A correctly positioned heel — one that sits just below the stirrup bar — allows your calf and ankle to flexibly absorb the movement of the horse. Olympic dressage coach Jane Savoie advises that if your heel will not stay down, it may not be a heel problem at all, but rather an issue with your calf muscles being rigid or stiff. Exercises that stretch your calf, making the muscles soft and springy, will often help your heels go down easier.
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Calf stretches help you to drop your heel and ride with a long leg. Stand with the balls of your feet on the edge of a 2- to 4-inch-high step. With your knees straight, lower your heels until you feel the calf muscles stretch, and hold the position for five to 10 seconds. If you don't have access to a step, place your hands on a wall, standing approximately three feet back. With your feet, hips and shoulders pointed at the wall, step forward with your left foot and slowly bend the knee, stretching the calf muscle. Be sure to keep your right leg straight and both heels on the ground. Hold for 15 seconds and switch sides.
Cherry Hill, award-winning author of more than 30 books on horse training and care, recommends stretching hamstrings — the large muscles at the back of the thigh — to help you ride with a long, secure leg and deep seat. Stand with your feet together and knees straight. Pick up your right foot and cross it in front of your left leg, placing it on the ground perpendicular to the outside of your left foot. Bend at the waist, reaching for the floor until your hamstrings fully stretch. Straighten up and switch legs.
Partial Leg Lunges
You're probably familiar with the term lunge as it relates to riding, namely as a technique for exercising and training horses from the ground. The term lunge also refers to a popular weight-training exercise for working the lower body. Lunges also improve balance, the hallmark of centered riding. With your spine straight, step forward about two feet with your right foot. Keeping your back leg straight and the heel down, bend your right knee at a 90-degree angle. You should feel your calf muscle stretching as your quadriceps muscles support your weight. Straighten up and switch legs.
If you have an unflappable, steady equine, or a good human assistant, try stretching while mounted. Suzanne Sheppard, a horse trainer and Centered Riding clinician, recommends simultaneously loosening up the hips, knees and ankles to help get those heels down. While holding your reins, place your palms on either side of the horse's withers. Using your hands as supports, stand up as high as you can on your toes, leaning forward at your hips. Hold for two to three seconds. With your heels still up, bend your knees. Slowly relax your ankles, letting your heels fall down. Repeat these steps eight to 10 times. Start the exercise at the halt, but once comfortable, you can graduate to the walk.
Tips and Warnings
Gripping with your knees can destabilize your lower leg and pull your heels up. Ensure your kneecaps are pointing down to lengthen your thigh and drop your whole leg downward. Many riders force their toes inward in an attempt to keep their foot parallel to the horse’s body, causing their ankle to stiffen. Try turning your toes out at roughly a 35-degree angle to help loosen the ankle and drop the heel. As with all exercises, never stretch to the point of pain. Inhale deeply into the stretch and exhale completely during the stretch to allow your muscles to fully relax and release.