Theme: Studying the Circle

Cantering on a Circle

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How many times have you caught yourself pulling on an already tight inside rein? Have you ever noticed your horse swing his neck to the inside, while you find yourself drifting out toward the rail (thank goodness for that rail, since without it, you would probably drift to oblivion!)? We've all been there and done that (and I have the T-shirt)!

The circle is used so frequently, not only in dressage, but in almost all disciplines, that we would be remiss to not include it in our "studies" about riding and training. The quotes below come from dressage sources, but you can surely find similar information in writing from any discipline.

"Every [dressage] test contains circles: large ones, small ones, some placed in difficult spots, some very easy ones, and some placed before or after a transition into the next movement. But all of them have a number of requirements:

- Circles must be round and executed exactly as stated in the test. This means the rider has to know where the "points" are. The rider must touch these points for one stride only.

- They must be ridden on one track. This means that the horse must be able to bend and have sufficient freedom of the shoulders and hips to accomodate the requested size of the circle without the hanuches falling out or the horse 'popping' his shoulder.

- The regularity of the rhythm must be the same throughout the circle, including engaggement and impulsion, while the horse stays on the bit. As a matter of fact, the horse should be in a better frame coming out of the circle than going into it." 

- Max Gahwyler, The Competitive Edge: Improving Your Dressage Scores in the Lower Levels, 1989, p. 58

Riding a circle is not just following the path of the circle (although that can be difficult enough) - it is more about helping the horse improve the use of his hind end, teach him about flexion and bend, and to enable the outside aids to become more effective. The aids for the circle come not only from the rein and leg aids, but even more importantly, from the seat and balance of the rider. Your shoulders and hips should be aligned with the horse's shoulders, while your weight is distributed slightly to the inside. Other things to be aware of:

- your inside seat bone is slightly more weighted than the outside, and is moving within the movement to encourage the horse to use his back.

- your horse is "filling" the outside rein (rather than you shortening the rein or leaving it loopy).

- the outside hind is as engaged as the inside, because the outside has further to travel!

- the inside rein is softly maintaining flexion but that is all - don't let it interfere with the horse's movement.

- half-halts at every "point" of the circle help the horse to improve his balance and become more round and free-moving.

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"One can say that a horse is on the aids and correctly bent on the large circle when he applies an even tension to both reins, when both hind feet tread in the tracks of the forefeet, when the crest tips over to the inside, and when the horse maintains the bend when the rider surrenders the contact with the inside rein.

One should not, however, expect the horse to maintain the bend on his own for any length of time. To keep him precisely on the line of the circle, the rider must remain extremely attentive and continuously though imperceptibly, alternate between shoulder-in and travers-like aids according to the tendency of the horse to fall in or out from the prescribed line."

By Alfred Knopfhart, Dressage: A Guidebook for the Road to Success, 1996, p.34

They say that the greatest riders look like they are doing nothing at all. The more you ride and you begin to feel the success that comes with the refinement of the aids, the more you will know this to be true. The secret to looking like you are doing nothing is to do a lot in tiny little increments. Once you get used to the subtle movements that are required, it will feel like you are doing nothing - but in fact, your body is making constant minute adjustments to ensure that it is either following the horse or helping the horse to maintain balance. 

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"Excessive bend is wrong and creates tension rather than making the horse more supple. Another common fault, especially in lateral work, is excessiv flexion. Too much bend in the head and neck prevents the horse from bending through the ribs as required, and therefore also makes it impossible for the horse to be evenly bent throughout its length. The horse's neck is 'broken' just in front of the withers.

Exaggerated bend can also result in the horse falling sideways instead of answering the rider's inside leg. This defeats the object of the exercise, which is to bend the horse."

German National Equestrian FederationAdvanced Techniques of Dressage, p.32

We know we should not be pulling on that inside rein, yet we continue to do it all the time. The trick to "unlearning" the reliance on the inside rein is to take a look at the neck. Just look down! I know everyone says not to - when you look, just don't tilt your head downward, so you can maintain your balance. But take a glance and actually see where that neck is. Learn how the "cranked" neck appears from above - it looks like the neck is disconnected at the withers area. The body seems to go one way while the neck is headed toward the middle of the circle.

When you see that, lighten the inside rein.  Work on using a more active inside leg, use your seat to help rebalance the horse to the outside, and take up the (very likely) loop in the outside rein. Then allow the neck to straighten (note: don't just pull on the outside rein!). Straighten the horse's body, and start the circle again and see if you can continue on the circle without pulling on the rein.

And that's all there is to the circle! 🙂

What other tips do you have for us about riding the circle?

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