One of the horse industry truths that baffles my non-horsey husband, Sean, is that, technically, I could give him $5, and he could tell me to put my heels down, and voilà. He’s a professional.
Of course this example is an exaggeration, but it’s not one that’s too terribly far off the mark. Anyone can hang up a shingle, call themselves a professional, and start teaching clients. For my husband who has spent the majority of his life as a high-level amateur cyclist, and who knows a lot of other folks who also participate in various sports at high levels as adults, he’s truly confused by this fact. He sometimes will Google a sport just to see what the governing body rules are around being able to teach or coach. The only sports, so far as he can tell, that don’t have any standards whatsoever are the equestrian disciplines.
Much has been said about the effects of this reality and whether or not it’s good for the sport. Personally, I would like to see some sort of required courses taken before someone is allowed to teach, courses that go through some universal, fundamental basics. Everyone would complete these before setting up shop and stay up to date with them on a regular basis.
But then, something happened that led me to believe this may be much more difficult to achieve than I first imagined.
While watching an online hunter/jumper masterclass taught by top-level show jumper Karl Cook on how to achieve a “functional” position in the saddle, he started to talk about why pushing your weight in your heels was wrong. I didn’t hear him say that “sometimes” it was wrong, or that only at the higher levels it was wrong, or that there’s a better way of saying “push the weight in your heels,” or talk about how sometimes pushing too much weight in your heels was counterproductive. It was wrong. Period. In his opinion, the correct position was one that was “neutral,” so that your foot was resting in the stirrup parallel to the ground with no weight in it.
As someone who was … well … taught to push my weight into my heels (and has the ankle flexibility to prove it), this assertion made me do a double take. Sure, you didn’t want to fix your foot position at the expense of everything else, but to say that it was “wrong”? Even though Karl Cook is a better rider than I’ll ever be, to me, his stance seemed like quite a leap. So I broached the question on the Facebook page dedicated to discussions around that online masterclass. I asked the “hive mind” what they thought.
Some folks said that anyone who says something is categorically “wrong” when it comes to riding should have their words taken with a grain of salt (except of course when it comes to abusive training methods—which, let’s face it—are also hard to agree on across the board). Some folks profusely and vigorously agreed with the professional. Some folks gave the good old “it depends,” response. But one thing was certain: There was no unanimous agreement within the group.
It left me feeling a little disoriented. How could we ever come up with any sort of agreed-upon standards if something so seemingly basic and fundamental as keeping your heels down spawned so many differing opinions, some from the very top levels of the sport? And if we can’t agree on the basics, how can the sport agree upon anything that moves up the levels?
As someone who used to be a professional myself and taught my fair share of up/down lessons on the longe line, I feel like there are indeed certain things that at least at the beginning stages keep people safe in the saddle. For a long time, I thought those basics were universal. Now, I’m not so sure.
Maybe this is a good thing. Maybe the fact that riding, unlike so many other sports, has multiple ways to achieve the same goal, is something that keeps it dynamic and healthy. But we’ve all been at a local show (or at a rated show) and seen riding that crosses the line from not good to downright dangerous. We’ve all seen the trainer in the schooling ring shouting at their students with zero results, while we politely pretend that we’re not seeing a literal train wreck. We’ve also seen these same students get hurt or get scared, and think it’s their fault. Will having a shared set of standards prevent this from happening? Who knows. But I don’t think it would make it happen more than it already is.
To heels down or not to heels down? I’m not positive that we can answer that question, but for the sake of the health of our sport and the safety of our riders and horses, I hope that we can at least start the process of trying.
Sophie Coffey grew up riding by the seat of her pants in Virginia hunt country, and she took a flying leap into the top levels of the sport through sheer will and luck after a cold call landed her a job at Hunterdon, Inc. She continued freelancing as a jack-of-all-trades through her 20s for some of the top names in the industry, getting the best education possible in horsemanship and larger life lessons. After leaving the sport to pursue a career in marketing, she returned in 2018 as an adult amateur and is currently teaching her baby warmblood mare Azul the ropes. She resides in Richmond, Virginia, with her fully indoctrinated horsey husband and several kitties. Follow her adventures between posts on Instagram @coffeyinthesaddle.