The Importance of Heels Down
Horseback riders are told to put their heels down from day one on a horse. This vital positioning helps you stay secure in the tack over jumps and through spooks. When a person is on a horse and the animal has a moment, putting the heels down is necessary for rider’s safety. A good trainer will emphasize their students heels down positioning because it secures a rider on the horse and prevents serious injury. You must do everything on a horse plus put your heels down.
This struggle can lead to a rider forcing their ankle position down in the stirrup which is not good for the lower leg mechanics. The heel must flex in order to keep the muscles from staying lengthened for too long. All muscles must operate in a short-long pulley system for optimal performance. Muscles will stay extended if the heels are down for too long.
In The Saddle
The the calf muscle needs to have the endurance to shorten and lengthen during a horseback ride. The easier gates to sit in the saddle is the walk and canter. The trot is the most difficult, the sitting trot requires more lower leg endurance for the heels down position. The 2 point position can force the heels down and can cause structural imbalances within the foot and ankle, sometimes the knee. It’s important to have the proper lower leg alignment plus endurance with the muscles.
There are a couple of exercises that help increase both the alignment and endurance for a better lower leg. You want a natural flexion down with a soft retraction to a neutral foot position. This movement in the foot, ankle and lower leg is repeated, especially in the trot. Pushing the heels down and locking the ankles in the stirrup will limit natural mechanics in the lower leg.
The standing calf machine and the seated calf raise with weight.
There’s a seated calf machine at most gyms but this is an easy one to do at the barn or the gym. What’s nice about sitting on the bench and doing a calf raise, is that the heels will find a neutral position under the knee. The exercise helps develop better alignment as well as build endurance. As a rider, training should not only strengthen the lower leg but ensure proper range of motion.
The standing calf raise, like in the demo video, provides both lengthening and shortening of the lower leg muscles. You can put more weight onto the machine which increases muscular endurance in proper range of motion. The calf muscle has to work all day long with just your body weight so to increase endurance, you need to increase the workload. Your stability in the stirrup and ability to deepen the heels down while riding will increase with these two exercises. Try both exercises a couple times a week for a couple of weeks and feel the difference in your trot work.