Riding in a circle seems so easy. All you do is go round and round. But, have you ever got a dressage test back and the judge has written "lumpy circle” or "circle is egg-shaped”? Whoops—maybe riding a good circle is more difficult than you think!
You can only ride a precise circle if you are in control of your horse’s shoulders and hindquarters and your horse has the correct curve from his nose to his tail. How much his body bends really depends on the size of the circle—more bend is required for smaller circles and less is required for larger circles.
Have you noticed that your horse has a stiff side and finds it easier to bend in one direction than the other? Many horses are like this. On his good side, he’ll accept contact with the reins and bend nicely. Look down--the rein doesn’t lie flat on his neck. On his stiff side, you may have to take up a stronger contact to try to make him bend. Look down—the rein is flat on his neck.
Your goal when doing circles is to get your horse to bend equally in each direction. But don’t think that you must do more circles in his bad direction. Your horse needs to work in both directions consistently. This will help him to become supple and elastic on both sides and circles will become easier for him.
Your inside leg should be on the girth to make your horse go forward and to be the center around which he bends. The inside leg also prevents his inside shoulder from falling in and making him lean into the circle. It also controls speed. If you want your horse to go faster, give him a nudge with your inside leg.
Place your outside leg slightly behind the girth. This leg prevents his hindquarters from swinging out and helps to keep your horse’s body on the arc of the circle.
The inside rein tells your horse where he should be looking. Sometimes it is called a "direct rein.” Squeeze on it lightly to ask him to turn his head slightly inwards. Don’t pull back too strongly—you don’t want his neck to be more bent than his body.
The outside rein controls the size of the circle and prevents your horse from bending too much to the inside. The outside rein supports the inside rein. Keep a soft, elastic contact on the outside rein and keep it close to your horse’s neck. Your outside rein can also be used to slow down your horse if he speeds up.
When you’re riding a circle, decide on the size of the circle and stick to it. Don’t let your horse choose the size of the circle by falling in or out of it.
You must also travel at the same speed around the circle. Don’t let your horse speed up or slow down. You set the pace!
Start by riding a 20-meter circle at the walk. This is a circle size that shows up a lot in lower level dressage tests. If you’re not sure how big this is, set up a cone in the middle of your schooling area. This is the center of your circle. Then measure out by about 33 feet. That should give you an idea about how big a 20-meter circle is.
Once you’re riding on the circle, use the tips you’ve learned above and concentrate on getting your horse’s body to bend around your inside leg.
Then ask your horse to trot. Keep the same pace all the way round the circle. If your horse slows down, give him a squeeze or kick with your inside leg. If he starts falling to the outside of the circle, establish more contact with the outside rein and push him back into the arc by pressing on his side behind the girth with your outside leg. Sit up straight and keep your hands low. Try not to lean to the inside or the outside with your body.
Once your horse is traveling nicely around a 20-meter circle, try this spiraling exercise at the walk or trot. Ask your horse to spiral inwards from a 20-meter circle to a 10-meter circle. Give and take with your inside hand and use your outside leg behind the girth to push your horse inwards. Maintain his speed by squeezing him with your inside leg and control the bend of his body with the outside rein.
Once you’ve completed two 10-meter circles, use your inside leg slightly behind the girth and push him out again. Keep your outside leg slightly behind the girth to stop his hindquarters shooting outwards.
Give and take with your inside hand and keep a steady contact on the outside rein to guide him over. Once you are back on the 20-meter track, do one or two more circles and then let him rest.