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.