A flexible ankle is vital to the rider for absorbing the action of the horse’s stride. If the toe is lower than the heel, or if the ankle is braced down and rigid, the effect is felt up the rest of the leg to the rider’s back and through the arms. That flexible ankle is the base of support that allows the rest of the rider’s position to become stable and relaxed. When the ankle is stiff, the rider’s seat bounces instead of following the horse’s motion, and the hands constantly tug on the reins.
A rider who grips too tightly with the knee will also find it difficult to bring the ankle down, especially when posting at the trot. The rider thus posts “around the knee,” bringing the heel up, tilting the upper body forward, and bracing the hands down. Over the next three months, we will give you some pointers and exercises to improve your leg, upper body and arms, starting at the bottom — your ankle. (See “From the Bottom Up” editorial in this month’s issue.)
In order to develop a flexible ankle, it helps to think of a trot stride as coming in two phases that correspond to the rise/sit phases while posting. As your body rises out of the saddle, your heel goes down. As you sit, your heel relaxes in toward the side of the horse, which should be the point where you want to time your leg aids. This same down/in action of the ankle also occurs when sitting the trot and allows the seat to deepen into the saddle.
Here is a step-by-step procedure to work toward a better base of support:
1. Drop your stirrups and check your stirrup length. If your stirrup touches below the point of your ankle, then you need to raise it a hole or two.
2. With your stirrups still dropped, lift one leg at the hip away from the side of the saddle. Rotate it forward from the hip and then lay it back down along the saddle flap. Repeat with the other leg. This should help open your hip and aim your knee/toe toward the horse’s nose instead of out to the side. It’s almost impossible to turn the toe forward if you start below the knee.
3. Raise your toes and pick up your stirrups. Still at the halt, grab mane at the crest and get up into two-point, letting your heels stretch down. Try this at the walk and, when ready, at the trot. When trotting in two-point, you’ll really need to let your knees slide down for each stride along with your heels.
The best way to do this exercise is out on the trails, trotting over uneven ground, because each step the horse takes is slightly different than the one before it and you won’t be able to maintain your balance if your heel comes up.
4. When you can get your heel to flex down reliably in two-point it’s time to work on posting, which has two phases: As your body goes up, your heel goes down; as you sit, your heel relaxes.
Think about timing the word “down,” with the rising phase in the posting stride. As your upper body leaves the saddle, say “down,” “down,” “down” out loud with each step. Then flex your heel down each time you say “down.”
5. Now concentrate on the timing of the sitting phase in the posting stride. As you sit, say “in,” “in,” “in” out loud as your ankle relaxes.
6. Once you can isolate “down” with the rising phase and “in” with the sitting phase, say “down/in” out loud for each stride. Time the action of your ankle with your words.
Work on this exercise during your warm-up each time you ride until you find you don’t need to consciously think “down/in” any more. You’ll know your ankle is more flexible when your seat in the sitting trot becomes more stable.
The best thing you can do to maintain your progress is to spend a few minutes trotting in two-point every time you ride your horse because it will both elongate and strengthen your leg and thus make your stirrup position more secure.
Next Month: Working on your position from the waist up.
Also With This Article
Click here to view ”About That Stirrup Length.”