Ride the circle but don't diss the oval!
The oval is rarely talked about in dressage circles (see the pun?) but it can be used quite successfully for many purposes. While a circle is helpful in establishing a bend and encouraging better use of the horse's hind end, the oval offers something that the circle does not: the straight line that occurs in between two turns.
If you want to throw a little line into your circles, the oval is a great option. The horse has to learn to not only bend and adjust the hind end activity for the circle, but then he can use that increased activity to take into a line. The line allows the horse an opportunity to move more forward, increase the stride length and reach ahead. Think expansion after compaction.
Then comes the next turn. Back to engagement of the hind end, bending, and using the inside hind leg deeper under the body.
Try this exercise for some challenging balance and transition development.
Transition points are in the middle of each turn section.
- Start with a trot as you come out of the turn into the straight line. Go up the line at trot (probably should use a shoulder-fore to ensure straightness).
- Begin the next turn in trot. Transition to canter in the middle of the turn.
- Finish the next turn and head into the straight line in canter.
- Transition back to trot in the middle of the new turn.
Keep going! Do it a few times, then you can take a walk break and change directions.
If you want to increase difficulty, do walk-canter transitions.
If you think you're ready for it, try canter-counter-canter transitions through walk (as in, canter in the true lead for half the oval, and counter canter in the other half). 🙂
Possible Problems and Corrections
Correct ovals can be difficult to master, considering the various balance shifts and bend changes. If you can be aware of potential problems, you can help support your horse through the oval to help him (and you!) maintain the best balance he can as he goes through the exercises.
I've added several links to further reading, if you need more information.
The oval is a great tool to show you just how straight you and your horse really are. Any drifting, falling in, or shoulder-bulging will become very evident as you negotiate the end of a turn and head into the straight line.
Horse drifts out: Use a strong enough (as much as needed, as little as possible) neck rein to keep your horse's shoulders moving on the turn and not drifting out. You can add outside leg to help keep the hips on the line and a mild open rein on the inside rein to invite the shoulders a bit to the inside (shoulder-fore) if needed.
Shoulder-Bulging: By this, I mean that the horse leans (or "falls") on one shoulder or the other. It can happen on the inside shoulder or the outside, depending on the crookedness of the horse, even if the horse still moves in a straight line. In either case, ride with two direct reins (with contact but not pulling), hands in front of the saddle by the withers, and don't let the horse take the reins away from you. Stabilize yourself through strong elbows on your body and tight core, and you can stabilize the horse too.
Add some leg for impulsion and get the horse to straighten thanks to the forward energy.
Speeding Up On The Line
Many horses will have a tendency to speed up after they round the final part of the turn. The extra energy and strength achieved by the turn will prompt them to speed up their legs and head off into the sunset! Beware of that extra tempo, because extra speed invariably means falling to the forehand.
You can't let all the energy just fly out the "front door", so to speak. This is where half-halts are essential in helping to keep the horse balanced and moving uphill as much as possible. Maintain the leg speed by half-halting even as you turn the last corner before the straight line. Then half-halt as needed as you straighten.
Your horse will begin to predict the balance control after you do this a few times. Always remember - you don't want the leg speed to increase. If anything, you want the stride length to increase. Not the speed!
"Sucking Back" on the Turn
The opposite can happen as you come into a turn. Your horse might actually disengage in the hind end - shorten his stride, hollow his back a bit, slow down... think that he leaves his hind end out behind him. You might actually feel like he becomes more comfortable as he moves less and stops swinging through the back.
It's perfectly reasonable for a horse to do this as he enters a turn, because negotiating a turn off a straight line takes work and strength. In this case, you will need to be aware and feel it coming on. Use both legs to encourage your horse forward, and use your reins to prepare for the bend and turn aids.
Again, you're not trying to get your horse to launch off to oblivion, but you are working on maintaining the energy you acquired on the straight line.
Using the Rail For the Turn
This is generally a rider problem. Sure, the horse might want to drift to the rail, but the track the horse takes is always determined by the rider.
Because it's a rider problem, it can be easily fixed! Make sure that you turn off the rail early, not at the end of your ring. Teach your horse that he can come off the rail at any point on the line. Then head to the opposite rail off the end of the ring as well.
You can also work on staying a few feet off the rail itself when you're on the straight line. Practice teaching the horse to move straight on his own, not using the rail for direction. If you have a large ring, this can be easily done. It's harder to do in a small ring, but you can make a point of staying off the rail even in that case.
Well, have fun with this exercise and let us know how it went in the comments below! What did you find success at? What was the challenging part? What do you need to change to improve you and your horse's balance as you negotiate the transitions and bend?
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