‘Heels down’. I wonder if this is the most made remark in dressage training. And I think it is completely useless. But I’ll come to that.
If you stand on your toes in the stirrups, your upper leg and knee will come away from the horse. This makes you unstable. Some riders think dressage is all about long stirrups, so the longer the better. That is not true. A stirrup should support your foot, so your leg stays in the right position and your ankle can act like a sort of spring. You shouldn’t have to reach for the stirrup. Take them off, put your leg in the right position, move your toes up a little bit and there should be your stirrup.
If an instructor shouts ‘heels down’ at you, you are very likely to use force to do so. By which you block your ankle joint. And you will probably move your lower leg forward. A better way is to relax your lower leg and remember to absorb the movement of the horse in your ankles. If the stirrups are of the right length your heels will go down naturally.
Off the leg
If horses do not move off the leg, some riders dig in their heels by pulling them up. It won’t work. If he hasn’t learned to be off the leg, he will close himself off for strong ‘aids’ like that. And by it you unbalance yourself, so he’ll go even slower. He needs to think forward again, to which I’ll come back later.
If you squeeze too much with your knees and tighten your thighs too much, your heels go up as well. To be in the right position means you have to relax your muscles, use core stability and try to balance yourself by following the movement. It’s very much like yoga. You will have to work on an independent seat. It’s logical that you grab the steer when you learn to ride a bicycle. But once you can, you don’t have to hold it as firm anymore. Same goes for the horse.
If you stand on your toes, try to correct it by taking your leg away from the saddle for a minute. Stretch it out sideways from your hip down. Relax your buttocks. Feel your seatbones in the saddle. Put your legs back gently. Take the stirrups and relax your ankles. And when you move forward, try to keep thinking of your ankles as springs.