Riding a perfect circle can seem elusive but with the right help you CAN do it! Amanda Brewer explains how:
Riding precise and exact circles demands that you are in control of your horse shoulders and hindquarters, and that your horse has the correct curve from nose to tail. Good riders make it look simple, but we all know that it is anything but easy!
When the horse is bent correctly on a circle he is in lateral bend, which means there is a regular curve from poll to tail. The ribs on the inside are slightly compressed and the outside of his body is shaped in an arc.
A larger degree of bend is needed when riding smaller circles and less is required for larger circles.
In a lateral bend, the riders inside leg forms the centre around which the horse is bent. He should not be bent in the neck more than he is bent through his body.
Every horse has a stiff side and every horse finds it easier to bend on one rein than on the other. Although your horse may feel more difficult on the stiff side, the easier side needs just as much work. On the good side he will accept the rein and you can recognise this because the inside rein does not lie flat against his neck. On the stiff side the inside rein always lies close to his neck and he will not naturally follow the action of the rein.
It is our task to achieve the same soft contact on both sides. Improvements of the contact comes about by systematic training to make your horse supple and elastic on both sides. This is where riding a correct circle comes into its own.
Your inside leg on the girth makes your horse go forward and is the centre around which he bends. It is your inside leg which ensures your horse's body bends around the circle. It must also prevent the shoulders from falling in.
Do not forget your outside leg which may need to be employed slightly behind the girth. This helps prevent the hindquarters from swinging out and therefore keeps the horse's body on the arc of the circle.
Your inside rein positions him correctly and indicates the direction in which he should be looking. This is your direction rein. When using the inside rein, take great care to support it with your outside rein in order to prevent his neck becoming more bent than his body. I'm sure you've all heard of the term 'neck bend'. Too much neck bend due to excessive inside rein causes the horse to fall out through his outside shoulder.
The outside rein defines the size of the circle and softly prevents too much inside bend.
You should try to keep a soft and elastic contact on the outside rein and, as you achieve a correct circle and bend, you should feel that your horse is stepping from his inside leg softly into the outside rein.
Your horse should not feel heavy or as if he is leaning on your contact. The aim is to feel as if you are supporting him with the outside rein and encouraging him to bend and step happily into it.
When riding a circle it is important to decide on the size of circle - and stick to it! You must not let your horse increase or decrease the size of the circle as he wishes, but ride in a curve all the way around just hitting the track at the point where the circle touches it.
A common fault when working in a 20m-wide arena - and three points of the circle are edged by the wall or fence - is that the horse, in order to make the circle easier for himself, tries to follow the wall and leans against it for a few strides instead of just touching the track at the point where the circle meets the sides of the school.
The perfect circle must also be ridden at the same speed all the way round, and that speed must be set by you!
So now it's time for you to ride the perfect circle with accuracy and an even tempo.
Start by using the tips above to ride an accurate 20m circle. Once you have achieved this, try to spiral your horse in and out. Take care not to let him fall in through his inside shoulder or drift out through the outside shoulder.
Think of the exercise this way: once you have your perfect 20m circle, picture an 18m circle in front of you and bring your horse in by 2m. Ride a correct 18m circle - not 18m for parts of the circle and 20m for others - and then bring him in to 16m. Repeat this process until you have reduced the circle to 8m, then spiral out again in the same correct and precise way. Do this one circle at a time, taking care not to let your horse fall back out to the wall.
When riding this exercise, never make the circle smaller than the horse is ready for, and make sure you keep the quality of the walk, trot or canter. There is no value in riding a small circle if your horse loses the rhythm of his movement.
Working on circles can be hard work for horse and rider, so don't overdo it! When you feel you and your horse have done enough work, take time to let him stretch and you can both have a breather!
AMANDA BREWER has competed at a high level in eventing, show jumping and dressage. She was event trained by Captain Mark Phillips and has received dressage training from Conrad Schumacher, Ellen Bontje and Nicole Uphoff. She teaches all levels.