I’m following up a request this week-although it follows on nicely from last week when we loosened off our calf muscles.
The stability of our lower leg depends on a couple of things.
Firstly our overall core stability as if we are not strong in the middle then we will struggle to control our limbs when riding.
Secondly the function of our hip flexors, if they are dysfunctional in anyway either too tight or maybe weak then the leg will struggle to maintain stability.
And finally todays topic- our ankles.
Now last week’s stretches for the lower leg and the ball rolling will have a big impact on any mobility issues in the ankles, other than that if you really struggle with mobility then simply circling them in both directions 10-15 times a couple of times per day, also pointing and flexing and turning the foot in and out.
Unfortunately as it not surrounded by any big muscles (unlike the knee) the ankle struggles with stability. Secondly if you have ever badly rolled your ankle this could have damaged the ligaments that cross the joint. Due to ligaments not having a direct blood supply they are very difficult to heal. In order to re-establish stability in ankles we must strengthen the tendons and the small stabilising muscles around it.
If you find your ankles do not seem particularly stable then there are some things you can do that can help it.
They are also incredibly simple, by that I mean straightforward no equipment; they are actually harder than you expect!
First simply stand on one leg for a length of time-say working up to a minute is a great starting point. Now try the same exercise with your eyes closed.
Then repeat this whilst standing on the ball of your foot. Eyes open to start then when you can comfortably do a minute without wobbling try closing your eyes.
Then if you wanted to up the ante you could try these exercises on an unstable surface such as a rolled up towel or a wobble cushion. Start with a flat foot and eyes open before working up to eyes closed and on the ball of your foot.
It is totally fine to hold on to something to get you started and it is fine to start really small as it really important you do not over fatigue in these positons as obviously this could cause you to roll your ankle-the very thing we are trying to avoid! You can do these in shoes if you prefer but for ultimate bulletproof ankles do them in bare feet-I just kept my socks on for the photos as the floor was cold!
Let me know how you get on, I love to receive your comments and suggestions!
I’m going to sort of discuss two things today although they are linked so bear with.
Firstly the common theme of toes up heels down-que flashbacks of childhood instructors bellowing in your ears! If any of you are reading then I applaud and appreciating your voice box and lung capacity lol.
The thing is, if you actually watch the pros for example Carl Hester or Michael Jung their heels aren’t actually “down”. They are parallel to the floor at best unless in a jumping position.
You see the problem with heels down is firstly it is quite difficult to do, but also the very act makes most of us then push down to get our heels down. This has two effects: One it straightens out various joints in the body and inhibits its ability to absorb force (there’s your core gone!) and two the pressing down causes an opposite action somewhere else meaning your seat bones pop up-it’s physics dahling!
Having said that we do not want heels that point up and cause a shortening of the calf muscle as this will also shorten the hamstrings (back of the thigh) and in short cause tension further up the chain.
What we are actually after is a soft calf with a relaxed foot in the stirrup unforced at parallel maybe with a dipped heel if it does that without force.
To achieve this we need to lengthen and relax those calf muscles.
We must also understand as we do this that there are two muscles to the calf namely the Gastrocnemius and the Soleus. The Gastroc is the bulky muscle most of us can see, and the Soleus is directly underneath this and runs through to the Achilles tendon which then goes under the foot. Most people focus on the Gastroc when in fact the Soleus is key to lengthening and relaxing this area properly and enabling a relaxed lower leg and foot.
Here are my favourite ways to lengthen these muscles.
One is using a step or mounting block. Hold onto something for balance if you need to and drop your heels off the step staying on the balls of your feet-and then just stay there and breathe. To stretch your soleus you stay in the same position and bend your knees slightly. This is kind of like being in your stirrups but notice how as I bend to lengthen the Soleus my heel is no longer down-this is quite normal as the Soleus is not as long as the Gastroc muscle. Is it making sense why you can’t keep your heel down with a relaxed lower leg now?
I also like to stretch my calves in downward dog, just gently walking the feet (not fast bouncing) and then holding still and if you need more pressure you can use your other foot crossed over the back heel to add weight. Then bend the knees and repeat to hit the Soleus.
Finally a nice way to release the calf which can be done at your desk or just before you put your riding boots on is to roll your foot on tennis, golf, Physio ball. This is great for foot pain but also works to release the calf muscles due to their link through the Achilles and under the foot.
Try those out and see which one works best for you.
Remember Toes Relaxed Heels Parallel.
So last week we looked at releasing the shoulder blades to enable them to absorb your horses movement through the reins.
To establish a soft but stable rein contact we must also have a stable shoulder joint.
This can be difficult when as mentioned last week we spend so much time in poor posture. This can result in lengthened and weak back muscles and very tight and therefore dysfunctional upper shoulder muscles. This is why the first part of this section was to release the shoulders as they will be unable to correctly strengthen if they are tense.
So why is our rein carriage important when we ride?
Essentially if you are unstable you will inadvertently pull on the reins, which will make your horse resist you by pulling back which leads to you essentially holding each other up. If one of you let go the other would fall. For example if your horse drops his head you will fall forward. So, in order for our horse to be in self carriage we also have to be in our own self carriage.
Part of this does come from the core and much has been spoken about this however as the arms are attached into the shoulders think of the shoulders as an extension of your core. In order for your arms to be relaxed and giving they need their stable core to support them i.e the shoulders.
I see a lot of riders with large upper trapezius muscles (top of the shoulders and neck) and biceps yet with very little muscle throughout the rest of their back. This tells me that they are relying on their arms for their rein contact and their shoulders are tense due to the force.
So, how do we correct this?
One way I find really useful whilst riding is to imagine that your elbows are stuck to your sides directly under your shoulders (so there would be a straight line from the tip of your shoulder down to your elbow) This actually has two positive effects.
Firstly it keeps you in alignment and promotes neutral spine. Secondly the action of holding your elbows there will activate your back and shoulder muscles –which is exactly what we are after!
Unfortunately this can be quite difficult to maintain for a full hours ride so to help you improve quicker I have some exercises you can do out of the saddle.