I've written about warm-ups before but this is one of my favorites.
I often start the ride with this exercise, and it's great for so many reasons! It suits many horses for different end goals. Of course, you can use it during the middle of the ride as well, or maybe even make this your whole ride with a few variations.
This warm-up is suitable for:
- young horses
- inexperienced older horses
- the sluggish to start horse
- the runaway to start horse (!)
- the imbalanced horse
- the horse that is still trying to find a good tempo and rhythm
- the horse working on basic gaits and transitions
- the more educated horse, with some adjustments
It is also useful for:
- the young rider
- the inexperienced rider
- the rider who is working on basic aids
- the rider who is finding a good rhythm and tempo
- the rider who is nervous of the runaway or unpredictable horse
- the rider who needs some structure in the warm-up
The actual figure is fairly simple (but beware: simple may not be easy). Basically, you do four 20-meter circles as you make your way around the ring once.
- Start at C (Circle #1). If I'm on the left rein, I will start at trot and do a 20-metre circle at C. Then I'll navigate the corner, and head up the rail to E.
- Go into a new 20-metre circle at E. Then back to the rail, the corner, and head to A.
- Start a new circle at A. Complete that circle, go to the corner, head for B.
- This first round ends with a final circle at B. Go back to the track and head to A again.
I'll use this figure at the walk for ten minutes or so before I start the trot. Once I'm in the trot, I'll work on developing a strong but steady trot through the whole figure.
You can also do this at the canter of course, which presents all kinds of new and exciting challenges as you navigate turns and straight lines.
Do it several times each way, at each gait.
Pay particular attention to the following.
Circle Size and Placement
You don't have to aim for exact 20-meter circles if you are not practicing for dressage tests. However, do pick a circle size that fits your riding space, and be consistent all the way around the ring. Make it even on both sides (avoid falling in or drifting out).
Flexion is one of the most basic component of suppleness over the top line. Always work on getting your horse to look in the direction of his movement. You don't even have to pretzel into a bend on these circles because of their large size.
However, you should be able to see the corner of your horse's inside eye in the turns. This helps your horse release the tension especially in the jaw and neck, as well as position him for better balance through a turn.
Rhythm and Tempo
This one is for the less-than-inspired horses and conversely, for the runaways. Try to find your horse's ideal tempo and stick to it.
Make sure it is energetic enough to allow him to use his hindquarters in such a way that he will have better balance in the turns and circles. You may need to jazz up the energy a bit in the circles - many horses tend to slow down or disengage when they head into a turn.
On the other hand, if your horse just goes faster-faster-faster, the circles are a great natural vehicle to help you regulate that leg speed and balance the horse better to the hind end. Use plenty of half-halts before, through and after each circle and in the corners.
This figure alternates between mild bends on the circles, and straightness on the rails. This helps teach you and your horse to straighten after a bend and bend after being straight.
The straight lines give your horse a chance to unwind a bit out of the circles, reach forward and energize, and prepare for the next corner or turn. If your horse has a tendency to ride with his shoulders close to the rail, you might want to do a shoulder-fore as you travel up the straight lines.
As already mentioned, this exercise is a study in balance. Your horse might fall in to the circle. He might drift out. He might fall to the forehand on the straight lines. He might speed up and slow down. He might turn his neck in too much, or have a crooked head position.
These are all symptoms of imbalance and can be improved with half-halts, transitions and impulsion. As you develop your feel, you will know when to add some energy, when to stop it from "running out the front end", and when to slow the feet down altogether.
It is quite a challenge to be able to keep your horse in balance, in rhythm, in a steady tempo that is energetic but not too fast, in a mild bend as you go into and out of circles and lines. In fact, it is challenging enough that I tend to use this for not only beginner horses or riders, but also for the more advanced ones as they find their way through the nuances that improve quality of gait, connectedness and harmony. I use it myself too for horses at all stages.
Finally, you can get more creative with this figure. Once you feel you have a good handle on it, you can play around with transitions or circle sizes. You can canter one circle, trot another, walk a corner. You can do two 20-meter circles and two 10-meter circles. More advanced horse and rider combinations can add two "crunches" (or "sitting down") into the each circle. The sky is the limit in terms of what you can add to make it more exciting!
If you enjoy this type of exercise, click here to learn about our exciting new Practice Sessions that will be available soon.
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Read more here:
How You Know You Don't Have Impulsion (Yet): Impulsion affects so many other aspects of gait quality that it cannot be seen as an entity unto itself.
The Many Uses Of The Oval (Exercise): Try this exercise for some challenging balance and transition development.
What Bend Really Means: What it is, what it isn't, and some common problems.
#1 Rider Problem of the Year: Riding In Tension: The real problem is that too many riders don't address tension when it arises. Or perhaps, we don't even know what it feels like.
18 Reasons To Establish "Forward" Energy: Riding forward is often an elusive concept when you're first learning to ride. It requires an increase in energy but paradoxically, the energy can't be let "out the front".