Whether you compete at dressage, do just a little bit of schooling or are just happy hacking out – bending and circling are a great gymnastic exercise for our horses. Circles, and that includes loops and corners, can really help our horse stretch along his outside, as well as encourage him to flex his inside hind leg more, which long term will help with engagement and subsequently collection.
But circles are really hard to do well; they don’t come naturally to a horse. After all you don’t see too many horses doing perfect circles in their field! Technically any horse should be able to do a 20m circle and the circle should look like a circle not an egg – once the circle gets smaller, the untrained horse (or a horse with too much flexion) may start to loose his back legs. So, if in theory, any horse should be able to do a 20m circle, why is it so hard to do a circle that looks like a circle?
In a circle, the bend of the horse’s body from poll to tail should be the same as the arc of the circle. However all too frequently you will see the horse bending the wrong way or bent only at the shoulders or falling out with his hind quarters. These contortions (and a myriad of others that I haven’t mentioned) can be the result of stiffness in the body and joints of the horse, or a stiffness and asymmetry in the rider or a combination of the two!
So how can we improve our circles? To start off with, try imaging your horse’s body is a bow. To bend a bow you need to not only push the middle of the bow out you must also pull the top (head) and the bottom (tail) in. Our inside leg pushes the middle out or in real terms creates the bend whilst our outside leg stops the quarters from swinging out. The outside rein secures the outside shoulders of the horse, preventing them from falling out and controlling the degree of bend. And our inside hand creates the correct flexion (you should be able to see the arch of the horse’s inside eye and nostril) but should soften the moment this is received.
In circles we need to use our whole body correctly. If we sit too heavily on our inside seat bone, lean to the inside, look down (to the inside) or look too far in towards the middle of the circle, the chances are our horse will fall onto the inside shoulder and feel very stiff and hard on the inside rein, even trying to counter bend. Riders who make these mistakes need to think about sitting on their outside seat bone a little more and stepping into the outside stirrup during the turn – just to compensate for their own crookedness. In order for the horse to remain upright on the circle the rider has to turn themselves, their own hips especially. A weight shift to the inside has to take place too, but not as much as some riders do it. Equally, if we lean to the outside, weight our outside seat bone too much or step too heavily in our outside stirrup then our horse will probably fall out.
You need to let your inside leg drop forward and down at the knee as your horse’s inside hind leg steps forward and under his point of weight. At the same time you need to allow your outside leg to drop back so that it supports your horse’s haunches. It is probably easier to think of your own pelvis rather than your legs. Instead of moving your legs slightly turn your pelvis to mirror the angle you want from your horse’s hips. As you do this, you will notice how your outside thigh goes back an inch or so and your lower leg by about 3 inches. At the same time the forward sliding inside seat bone will allow the inside leg to drop further forward and down. Now you need to rotate your outside shoulder so it is a little ahead of your outside hip (think of spiralling around your spine) and finally if necessary, use your outside thigh, knee and rein to support the rotation of your hips and shoulders.
The difficulty is that all the above steps have to be executed seamlessly within the space of one or two strides. In addition, it may be necessary to apply half halts to rebalance the horse or regulate the tempo and stride length. With some practice, these things become so engrained that you can do them without even thinking about them and this is where a session (or two) on PI (the posture and balance assessment indicator) can really help.
But basically, keeping things simple, most of the 20m circle’s shape comes from steering and the angle or spiral in our body. If you imagine that your ‘boobs’ are headlights, you will find you get a different result if you point the headlights to the inside of your horses head, compared to the outside. There isn’t really a correct place to point them, as it depends on where your horse needs them to be at any moment in time. If your horse is falling in, you may need to point them out or if your horse falling out, you may need to point them in!
Now think of helmet, elbows, feet. If the peak of your helmet is lower on the inside then your horse will fall in (or visa versa), if your inside elbow is lower than your outside elbow then your horse will fall in (or visa versa). If your outside toe points out more than your inside toe, then your belly button will point slightly to the outside but your weight will go to the inside, so the horse will fall in.
- Practice riding concentrating on your helmet, elbows, feet and headlights and try the following:
- Ride on a circle and point your headlights in, and then try riding another circle and pointing them out. Does it change the way your horse goes?
- Ride on a circle and drop your inside ear and see what happens. Now try dropping it the outside ear and see what happens.
- Drop your inside elbow and you’ll see the same thing, your horse’s inside front leg will get heavier and he’ll start to fall in. Now try dropping it to the outside and see what happens.
- Now try deliberately turning one toe out, if it is the outside toe you’ll probably get wrong bend and if it is the inside toe, you might feel that you’re getting a better bend, but is it soft or has your horse become more tense and crossed over behind?
- Finally try standing up in your stirrups (if you feel confident and safe to do so) and weight your inside stirrup and see what happens.
For all the above you need to leave your horse’s head alone and ride with a reasonably long contact so you can see what affect you are having.