Getting to grips with lower leg position

First off I have to apologise for some of the photos in this post; Lizzie and I had just come back from a hot ride on the moor and she was not pleased to have to be a model. We also really struggles to find decent lighting…

I have plenty of photos of myself in my teens, jumping with my lower leg doing all sorts of things that it probably shouldn’t have been doing, and certainly things that I didn’t realise were going on. There are also plenty, thankfully, of me jumping with a rather more correct position. At that time in my life, I also didn’t really have much clue about a good ‘dressage’ position either, and so generally didn’t use my body in the most effective way. I have come a long way since then, via 1 spectacular cross country fall that was I could certainly have avoided if I had had my legs in the right place – which, judging by the photos, I did at the previous very technical combination fence. (I probably relaxed a bit at the more straightforward one)

In my work as a physio for people and their horses, I am more conscious than ever about the importance of lower limb position and stability. A rider tipping forwards because they have a weak core and leg puts weight on to the horse’s forehand. This is not good for the horse, and limits the ability to raise the forehand when schooling or jumping. It is also not good for the rider because it puts the upper body into a flexed position, which is weak at the hip and blocks free shoulder movement, and of course, it is much less stable and so the risk of falls is increased. A rider tipping back loads the weakest area of the horse’s back, and can contribute to back pain and inhibits the horse’s ability to step under with the hind quarters.

All in all, a ‘good’ – ie correct and effective lower leg position is crucial for rider safety and the ability of the horse to raise it’s front end. So what are the characteristics of a ‘good’ lower leg?

First off, you want alignment of the hip and ankle. This doesn’t need to be perfect, but approximate is necessary. This ensures that body weight travels straight down through those joints – if the foot is forward the leg weight goes forwards and the body weight goes back in compensation, and vice versa. Fine for drop fences maybe but not otherwise. Weight going straight down makes the leg a secure anchor for the body, and body weight can balance on the top. If you haven’t heard it before, imagine if your horse disappeared from underneath you….you want to be balanced enough over your legs that you would land on your feet, and not wobble.

Following on from alignment comes correct and effective muscle activity. If your legs are too far forward or back, you will be using your muscles to maintain balance, rather than ride effectively. If you are sitting with your leg joints lined up underneath your body, your hip muscles are in a ‘mid range’ position to be able to work to their optimum; ie they have the ability to move to a shortened and lengthened position rather than being fixed in the short or long position already. When your feet are too far forwards, the hip will be more flexed, the hip flexors short and the gluteals long. In the opposite position, with the foot and leg too far back, the hip flexors will be long and the gluteals short.

You then need to think about what your lower leg is doing. There are 2 main muscle groups you should be considering – the hamstrings which run down the back of the thigh, and the adductors which run down the inside. The adductors on the inside are your strong, grip muscles, and then keep you in place in the saddle, and help you to ‘put your leg on’ – or apply the aids. The hamstrings act to bend the knee. So if you have the habit of turning your lower leg out, you change the muscle group in contact with your saddle, so that you are using partly using the hamstrings to grip. The results in bending the knee so that the foot starts to rise up and in, and so it is no longer where you need it for applying the aids. If you are wearing spurs, then you also risk applying these far more often than you intend to.

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Lower leg turning out – I think this also makes my low back/pelvis more fixed

The last major factor to consider – although it is linked to the alignment of the hip and foot – is how you distribute your weight through your foot. Ideally weight should go through the ball of each foot because this is the most mobile part of the foot, and therefore where you create power yet also receive feedback about what is happening to foot activity. If the foot sits too far back in the stirrup, you will find you balance through your toes, or try to grip through your toes, which makes the foot and thus the whole leg, much weaker. Pushing the foot too far into the stirrup fixes the foot too much – which is also a safety issue – and so reduces the ability of the lower leg to move and react as you need it to. We are probably all told to keep heels down at some point in our learning/training, but whilst thinking of this is useful to prevent the heel creeping up – and so pushing the weight onto the toes – overdoing this position can fix the leg too much. If you are bracing yourself over a fence, or when your horse is mucking about, then fixing the heel down is a useful way to increase security, but overdoing security compromises the ability to move the leg with subtlety.

In fairness, all of this applies more to riding long than it does in jumping position, because the shorter your stirrups and therefore the more in a ‘squat’ position you are, the more leeway you have in terms of coping with changes in leg/body angle due to the shortening of the lever length that is the leg. That is why we shorten the stirrups for jumping and fast work when we need to move forwards/backwards/sideways as needed.

To get to grips with an effective lower leg position take the time to work on the correct placement on and off the horse. I’ve mentioned before why it is so important to put the hours in off the horse, but in case you have forgotten, you need to practice enough to make sure the correct position/activity becomes normal and instinctive on the horse. It is also worth regularly checking your position in the saddle because it is so easy to slip into bad habits without noticing.  Put your legs too far forward and backward, and note how it influences your body position and balance. Feel what it does to your muscle activity, and how hard you have to work to keep your balance.

Some useful exercises to do off the horse would be:

Squats – focussing on lower limb symmetry and keeping shoulders over pelvis

Lunges – as with squats

Shoulder bridge – it teaches you where ‘neutral’ is from shoulders to knees

4 point kneeling/all 4s – anything here also teaches shoulder/hip symmetry

Leg circles on you side or back – essential for gaining good independent hip awareness and control

Obviously these all images include equipment, but hopefully you get the idea. It’s all about learning where your shoulders, hips and feet are in relation to each other, and keeping them in the place you want and need for effective riding.

Published by Louise Towl Physio

I am a Chartered Physiotherapist with Pilates training, and I am an ACPAT (the Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Animal Therapy) and RAMP (Register of Animal Musculoskeletal Practitioners) registered Veterinary Physiotherapist. Away from work I have ridden all my life, competing in various disciplines and now focussing on dressage. With my retired horse, Baz, I competed at Advanced level, and I now have a younger horse, Lizzie, who is currently competing at Elementary.

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