From the day we start riding we were told to get our heels down as far as we can. Keeping the heels down and the toes up is a common thing to want to instil into a new rider, mainly for safety reasons. Us riders spend most of our time functioning off of the ball of our foot in the stirrup. Though it’s common to see even the most advanced riders jamming their heels down and keeping them that way. The forced rigidity in keeping the heels down this way is not necessarily a benefit to us in the tack (or in the rest of life).
Lets start with a brief anatomy lesson.
There is a whole bunch of stuff in the foot and ankle, but the joint we want to focus on today is the “talocrural joint” which is the joint that moves the foot/ankle into “dorsiflexion” (heels down) and “plantarflexion (pressing a gas pedal). The muscles that do dorsiflexion include the muscles at the front of the leg, the main one being tibialis anterior, while the big meaty calf muscles at the back (gastrocnemius and soleus) do plantarflexion. The talus bone fits into the Mortise (shown well on the picture on the left), a dome like joint that allows for a rolling/gliding when the ankle moves into dorsi and plantarflexion. There are ligaments surrounding this and tendons running above and around this joint as well.
Got all that? Good.
When the heel is forced downwards and locked there rigidly the tibialis anterior muscle (and it’s helpers) are contracting while the gastroc and soleus muscles in the back are stretched. Not only is this overkill for both muscle groups, when you add in any amount of force travelling through that lower leg and into the ankle (gravity plus your weight plus the force created by your movement and your horse’s movement) we get a not so happy combination for that ankle. Rigidity in any joint creates resistance for force through the tissues. If there is a resistance it means the force won’t travel very efficiently and the joints starting in the ankle, all the way up to the knee and hip will take on more strain then they might otherwise.
Now if we take the example of the rider above who is riding without stirrups, but still forcing those heels down as if her life depended on it we encounter another issue of rigidity in the leg. While she is dead focused on that perfect position and heels locked down.. she is locking in that dorsiflexed position which means she has her tibialis working to it’s full potential and the calf on stretch. Holding that position with no support from the stirrup takes away some helpful physics, and I’d bet that as a result her knee is also quite stiff and her hips aren’t moving very well either.
So while there won’t be much rebound force from the stirrup travelling upwards due to stiffness in the joints.. the muscle tension alone will restrict movement at the ankle, knee, and hip.. and when those guys don’t move well something else has to.. and that’s where we run into compensation pain.
So.. we know we need our heel down for safety and function… but now I’m saying don’t try and get them down?
Yes. After the initial learning phase where none of us can tell if our heels down or not (hence the constantly being told to get those heels down).. we need to learn how to relax that ankle too.
When the ankle is fluid all the force travelling down the body and up from the stirrup will be absorbed into the tissues and repurposed to aid in movement. Let’s imagine trotting. As the horse’s feet meet the ground force travels up from the ground, through them, and into you via the stirrup. Here you want to have a nice neutral heel position and let gravity pull your heel down as the tissues take the force. The heel will then naturally move back up to the neutral position as the weight and force move on.. until the next step. If the ankle is rigid in this same example, the force has nowhere to go and gets trapped in the first joint it encounters.. sending stiffness up the rest of the leg and making for a rougher ride.
This same example can be visualized when landing from a jump, or cantering…
Fluidity is a big thing for certain joints. The ankle, knees, hips, and elbows all need to have a certain degree of relaxed functionality to allow for force absorption and repurposing. With this in mind, then all those joints can move very efficiently and allow for the core, upper back, and hands to be stable.. Check out this video of some slow motion dressage. There are some great examples of the rider letting his ankle be fluid with the movement.
If you’re having trouble visualizing this, remember that as riders we have to mirror our horse’s movements.. and not interfere with them. If you look at a horse’s ankle as they move.. you’ll see a significant amount of flexion towards the ground as they impact, and a spring back as they move on. This is exactly what we want for our own ankles. Without this everything get’s much bouncier.
While the best way to develop this fluidity is practice in the saddle and getting a feel for it.. “Walking the dog” as shown in this picture is good for feeling out your ankle mobility (and stretching your hamstrings and calves while you’re at it!). To do this, get into a downward dog position and alternate bending your knee and relaxing your legs. Then, next time you’re riding a trot or canter.. focus a bit on your ankles. You may find that as you develop the ability to be conscious of your subtalar joint your sitting trot gets much easier to sit!
As always, if there are any questions or you’d like to submit a video for me to analyze of your riding.. shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org