Riding good circles achieves many things; stretching and strengthening the horse on both sides; starting to engage their inside hind leg; placing them round the rider’s inside leg; developing balance, suppleness and strength. Good trainers never underestimate the importance of riding correct circles.
Nuno Oliveira always rode a few circles on each rein at the start of a training session regardless of the level of the horse, and the always had to be
“a correct geometric circle, not a potato or a egg.”
Different trainers use slightly differing aids for circles, but some general points to consider are:
Start with some basic exercises, beginning with some circles on each rein. Make them small enough so that your horse makes a little more effort, but not so small that he loses his balance.
Then come into the middle of the school and ride some changes of bend from one circle to another. Try to feel how your horse copes with the changes and adjust the size of the circle accordingly. Keep the changes of bend in balance; have a few steps straight before asking for the new bend.
Throughout the session, use circles to help re-balance and engage your horse to set them up for the next exercise.
In the pictures below, the chestnut horse on the left is correctly positioned round the rider’s inside leg and is bending though his body to create a balanced circle. In the picture on the right, the rider has pulled the inside rein back, blocking the horse’s inside hind from coming though and pushing the horse onto their outside shoulder with braced ribs.
When the winter weather making riding increasingly difficult, here is a suggestion on how to work your horse when you are short of time (or it's too cold to spend much time outside!). Often, when time is scarce, it is tempting to try to do everything as fast as possible to fit it all in, but this is a great opportunity instead to work on the basics. For novice horses, time spent confirming and consolidating the basics is invaluable, and more advanced horses benefit from a session focused on basic exercises to give them a mental and physical rest.
When time is short, stay in walk. For more advanced horses you can work in a collected walk or use school walk. Start with some simple circles on each rein. These can be 20m, going down to 8m depending on your horse. Be attentive to the quality of the circle so your horse engages their inside hind leg well and holds their balance across their shoulders.
From there you can do spirals, serpentines, shallow loops and figures of 8. Then come to the middle of the school and ride some circles changing from left to right as you feel your horse needs. If your horse is ready for lateral work; ride some lateral movements on the sides of the school as well as in the middle, making smooth changes from one movement to the next.
Twenty minutes of correct work like this will exercise your horse well and be far more beneficial than lots of trotting or cantering, and will show benefits in later work as your horse will be more balanced and supple.
To round off 2018, I held an evening get together for my clients as an opportunity to meet each other and talk about horses in the warm instead of the cold outside! As part of the evening, I gave 3 short talks on different aspects of dressage training and touched on the idea of having realistic goals for our training going into the new year.
Whether you are a resolution maker or not, in January our thoughts tend to turn towards the things we would like to do in the coming months, so this month’s blog is about setting goals. Goals give us a direction for training, especially if we are working a lot on our own, but often it is our expectations that can be the limiting factor, either by expecting too much or too little. I don’t want to limit your ambitions, but expecting your 5-year-old to be doing piaffe in a year is probably overly ambitious, as is thinking that your 12-year-old hunter can come into the school and piaffe in a month.
A long-term goal gives you a direction to develop the qualities your horse needs to be able to reach that level, and often - even if you don’t achieve your original goal - correctly working your horse through the development exercises can produce something different that is equally good.
Understanding the qualities that you need to develop for your horse allows you to have a plan that can be broken down into manageable steps, so that you have short term stages that will build to the larger goal e.g. shoulder-in will be difficult until your horse has good balance on a circle. So, if your goal is to ride shoulder-in, the work must go into preparing it through correct circles.
Remember that training is never a straight line; as you advance your training your horse will ask questions of you, and the good news is that if you have done the ground work correctly you will find the answer in an exercise you have already done.
A few points to keep in mind:
Christmas is upon us again and as we approach the end of 2018 it’s a good time to reflect on the past year and all that our horses have brought into our lives. Good or bad, our lives would be much poorer without them.
I wish you all a very happy Christmas and New Year and a successful 2019.
Jill has owned Thomas for several years and they first came to one of my clinics with an interest in doing some in-hand work. Having done some Parelli work together Jill wanted to expand her knowledge and develop new techniques of working horses from the ground.
We built on the knowledge they shared with the basic in-hand technique using the cavesson, working on circles and developing side steps and shoulder-in. With the understanding they already had we progressed quickly to shoulder-in on a circle to supple Thomas through his haunches and build his strength.
We changed to using the bridle and introduced more exercises to further develop Thomas’s suppleness and strength. Through this work Thomas developed a lovely light shoulder-in.
From there we introduced some more demanding exercises such as rein back to trot transitions and shoulder-in to renvers transitions, that were designed to continue to build Thomas’s strength and maintain his suppleness. As this improved we were able to ask for more impulsion in his trot, and carefully developed transitions through rein back to halt to walk, rein back to trot transitions and lengthening and collecting in trot to create a more athletic pace whilst keeping his confidence in the requests.
As Thomas’s collection and impulsion improved we worked through smaller trot circles, and trot to halt to trot transitions with attention to detail so he understood the requests and had time to process them. These exercises developed clarity and subtly and encouraged Thomas to engage his haunches as preparation for more advanced movements.
Through this work, Thomas lowers his haunches and engages his haunches well, maintaining his self-carriage. Jill is able to release and regain the contact in trot in "descente de mains" and we can now ask for a small piaffe step.
The focus was to create a strong supple horse whilst maintaining clarity and subtly with the aids. We continue to develop greater collection in his trot towards more piaffe steps and use the lateral work to develop better self-carriage and cadence in the school walk.
There have been times, particularly in the early days where Thomas found the work difficult and it required a lot of patience from Jill to bring Thomas through those phases without creating problems. Through consistent, careful work Thomas is now a strong, confident horse and we are continuing to develop his more advanced work.
This is a simple exercise and prepares the horse and rider for shoulder-in. It also develops suppleness, teaches control of the rein aids and places the horse from inside leg to outside rein and developing the on off aids. The exercise is hard to do well and requires consistent riding and aids.
This can be started when your horse is balanced round circle, responsive to your aids, and when you have good control of your leg aids and a balanced seat and soft hands
Start the exercise with a shallow bend and then gradually increase the bend as your horse's strength improves. Teach the exercise in walk to give you both time to understand it and then progress on to trot.
Over bending or horse drops to outside shoulder. Usually caused by the rider using too much inside rein. Keep your inside rein light and turn your shoulders slightly to the inside.
Your horse moves off track with insufficient bend. It may be that the inside rein is too tight, blocking the inside hind leg from moving, or that your horse has braces their ribs against your leg. Correct this by ensuring that you are correctly balanced, then close your body slightly towards your outside elbow.
If your horse becomes very contracted and short, check the balance of your rein aids and, if you are in walk, circle and stretch your horse softening the inside rein. If you are in trot, ride straight forward and ask for a little lengthening with a loose rein
Some horses have weak necks, and so their neck moves a lot. Ensure that your inside rein does not take back and support the movement delicately with your outside rein so they move from your inside leg to your outside rein.
This simple exercise provides many benefits for both horse and rider, creating more suppleness, starting to engage the inside hind, teaching the light connection to the outside rein and beginning to move away laterally from the rider's inside leg.
A basic spiral exercise can be started once your horse understands how to form a correct circle. The circles don’t need to be perfect, but the rider needs to be able to correct any mistakes well.
The variations for this exercise are many, and you can decide what to do during the exercise depending on how your horse feels. One thing that is important to remember is that if you have planned to do a specific series of movements, but your horse does not feel ready, change your plans for something easier. If your horse feels better than you expected, change your plans to something more advanced!
All variations improve the connection from inside leg to outside rein if ridden correctly.
Helen came to me with Andarino for lessons soon after she had bought him. We don’t know much about his early years, except that he was imported when he was 7 and was bought by Helen 4 months later. Andarino is a naturally short striding horse, and he was also very stiff, on the forehand and unbalanced. He also has an anxious nature and when we introduced a new exercise or if he finds the work hard, he curls his neck under or grinds his teeth, but as he has grown in strength, trust and understanding these signs of tension are fewer.
We began his work with basic circles and exercises to build his suppleness and strength, with a program of in-hand work in parallel to the ridden work, which greatly improved Andarino’s balance and created a strong bond between him and Helen. Working steadily through these early exercises we then progressed to lateral movements; shoulder-in, travers, half pass and renvers, to develop his strength and suppleness.
By carefully developing the qualities we needed for each stage of his work we began to see the benefits of the exercises: Andarino was starting to use his back correctly, soften and relax his poll with a lengthened neck.
We took great care to have the right amount of impulsion for Andarino: too little and he found the movements hard; too much and it pushed him out of balance on to his forehand and caused him to curl his neck under.
The work progressed through the introduction of rein back, walk to trot transitions, renvers and shoulder-in to renvers transitions and a short canter or a few lengthened trot steps when he was well balanced and in a good rhythm.
As Andarino's knowledge and physical abilities increased, so Helen needed to be quicker and lighter with her aids and more creative with exercises to develop his qualities more. We began to work more on the canter, making transitions at the start of the long side and asking for counter canter; along with developing more collection in trot and riding smaller voltes.
It has taken Helen many months of patient riding, but Andarino is now a completely different horse. Through the exercises, he has developed correct muscles, is supple and balanced. We have progressed his training slowly, so he remains confident in what he is doing, and are now working towards more advanced movements.
This month’s blog is an exercise that introduces the horse to the idea of stepping laterally away from the rider’s leg. It is a variant of the commonly used leg yield. Both exercises are very beneficial, but the leg yield often becomes a twisted horse falling to the fence rather than a balanced horse stepping across.
The side step variant helps the rider to keep control over the horse’s shoulders and encourages the horse to step their inside legs across his outside leg. It has the added benefit of setting horses up for half pass which will come later in their training.
To ride side steps, begin by turning onto an inner track on the long side of the school, about 2 m in, and have your horse straight.
Gently half halt and use your inside leg slightly back to move your horse to the track on a shallow angle. Don’t press your inside leg, but touch and release. Continue with the half halts to encourage your horse to step across rather than forward.
As you do this, support as necessary with your outside aids so that your horse doesn’t fall to their outside shoulder. Don’t use these aids at the same time as the inside aids or you will block your horse’s movement.
Close your body slightly towards your elbow in the direction you want to go, but don’t shift your seat around.
Do the exercise slowly so your horse doesn’t rush and fall to the shoulder. They should remain in balance throughout.
Your inside leg has a lot to do, it creates bend, impulsion and directs the quarters. Stepping sideways needs a touch and release with one leg to create the side step, the other leg releases to allow your horse to step over and then gathers to maintain the bend and impulsion.
Ask for one step the first time and then gradually build the number of steps as your horse becomes more confident with the exercise.
When I first started working with Lucy and her owner, Jane, Lucy had spent several years hacking. During this time, she had done very little schooling and had learnt to fix her neck and shoulder against her rider, making her quite stiff and tight.
We took the ridden work back to basics, starting with circle work to give her and Jane an opportunity to work without Lucy fixing her neck and jaw. Alongside the ridden work began a programme of in hand work to help Lucy become more and introduce new ideas and exercises in a way that taught Lucy not to fix her neck and to familiarise her with the exercise before doing them when ridden.
We began the in-hand work using a cavesson so that when Lucy started to push forward and lean, Jane was able to be firm and keep Lucy’s energy from propelling her onto her forehand. It had an immediate effect in the ridden work where Jane was able to keep a light hand and ride Lucy more from her seat and legs.
Once they were both confident with the positioning and aids on circles, we introduced shoulder-in, keeping the angle shallow so Lucy could maintain an even angle with a uniform bend on both reins and not twist her neck or push forward.
As the in-hand work improved so did the ridden work. The exercises trained in walk were repeated in trot, and because Lucy was more supple, balanced and responsive, Jane was able to use this flexibility to keep Lucy straight and light.
Over the next few months we continued to develop the in-hand work along with the ridden work with shoulder-in through a corner, half pass, renvers (see picture right), rein back and slow trot. Jane’s growing knowledge allowed her to rectify problems as they occurred, so she was able to maintain control without losing Lucy’s confidence. Lucy is light in the hand, she engages her haunches and lightens her forehand holding the movements for herself.
Now in her 20’s, and with Jane's dedication to the work, Lucy still performs lateral movements with ease and precision. Pictures below (left) show shoulder-in and (right) shoulder-in on a circle.
Diane Followell Classical Dressage Trainer