6 Exercises to Celebrate your feet

By Amanda Barton

“Be sure to put your feet in the right place, then stand firm” Abraham Lincoln

It’s a common assumption that asymmetry in a rider’s pelvis lies at the root of many riding problems.  While this is certainly true for a lot of people, there are plenty of times were you can spend all the time you like working on your pelvis but not fix the underlying problem. Of course that makes complete sense if the problem lies elsewhere in the body. 

In the course of spending many hours working with riders on the simulator I have seen situations were a pattern such as one sided tension in the hip or pelvis, a hip hike, incorrect movement in one femur or uneven leg pressure or position have stemmed from problems with the foot or ankle rather than the pelvis.  It makes sense if you think about the way that the body is connected together by chains of fascia. If you have a restriction anywhere within a connected system of fascia it could have an impact somewhere else along that chain, not necessarily at the place of the original injury or restriction.
Since paying more attention to the anatomy and movement of the feet there have been a number of clients whose tricky and long standing physical issues have gradually melted away as a result of them paying more attention to that complex system dangling at the end of the leg.
I am not joking when I say that the foot is complex; it contains 26 bones, 33 joints and over 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments as well as the thickest fascia in the body.
The foot is an important part of the body’s foundation, shock absorbing and propulsion system.  In order to do that its designed as a spiral that can arch and flatten at different phases of the stride.  When the foot arches it acts as a lever and when it spreads and flattens its better able to carry weight.  Its pretty amazing how much force your feet can absorb, during the day they cope with forces equivalent to a fully loaded cement lorry (it said that on the internet so it must be true).  We also need to use our feet correctly in the saddle in just the same way as if we were walking.
Most of us are not allowing our foot to move enough due to tight shoes, lack of exercise without shoes or simply lack of awareness and tension that restricts movement.  If you take a few moments to try the exercises below you may be astonished by the speed with which your feet ease up and feel significantly better both when you are walking and riding.
There has been some research to look at the impact of pronation on a rider’s balance. Pronation means that the weight tends to be more on the inside of the foot.  In contrast, supination means that the weight is more on the outside of the foot.  This picture below shows a right foot that’s pronated when its weighted to the inside (the left) and supinated when its weighted to the outside (the right).
Pronation is really common and research from Scandinavia has shown that over 60% of the population pronate one or both feet. Research has also shown that if pronation causes your pelvis and upper body to be asymmetrical when you are walking or sitting then that exact asymmetry is also mirrored when you ride. This is really important to consider because whatever you are doing for the 16 hours of the day that you are walking around you are also doing exactly the same thing for the 1 hour of the day when you are in the saddle.
Both pronation and supination cause discomfort in the body.  Common problems from pronation are pain in the arch of the foot, ankle, knee, hip and/or back while supination causes excessive strain on the ankle.

So don’t ignore your feet! Have a go at these really simple exercises, you might be really surprised by how much it helps to improve your riding. 

Exercise 1: The KISS exercise (Keep it Simple Stupid).  Just relax your foot!!! We don’t think much about our feet and hold a lot of tension in the toes, sole of the foot and ankle.  Just bringing awareness to this as you stand and walk and remembering to soften the foot as you ride will allow the arching and flattening to take place.  This will allow the foot to work correctly and to keep the body in alignment.  Simple as that!

Exercise 2: Sit down, take your shoes off and twist your foot, as if you were wringing out  wet towel.  You may feel that one foot moves more easily than the other and that it may twist more easily in one direction than the other. These differences are significant to your movement so pay attention to them. 

Exercise 3: Practice arching and flattening your foot.  Make sure that when you make an arch you are not screwing up your toes, you want to keep them really soft rather than making a claw. To arch your foot try bringing the ball of your foot towards your heel and then try bringing the heel towards the toes.  Practice both until you can do it softly and only move as much as you can without the toes tightening.

Exercise 4: Notice the effect that arching and flattening your foot has on the alignment of your leg and your pelvis.
Stand up and arch your foot and notice:
1. Which way does the leg rotate when you arch the foot?
2. If you put your finger on the front of your pelvis (ASIS) as you arch your foot does the ASIS go forward or back?
3. If you put your fingers on your hip joint does the joint open or close when you arch your foot?
Hopefully you can feel that arching your foot has an effect on leg rotation, pelvis angle and hip flexion and extension, all of which are extremely influential to your riding.

The results that we would expect are that as you arch the foot the leg rotates outwards, the pelvis rotate backwards (as if you were sitting on your jeans pockets) and your hips joints extend (open).  The opposite will happen as you flatten your foot.

Exercise 5. Roll your foot on a ball and massage up the achilleas tendon
Exercise 6. Pay more attention to your feet when you ride.
Can they move in your shoes?  What is the relative contact on the stirrup from your left and right foot, is it the same? Are your toes soft or do they curl up into a claw? If so, is that on one or both feet? Are you aware of pronation or supination? Does the pressure on the stirrup change as the horse moves and can you feel the foot arching and flattening in a very subtle way or the pressure on the foot changing?