Wednesday, November 20, 2013

pilates is a cruel mistress ... and why I don't want you to put your heels down

I think it's been a month since I've been to pilates so today was painful.  I felt very marshmellow.  After a half hour I had one of those moments where I looked at the clock and thought, "Oh no, I can't make it another half hour!"  I made it through though and felt actually proud of myself for that.  My daughter's piano teacher said she had never tried pilates but it sounded interesting so I described some of the moves (like the plank on the exercise ball where you put your calves on the ball - with your back on the floor - lift yourself up into a plank and then gently bend your arms at your elbow and lift them off the ground).  She looked horrified and said "That's intense." To which all I could say was "Yes. Yes it is."  But it definitely helps my riding.  And my posture.

Something has been coming up with some of my older students that I've been thinking about a lot.  When I had my few years off from riding and couldn't remember much of anything when I came back to it, the one thing I still remembered was "keep your heels down".  It's like the holy grail of riding this whole "your heels have to be down". 

When I ride with stirrups my heels are naturally down because my leg is hanging there with my toe propped up in my stirrup so of course my heel goes down.  If your heel is up in your stirrups then your balance/seat is off or you are gripping with your legs or your stirrups are super long and you are reaching your toe down to touch it - which in that case you just need to either not ride with stirrups or put your stirrups higher.  So, I can see why an instructor seeing your heel down would help them to recognize that things are going fairly well with your seat - although as I've been learning I'm realizing you have to look at far more than just what the heels doing.  You need to look at how the pelvis is situated, the tension being held in the leg, etc.  And that's not even getting into what's going on above the waist! 

For me the big thing I've started looking for is bracing and tension because that is what I don't want to see.  I especially see it when my students are riding bareback and they are bracing their leg to force their heels down.  So, I've had to tell them when they're bareback to forget about their heels.  I want to see relaxed legs moving with their horse and heels be damned (Ok - I don't say that last part cause they're kids but you know what I mean).  One of my students I even yelled out during my instructions to her "Relax your leg! Deep breath! I don't want to see that heel down!"   She looked at me like I just told her "Go murder that kitten over there!"  But she did it and I was super proud of how well she did once she relaxed!

Ironically, recently the school director said she didn't think she'd asked me some of the interview questions last Spring and told me what they were, one of which was something like - what are the two most important aspects of riding you focus on (or something like that) and I said "Balance and light hands" and she said something in different wording that was about the same.  Then she added, "If someone says "heels down" that is a red flag for me." 

And because "keep your heels down" was such a huge deal when I was a kid too I've been thinking about it a lot.  I finally told Trainer K. how I felt blasphemous for telling my bareback riders to have a relaxed leg more than forcing their heel down and flexing their foot and asked her "Why do people focus so much on just putting your heels down when flexing your foot and forcing your heels down doesn't help your riding?"  And she explained that it's one of those things - like a myth - that gets passed down from generation to generation.  In the ideal leg position your leg is relaxed and your toe is in the stirrup and your heel drops down - just like if you relaxed your leg with a toe resting on a step and your heel automatically drops down.  But somewhere along the line some people forgot to add in the theory behind why your heel drops down in the stirrup and started just focusing on pushing your heel down whether you are riding with stirrups or not.

So now my kids are hearing a lot more about "relax your leg" and less about "put your heels down" and it still feels blasphemous.  But it also feels like an allegory for society - how the real reasons behind an action are often lost and the useless surface image is what is pushed to be passed on.  And with that I must cut this short and go give a pony a massage.

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