The Athletic Rider: Barefoot to a Better Base

Personal trainer Leah Hinnefeld explains that “natural shoeing” isn’t just for horses anymore.

From Leah:

Did you know that making a simple change in your athletic shoes could improve your rider fitness? Now I am not suggesting that anyone strip down to completely bare tootsies and start knocking out miles on the pavement. A simple change in shoes can, however, allow your feet to perform in a more natural fashion and ultimately improve your stability in the saddle and your overall fitness.

The kind of shoe to which I am referring is called a “minimalist shoe.” Minimalist shoes (also called “barefoot shoes”) were designed to mimic how we would walk if we were….you guessed it…BAREFOOT. The shoe does not have a heel like a traditional running shoe. In addition to allowing your body to perform more efficiently, the lack of heel height (called the “drop”) also means you can use one style of shoe for most sporting activities. Two exceptions to the one shoe for all rule are horseback riding (please use a heeled shoe for safety purposes or invest in stirrups with cages) and trail running/hiking. You can still use minimalist shoes for trail running and hiking, but the shoe would need soles with different traction than shoes made for road running.

Besides heel height, the other difference in minimalist shoes is the width across the ball of your foot. The wider shoe allows your foot to “splay” (think: toes spread).

So how does all this barefoot talk relate to rider fitness?
There are two big connections that I have personally observed since I started using minimalist shoes (almost 3 years ago). Once I used wider minimalist shoes for all of my activities (yes, I even use my favorite Altra Zero Drop shoes for my daily farm chores), my feet responded by becoming more agile.  My toes had room to move, and I could create a wider base of support when I moved in different directions. This wider base of support carried over to when my foot was in the stirrup. A wider base of support in the stirrup allowed me to develop better balance and stability.

The second change I observed came from how I ran in minimalist shoes. I had to change my running form from one with a heel first landing to one with a nearly flat foot landing. I land just behind the ball of my foot when I run and my heel gently settles to the ground. This creates a “forward moving gait.” When I would run with a heel first landing, I created dynamics that were like trying to go forward with the parking brakes on. The style of running that I use is called ChiRunning, and it has literally been a game changer in my running abilities and performance. I no longer have foot or knee pain when I run longer distances.

But how does ChiRunning improve Rider Fitness?
ChiRunning requires that you engage your entire core…does this sound familiar? While it is best to stabilize your core to get better at ChiRunning, the ChiRunning itself provides a great core stabilization workout!

Double Win for Rider Fitness!

Bottom line? If you are interested in improving your core, balance and overall stability in the saddle, consider changing how your rubber meets the road.

Many minimalist shoes available today still provide good protection (sole thickness) without creating the inefficient mechanics of their traditional counterpart. Be sure to check out your local ChiRunning store as well! If you are on the Atlanta area, contact Greg Scott, owner of Natural Strides shoes. His store offers a super variety and several brands. Greg offers a video assessment and consultation of your running gait so you can learn how to Barefoot to a Better Base-both in and out of the saddle!

Leah Hinnefeld is a lifelong equestrian who spent over a decade studying hoof health and metabolism in horses before turning her attention to rider fitness. Leah is a personal trainer certified by the National Academy of Sports Fitness and offers Virtual Fitness Training for riders and horse lovers. You can learn more about how to get fit to ride at Please contact Leah if you are interested in learning more about the virtual posture assessment offered by The Athletic Rider.



Leave a Comment


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *