Our own Julie Driver, pilates coach, shares some insights and exercises to combat lower leg creep in riders.
Do you frequently lose a stirrup/s?
Do you lose your balance in trot?
Do you feel like your lower leg has a life of its own`?
You are not alone…
We may think we are using our legs and body to indicate movement, direction and speed but our horse may be ‘hearing/feeling’ something different!
In this article there are some simple tips and exercises that can help you improve your balance, leg position and alignment.
Understanding when and how your body moves can help you create and control desired movements and restrict unintentional ones, such as wobbly hands, and creeping lower legs.
It can also help us understand why some manoeuvres are easier on the right rein or the left rein and how we can become more effective and responsive to our horse on both.
WHY Do we need a stable lower leg?
- To effectively apply aids when necessary
- To keep you centred and balanced in the saddle •
- Better balance in walk
- Better balance in trot
- Better balance in canter
- Better balance in transitions
- BETTER BALANCE FOR EVERYTHING!!
What are the common causes of lower leg creep?
- Poor Balance ( see above!)
- Gripping with the knee, tipping forwards/backwards with the upper body
- Poor foot position in the stirrup which can affect the placement of the knee/hip and everything above it
In this article we are going to focus on how your foot position may be affecting the stability and position of your lower leg.
First things First: Check your strip length:
There are two ways to check this
• Allow your legs to hang down by your horse’s sides. In general, the bottoms of the stirrup irons should be about level with your ankle bone for Flatwork.
• Make a fist, place your knuckles on the stirrup bar, and with your arm outstretched the end of the stirrup should be against your armpit.
Done that, now what?
If you want to see permanent, lasting change to your riding position, you need to regularly practice exercises that improve alignment and posture in the saddle before you ride.
That way when our balance is challenged by an asymmetrical movement ( eg leg aids) we can maintain stability where it’s needed and move correctly and efYiciently from that stable base.
Find your “Feet to seat” connection
No part of the body works in isolation and sometimes where we feel a tightness, restriction or pain may be the “victim” of compensating for an issue elsewhere in the body. – The criminal!
Equally no part of the body heals in isolation which means we can improve movement elsewhere in the body by creating healthy movement patterns right from the foot upwards.
Our feet are so often a neglected part of the puzzle. We focus on our hips, backs, shoulders but sometimes it can be the simplest movements that make the difference.
The “feet to seat” connection plays a fundamental role in riding. Being able to use our legs independently from our spine and pelvis and the right leg from left leg means we can be more efYicient and effective with our leg aids.
It can also improve our balance, alignment and the “drive’ through our legs and seat.
By bringing awareness to your feet ‘off horse’ we can become aware of the influence our feet have on leg/hip position and spinal alignment. Foot exercises may seem totally inconsequential but their impact can be huge and help reduce some of those sub-conscious little jiggles.
Understanding the Ankle Joint
Understanding some simple mechanics of the foot, ankle and lower leg can help us feel how to find a relaxed ankle and foot position in the stirrup. As riders this is important because the position of your foot in the stirrup can change where the knee falls and create a domino effect further up the body.
The foot itself provides “support, protection and acts as a lever system” ( Bruno Nigg 2010 ) and consists of 26 bones and 33 joints. The ankle ( talocrural joint) is a hinge joint. The two bones of the lower leg. The Tibia and Fibula, act like a clasp on the talus bone allowing pointing and Ylexing of the foot. ( Dorsi and Plantar Ylexion)
When you place your foot in the stirrup think of lowering the heel from this hinge joint. Many riders create the illusion of lowering the heel by pressing down on the stirrup and pulling the toes up which creates tension and strain around the top of the foot and front of lower leg.
Below the ankle joint is the subtalar joint which gives us the side to side movement of the foot. ( inversion/eversion)
Supination and pronation of the foot are important parts of the sequence of movements we need for healthy gait patterns, however when we have too much one or the other it can create problems further up the body.
For example, If the arch of one foot drops ( pronates) it can cause the knee to roll inwards.
This changes the position of the lower leg, knee, hip and ultimately the pelvis. It can also affect the spine and head position. Foot pronation in the stirrup can result in a weight shift/lean/collapse in the saddle which then changes your centre of gravity and balance.
You can feel and see the effect of foot pronation if you try it standing in front of a mirror. Stand hip width apart and then let the arch of one foot drop/pronate. You’ll feel and see the knee roll in, there will be an adjustment round the hip and pelvis and further up the chain of bones and muscles in your body.
By improving the mobility of the foot we can improve how we place our foot in the stirrup and how we use our lower leg. This can have a positive effect our seat by helping us balance better and align ourselves better, all vital ingredients of being a responsive, confident rider.
Try these simple exercises to see how moving the foot well affects your movement throughout your body.
First of all try a roll down and feel how your body is moving, do you feel any restrictions anywhere? Can you reach your toes or the floor? Are you twisting to one side?
The Roll Down
Develops Spinal Mobility.
Stand with you feet hip width apart, your arms by your sides.
Breath in to prepare
Breath out and begin to roll your spine slowly downwards towards the floor, try to roll one bone of the spine at a time and keep your spine balanced centrally over your legs. Allow your pelvis to move too. Breath in. Breath out to rebuild the spine vertebrae by vertebrae.
Don’t hold your breath, imagine your spine is like a wheel as you roll. Now try all these exercises on ONE foot:
Place your thumbs inside the base of your toes and open out and stretch the arch Wringing the foot out
Hold your heel and the arch of the foot and gently twist the two as if you are wringing out a towel
Shaking “Hands” with your foot
Place a finger between each toe as if you are holding hand with yourself. This on its own is a great workout and stretch for your feet!
Keep holding your foot between the toes and begin to circle your foot both clockwise and anti clockwise.
Then roll down again and compare the two sides. Does the side you’ve worked feel easier than before? Can you reach further?
Now do the other side and compare again when you’ve finished!
Little and often is the key:
As a busy equestrian it can be hard to fit in three to four longer movement sessions a week. This can often lead to an “all or nothing” mindset. It’s better to focus on regular shorter sessions that you can fit around your schedule.
These simple foot mobility exercises can be done watching tv, while you’re having a quick cuppa or any other time when you have 5 minutes spare.