I was giving a lesson last week and the student was having a hard time with her leg aids. She was not able to drive with the leg to energize the horse’s forward movement. It was time to focus on her leg position. So I worked on repositioning her leg to the correct place, but the result was not a more effective leg aid. Stepping back and studying the whole body position what finally struck me was, her foot! Her foot was hardly in the stirrup and “she was trying to hang in with her toe nails.” After discussing foot anatomy and demonstrating the correct position in the stirrup, she was able to move her stirrup under the ball of her foot, relax her ankle, let her leg hang down and achieved a taller more elegant body posture. And, she was able to effectively use her leg aid!
How often does a dressage rider think about the relationship of their foot to the stirrup? Far more attention is given to the seat, the arm position, the rein contact, etc… But, what about those feet? If the foot does not have the correct relationship to the stirrup nothing above it can be right! If it is not good down there, it will not be good above.
So, what is the correct position of the foot in the stirrup?
First, where is the stirrup on the foot? The stirrup rests on the ball of the foot, with a very slight angle to the foot. The inner part of the stirrup (closest to the horse and behind your big toe) is directly under the ball of your foot, the outer part of the stirrup is slightly more forward under the pinky toe. If the stirrup is too forward you are hanging on by your toes, the ankle will have to be tensed to hold the stirrup in place and so will everything above in the leg. If the stirrup is too far back toward your instep, you will lose the natural flexing of the ankle (and knee and hip). To get a feel for this, try placing your foot on the edge of a step and assume the riding position. If you move your feet back and hang by your toes, you will feel the tension needed to hold yourself in “the riding position” and you will have to actively work to balance. Moving your foot forward so the edge of the step is at your instep, you will find you only have a little ankle flexibility and will be pitched forward finding it difficult to keep your leg under you. If you place the ball of your foot at the edge, you will be able to let your heals hang down and you will be able to balance naturally. Furthermore, you will be able to drop your hips down and forward so as to mimic the movement of posting.
Second, what is the amount of pressure between your foot and the stirrup? We need to apply the Goldie Locks principle here. Too much will create unwanted tension throughout the leg and too little and you will lose connection with the stirrup. It must be juuust right! And juuust right depends on what is going on. Rule of thumb is, if your seat is IN the saddle the contact must be as light as possible. To demonstrate, while halted, I will place my fingers between the sole of the student’s boot and the stirrup. They are instructed to not hurt me, but not to let me pull my fingers out either. However, if your seat is OUT of the saddle, as in during the rising phase of the posting trot, there will obviously be greater weight on the stirrup. The weight should vary as you post through the seated and rising phases of the trot, letting your ankle and knee flex, and keeping your lower leg in a consistent position.
The Student's Perspective: Breakthrough lesson – what a difference a foot makes!
Sounds crazy but shifting the ball of my foot to be directly in line with the stirrup changed EVERYTHING. After re positioning my foot not only my leg but my body could finally properly balance & align. All the things I thought I was doing but felt forced could happen: my ankles could act as the shock absorber loosening and opening my upper thigh and hip which then allowed my leg to FINALLY be and STAY in the ‘sweet spot’. Best of all it was easier to keep my leg there and feel balanced with a better core connection. My horse had the best response of all because this slight adjustment of my foot made a HUGE improvement in how my body could positively communicate with her instead of being so forced because I could stay relaxed but solid!
ps – my poor body has a memory and I still have to consciously move my foot into this new spot on the stirrup but I now know where the magic is!