Lots of riders struggle to maintain the perfect riding position, and we had a question from one viewer who couldn't keep her heels down in the canter.
We asked former international show jumper Johnny Harris for his advice:
“This is such a common problem for both inexperienced and experienced riders," says Johnny. "To improve it you need to understand why it happens in the first place, and there are a number of causes.
The length and shape of your legs are, of course, a factor – slim, long-legged people do have an advantage, but this does not mean that they won’t ever have the same problem! The softness and suppleness required for a good lower leg position and a deep heel starts in the hips and pelvis, it also reflects any tension throughout the whole body. So the first thing to address is your general suppleness and flexibility - we spend hours working on the horse’s but oftern forget our own! Warm yourself up correctly and stretch as much as possible before you ride.
If you wear heels of any sort for your normal daily life, you will need to stretch your hamstrings regularly – tight hamstrings will really show up when you are riding. Try standing with the front part of your foot on a small step and gently lower your heels to the ground until you feel a pull on the backs of your legs. Rise up and down until you start to feel the stretch working.
You can do a similar exercise mounted – shorten your stirrups a hole or two and stand up in the ‘two point’ (forward seat) position - rest your hands on the horses neck to support your upper body, and stretch your heels as far as they will go. With practise you can walk/trot and canter holding this position, as you sit back into the saddle you will feel your legs wrap around the horse – hugging his sides. Easy for a few strides, but it won’t last long to start with so keep practising
There are many other leg and hip stretching exercises that you can do while mounted, the sort that are regularly used for beginners at riding schools all over the country, people forget how effective these can be when they become more experienced.
Working at sitting trot, with and without stirrups, will open the pelvis and lengthen the leg. Try to avoid ‘standing’ on the stirrups, let the weight travel down through your leg into the heel. Keep the knee and the ankle soft. Use a neck strap to avoid balancing on the reins and pull yourself deep into the saddle. A very common riding error occurs from the canter strike off – the rider tips forward in anticipation, the weight rocks onto the balls of your feet and you push yourself out of the saddle. Combined with the bounce of the first canter strides your heels have come up, the leg has shortened and you are pushed up out the saddle.
Trying to regain the correct position is not easy from this situation, so better to avoid it in the first place. Practise your canter strike off from your sitting trot exercise using your neck strap, hold the sitting trot and on a corner (to help the horse get the correct leg) simply ask for canter with your outside leg, allowing the horse to find the canter with you sitting tall, deep in the saddle and with a long leg and a deep heel. When the canter rhythm is established after four or five strides let go of the neck strap and see how far you can go before the hips start to tighten and the heels come up. With practise you will be able to correct the strike off problem and hold the canter as long as you want.
If you have a problem with losing your stirrup/stirrups this will add to your tension about the strike off and cantering. There are some fabulous stirrups available to buy (used by competition riders) which have metal treads which grip the soles of your boots. Not surprisingly the top of the range are pricey, but there are cheaper options and they are definitely well worth the expense - to make life easier – for you and the horse!
Good luck, and I hope this helps.”