Toes Up
Posted by Irina Yastrebova on Wednesday, April 9, 2014 09:03 PM
As we all know the proper position of feet is with heels slightly below toes and if you watch a group lesson at any riding school you will hear instructors advice their pupils on keeping their heels down. The advice is very sound and reminding riders about their position is an ongoing job of any instructor. However, I am finding that it doesn't necessarily produce good results and often actually create problems rather than solve them. Even for jumper riders who are required to keep their heels very much down in order to keep more weight into them I prefer to say "drop the weight into your heels" rather than ask them to drop just the heels. Here are few reasons why I am not such a big fan of the phrase "keep your heels down!":
    When asked to push their heels down riders tend to:
  • Push too much into stirrups which facilitate a "chair seat" position.
  • Straighten and lock their knees
  • Take their lower legs away from the horse's sides
If you watch a training process of a new rider at the Spanish Royal School in Vienna you will see students being lunged on overage for 6 months without stirrups. They are also required to keep their toes up making an appearance of having their feet in the stirrups. When I learned to ride in Russia our instructor always told us to keep our toes up during work without stirrups. What that does to a rider's lower leg?
  • First of all, it keeps calf muscles stretched and firm giving the rider ability to apply effective leg aid when needed
  • Secondly, it stabilizes lower legs without stiffening the knees which allows the legs to stay in contact with horse's sides and allows the knees to play their part in absorbing the horse's motion
I am writing about it now because I suddenly realized the huge difference in the results achieved by riders if they pull their toes up rather than push their heels down. While riding in dressage saddle or fully seated in any saddle feet in the stirrups must be light. When you think of toes up it is much easer to stay light in the stirrups and still keep heels below toes. If you find yourself losing stirrups while you think of toes up rather than heels down it means your whole leg is pulled up not just toes. This is a different problem and pushing hard into stirrup in order to fix it will not work. If you are worried about stiffening the ankles it is very unlikely unless you pull so hard that your muscles lock. Sit in front of the mirror with feet flat on the ground and see how much the toes go above the heels if you lift them up without trying too hard - only a few degrees! This is all you need.
Next time you get in the saddle and put your feet into stirrups, think: "Toes Up!"
Happy riding...
Comment by Emma on Wednesday, June 11, 2014 08:22 PM
Hi! I am a children/adult beginner horse instructor at a farm out in Michigan. I really appreciate this post because I tell my students all the time to put their toes up rather than heels down and I see a huge improvement in tension in the legs. I do have one question though, I guess more like seeking advice. I have one student (around the age of 8 years old) She tends to lock her knees all the time at the posting trot on the lunge line and I tell her toes up, but I do not think she is quite getting the feeling and she just pushes her leg forward. I've been having her do 2 point (or half-seat) to help her bring her leg back and to relax her feet into the stirrups more and as soon as she sits back down and into the posting trot she pushes her leg forward again...I just want to smack my forehead! haha It might be she is just young and trying to figure her body out, but I was wondering if you had any insight? Thank you :) By the way, this is my first time reading your blog and I really enjoy it!
Comment by Irina Yastrebova on Thursday, June 12, 2014 02:29 PM
Hi Emma, I am glad you enjoyed the blog and it is nice to hear other instructor is aware of this issue :). Regarding your student I would say riding without stirrups on the lunge line including rising trot, over the poles and two-point seat in trot and canter is a great way to make a rider learn to use the leg differently rather than using stirrups for support which they are not :)
The other great exercise to make riders aware of locking knees is at the halt ask them to stand up in the stirrups to the point that they can stand without falling backwards or holding to the mane. After that they should learn to bend their knees to lower themselves down into the saddle gracefully rather than fall backwards with feet pushed forward and knees locked. The lower leg does not move during lowering moment. You can help the rider by holding the lower leg/foot with your hands firmly so they will be forced to bend the knee rather than move the foot. You have to do both legs to show them the way. I hope this helps.
P.S. Kids do have a tendency to use stirrups too much as they are not strong enough and they legs often do not wrap around the horse's barrel. I would say for 8-year-old the work without stirrups must be done on a very small pony so the leg can fall down rather than sticking sideways :)
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