riding sessions can also help you visualize and understand your position and make necessary adjustments.

10 Exercises For Improved Heels

Check out AQHA article>> on riding exercises for balance and strength

  1. Ankle Circles:
    1. Sit or stand and lift one foot off the ground.
    2. Rotate your foot, moving only your ankle, in a circular motion.
    3. Do 10-15 circles in each direction, then switch to the other foot.
  2. Alphabet Writing:
    1. Similar to ankle circles, but instead of circles, pretend to write each letter of the alphabet with your toe.
    2. This exercise moves the ankle through its full range of motion.
  3. Heel Raises and Lowering:
    1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
    2. Slowly raise your heels so you’re standing on your toes, then lower them back down past the starting position to stretch the calf and ankle.
    3. Repeat 10-15 times.
  4. Towel Stretch:
    1. Sit on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you.
    2. Wrap a towel around the ball of your foot and gently pull the towel towards you, keeping your knee straight.
    3. Hold for 15-30 seconds and repeat 2-3 times on each foot.
  5. Downward Dog Pose (Yoga):
    1. Start on your hands and knees, then lift your hips up and back, straightening your legs as much as possible.
    2. Press your heels towards the ground to stretch the calves and ankles.
    3. Hold for 30 seconds to 1 minute.
  6. Seated Calf and Ankle Stretch:
    1. Sit on the ground and extend your legs in front of you.
    2. Reach forward and hold your toes, gently pulling them towards your body.
    3. Hold the stretch for 15-30 seconds.
  7. Step Stretches:
    1. Stand on a step with your toes on the step and heels hanging off.
    2. Slowly lower your heels below the level of the step to stretch your calves and ankles.
    3. Hold for a few seconds, then lift back up. Repeat several times.
  8. Resistance Band Exercises:
    1. Sit on the floor with your legs extended, and loop a resistance band around the ball of your foot.
    2. Gently point and flex your foot against the resistance of the band.
  9. Walking on Toes and Heels:
    1. Walk around on your toes for 30 seconds, then switch and walk on your heels.
    2. This helps strengthen the muscles around the ankles and improve flexibility.
  10. Foam Rolling:
    1. Use a foam roller under your calves and ankles.
    2. Roll back and forth to massage and release tight muscles.

Heels in Various Riding Disciplines and Adapting the Technique

As an experienced equestrian, I understand the significance of the ‘heels down’ position in riding. It forms a fundamental aspect of equestrian discipline, transcending various styles.

Its adaptability has greatly improved my stability, communication, and overall performance in the saddle. Here I will go over its application across different riding styles and share valuable insights for its effective adaptation.


In dressage, achieving precision and subtle communication with the horse hinges on the rider’s posture and leg positioning. A ‘heels down’ position is vital for maintaining a deep and steady seat, essential for effective leg aids.

Dressage riders typically use longer stirrups. This demands greater hip flexibility to keep the rider’s legs back and under their body with the heels down for an elongated leg position.

It’s crucial to focus on this deep, elongated leg position with gentle ankle flexion, ensuring a stable and balanced seat.

However, it’s important that maintaining heels down does not lead to stiffness in the legs, as dressage requires the rider to transmit subtle cues and maintain a strong, fluid connection with the horse.

Consistency in heel position is key, especially during transitions and lateral movements, as it provides a stable base for applying aids and executing complex movements with finesse.

Jumping (Show Jumping and Hunter)

In show jumping and hunter disciplines, the ‘heels down’ position is essential for shock absorption during landings and stability over fences.

Riders, with their typically shorter stirrups for secure seating over jumps, must exert extra effort to maintain this position, especially when approaching and clearing obstacles.

Practicing the ‘heels down’ posture in a two-point or jumping position is important for emphasizing impact absorption and maintaining balance, preventing you from being jostled forward over the horse’s neck.

Regular practice over low fences, focusing on keeping your heels down during the approach, takeoff, and landing phases, is key to enhancing stability and control throughout the jump.

Eventing (Cross-Country)

In cross-country eventing, adaptability, balance, and stability are non-negotiable, especially as you move up the levels.

Navigating diverse terrains and obstacles demands a secure and effective riding position, achieved through adjusting stirrup length and heel position.

Unlike dressage but like show jumping, shorter stirrups are essential in cross-country for enhanced security and shock absorption, adapting to the course’s speed and nature. But the stirrup length should be even shorter for cross country than you would have them for show jumping.

This adjustment is vital for maintaining balance and stability.

Simultaneously, keeping heels down stabilizes the legs, preventing slippage, and anchoring the rider’s body, crucial for tackling the challenging terrain of cross-country courses.

Western Riding

In Western riding disciplines like reining, cutting, and barrel racing, the ‘heels down’ position is less exaggerated.

Riders often use longer stirrups and a more relaxed leg position but maintain a slight ‘heels down’ posture for balance and effective leg aids.

Adjust the degree of heels down based on the activity, ensuring effective leg aids without straining your position.

Endurance Riding

Maintaining the ‘heels down’ position consistently is essential for building leg strength, and is crucial for endurance during prolonged rides or competitions.

Integrating exercises such as the two-point position and practicing the posting trot without stirrups are effective ways to enhance this necessary strength.

In endurance riding, which prioritizes comfort and sustainability over long distances, riders often adjust their stirrup length to suit various terrains.

However, maintaining a slight ‘heels down’ position is key to reducing fatigue and preserving balance.

It’s important to keep a mild heel-down position to prevent exhaustion, ensuring effective and sustained communication with the horse throughout extended riding periods. Your ankles with feel sore and stiff if you are forcing your heels down the whole ride.

Conclusion: Mastering ‘Heels Down’ for Equestrian Success

Mastering the ‘Heels Down’ Technique

  • The ‘Heels Down’ approach is pivotal in disciplines like dressage, jumping, and eventing, transcending mere posture to enhance ankle flexibility, stability, and rider-horse communication.
  • This technique also promotes proper spinal alignment and core muscle engagement, integral for any equestrian’s skillset.

Overcoming Challenges for Mastery

  • Riders often face hurdles such as limited ankle flexibility and muscle stiffness, which can impede maintaining the ‘Heels Down’ position.
  • Regular practice, targeted exercises, and a deep understanding of common misconceptions are key to overcoming these challenges.

Customizing the Technique for Diverse Styles

  • The ‘Heels Down’ position needs to be adapted according to various riding styles, requiring adjustments in stirrup length and leg position for optimal effect.
  • Advanced riders should focus on enhancing their seat stability, boosting ankle flexibility, and integrating this position effectively with their leg aids.

A Path to Equestrian Excellence

  • Consistent practice, coupled at times with professional guidance, is crucial for perfecting this technique.
  • Adapting the ‘Heels Down’ technique to suit individual physical capabilities and specific riding disciplines is essential for achieving equestrian success.

Your Journey Continues

  • As you continue to explore and master the ‘Heels Down’ technique, remember that it’s a journey of continuous learning and adaptation.
  • Keep exploring, practicing, and connecting with your horse, as each step brings you closer to equestrian excellence.

Embrace the journey and let the ‘Heels Down’ technique elevate your riding experience to new heights. 🐴✨

Cheers, Kacey

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Disclaimer Notice: Please be aware that horseback riding and related equestrian activities carry inherent risks. The advice and experiences shared on this blog are for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for professional training or advice. Ensure your safety and that of your horse by wearing appropriate gear, practicing safe horse handling, and consulting with certified equestrian professionals. Remember, each horse is unique, and techniques may vary accordingly. Always prioritize safety, respect, and patience in your equestrian endeavors.

Kacey Cleary Administrator
Kacey has been an equestrian since 1998. She was a working student at several eventing and dressage barns. She has owned horses, leased horses, and trained horses. Kacey received an A.S. in Equine Industries from UMass Amherst, where she rode on the dressage team. She was certified with the ARIA and is licensed to teach riding in MA. She has been a barn manager and has run her own horse farm.
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