Forget heels down. Think knees down!

On Friday I audited a Mary Wanless clinic. I’ve read her books and have taken a few lessons with someone who trains with her. Hearing her explain her theories and work with the riders made it all much clearer. For those readers not familiar with Wanless, she specializes in rider biomechanics, helping riders find the right balance point so they can work with their horses rather than against them.

I also remembered a few things that I used to know. Funny how that happens.

The first thing that I remembered was how much the position of your knees influences your seat. When I was a kid learning to ride, I think that I must have heard “heels down” from various instructors a few thousand times.

The problem is that forcing your heels down tends to put the rider behind the motion in a catch up or water skiing position.

While I was watching the clinic I saw it happen to several riders. They forced their heels down and leaned back. When they did this even slightly, you could see how their weight shifted and they fell against the back of their saddles.

Instead of concentrating on their heels, you need to think about your knees. By pointing your knee caps down, you open the angle of your hip and are able to sit in a balanced or neutral seat. Mary Wanless said that you should think your of your knee as being the point of an arrow head shape. That’s not to say that you should let your leg pivot back from your knee, or that your heel should be up, but rather that you need to make sure that your lower leg and and foot stays in the direct line under your pelvis and your heel should be in a neutral or slightly down position. She said to several riders that your riding position should be such that if your horse disappeared from under you that you would land on your feet.

The concept of pointing your kneecaps down was first suggested to me by a trainer in Cleveland. She always told us to envision kneeling on one of those ergonomic kneeling stools which were designed to help you find your natural balance line from your ears to your shoulder, down through your hips to your ankle. This position relieves compression of your

Envision yourself on one of the ergonomic kneeling chairs.
Envision yourself on one of the ergonomic kneeling chairs.

spine and reduces tension in your lower back and leg muscles — all things that are also good for riders.

In fact, when riding with your kneecap pointed down it prevents you from sitting in a “chair seat”; a position that occurs when your thigh bones become too horizontal.

When I rode with that trainer I made a concerted effort to ride with my kneecaps down. It helped me position my seatbones so they were pointing down and made me feel more “plugged in” to my horse. Over time I guess I’ve drifted away from the ideal because when I tried it again this weekend I was amazed by how much I had to stretch my hip flexors to accomplish the position. This is definitely something I need to practice!

Additional Resources:

Biomechanical Riding and Dressage Website

4 thoughts on “Forget heels down. Think knees down!

  1. I’ve never heard this before, but it’s intriguing. I’m having trouble visualizing how it looks/feels, but I’m going to go home and try it later! I’m going to look for more info on Mary Wanless too – thanks for the heads up!

  2. I audited this clinic on Sunday. It was very interesting to see the waterskiing riders and how by plugging in with their seat and bearing down changed things.

    A lot of similarities to Centered Riding / Sally Swift. I bought another book of course. Mary will be returning there in May.

  3. heels down is CRAYZEE. It’s a good start to think about the knees.
    An even better way to approach this is to think of open soft hips and seat bones.
    This takes care of knees and ankles. Classical dressage (done right) strikes again.

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