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Equitation - The Heel

Updated: Nov 19, 2022

Equitation is the base for all of our riding. When there is a solid foundation to your body and position, it allows you to interact and work with the horse with greater freedom and safety.

In Storey's Horse-Lover's Encyclopedia, equitation is defined as, "The formal art and practice of riding horses. Skilled equitation involves maintaining the body position that is considered to be correct for the type of riding involved; making appropriate use of "body aids," meaning the hands, legs, seat and upper torso; and demonstrating the mental composure necessary to control the horse and correct mistakes he may make. It is an art that typically take a number of years or master."

We are going to take a look at how our bodies should be positioned in the saddle for the most secure foundation of riding.


Many riding instructions get teased about constantly yelling "Heels Down" to our students. But why do instructors keep harping on this seemingly mundane thing to be focusing on?

Our heels are OUR ANCHORS! Just like a boat needs an anchor too help keep it in place, so does our body when balancing on the back of a horse. By allowing the calf muscles to relax and the heel to stretch and SINK, our heel will help to secure us in the saddle.

When we ride with our heels down, it helps balance our whole body back and keeps our center of gravity balanced. If you ride with your foot level or your heels up, you greatly increase your chance of falling forward or heaven bid, you fall off over the horse's shoulder. This is what I call "Tippy Tippy" to my students and we never want to have "Tippy Tippy" while riding!

Correct way for heels down. Just a soft flex through the ankle and elongated calf muscles.

Do you have problems getting your heels down? Use some of these exercises to help get your heels and calf muscles relaxed and elongated.

  • Practice walking on your heels around the house a couple of minutes a day.

  • Do toe touches (either sitting or standing) to help stretch your calf muscles.

  • Circle your foot and ankle, trying to complete a full circle in both directions. Make sure to do both feet equally.

  • In the saddle, (on a safe, steady mount) "stand" in the saddle. If need be, brace yourself on the saddle or your horse's neck. While standing and keeping your knees soft and relaxed, stretch down through the back of your thighs, down your calf muscles and lengthening down through your heels. As you lower yourself softly back to a sitting position in the saddle, try to keep your calf muscles elongated and relaxed and your heels down. You may do this exercise a couple of times in a row, but make sure you do not do too many in a row. As you get more comfortable, you may do this exercise while your horse is walking.

Heel level with the toe - while riding like this isn't as good as riding with heels down it is much better than riding with heels up

Most riders have more flexibility in one leg compared to the opposite leg. Your dominant side leg, ie. Right leg if you are right handed; Left leg is you are left handed, will usually be stiffer and tighter than the non-dominant side.

This is due to your bodies natural inclination to use our dominant side for everything we do. When you walk, which foot is the first one to step off? Most usually it will be your dominant side leg.

So what does this mean for you?

When doing exercises, it may be best to do your dominant side twice as many times as your non-dominant to try and equalize your sides.

While riding, you may find that you need to

adjust your dominant side more often and be more aware of keeping your heels down.

This is a dangerous way to ride.  When you ride on your toes, instead of your heels, you increase your chance of falling forward onto or over your horse's neck.
Heels up. This is a dangerous way to ride. When you ride on your toes, instead of your heels, you increase your chance of falling forward onto or over your horse's neck.


  • DO NOT force your heels down. If you do this, you will brace against your stirrups, tighten your knee and force your lower leg forward.

  • DO NOT over flex your ankles and push your heels too far down. This can be just as detrimental to your balance as heels up. If you ride with your heels sunk too far down, you may also find that your ankles will be sore after riding and it may affect the strength of your ankles.

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