Last time I blogged about riding circles and the importance of correct bend. I use circles to warm my horse up, and during training sessions to maintain and correct imbalance.
Each corner is ¼ of a circle, if you ride it as a circle with correct bend, your horse will come to the straight side balanced. If your horse is unbalanced through the corners, he will be unbalanced on the straight side and any movement you chose to do will be compromised.
Once you are confident with staying balanced round a circle, start to introduce more changes of bend through various exercises. I usually start these by working a horse through smaller circles down the long side of the school. Feel how your horse manages with the smaller circle and adjust the size of the circle so it is small enough to flex him a little more, but not so small that he loses balance. If he is having difficulty, make the circle slightly larger circle so he can keep his balance and then work towards smaller circles.
From there move on to riding a serpentine down the length of the school. Each loop is part of a circle, so ride it with correct bend, and make the changes of bend as you cross the school. The changes of bend are most important, prepare them well. If your horse loses balance and you can’t correct it, ride out of the serpentine go back to circles to correct the bend and then try again.
A very useful exercise used by the classical masters is to do circles of varying sizes and with frequent changes of bend in the centre of the school. Come into the middle of the school and make changes of bend away from the walls. Circle in one direction, find the balance and then make a change of circle, keeping the balance throughout. This simple exercise is quite hard to do, focus on your back and seat and feel the movement your horse gives you through his back.
Another good exercise is a spiral. Start your horse on a correct large circle, use your outside aids to decrease the size of the circle around the same centre point, then increase the size of the circle from your inside leg back to the original one.
Straightness is referred to in dressage as being a particularly important quality. When a horse is straight the energy created in the quarters lifts the forehand and makes the horse manoeuvrable, both in turns and in collection and extension. This desirable quality of straightness is not something that can be developed in isolation, it is the result of a supple and balanced horse.
Balance and suppleness are linked and need to be developed together; an unbalanced horse will have to carry his weight unevenly and this affects his suppleness and a supple horse can more easily maintain his balance.
A horse that is out of balance will carry weight in a shoulder, which is most clearly felt when you ride a circle. When the stiff side is to the inside of the circle, the weight falls to the inside shoulder and the circle starts to get smaller. On the other rein, where the stiff side is to the outside, the horse falls out of the circle, giving the impression that he is moving correctly round the circle, but in fact he is being held up by the side of the school or pulled round by the rider’s hands.
Poorly ridden circles change nothing, the tension and stiffness in the horse are re-enforced with the weight remaining in the shoulder.
Initial exercises should center on creating a supple, balance horse using movements to lengthen the muscles on the soft side and strengthen the muscles on the stiff side, and the most important of these is a circle. Correctly ridden, circles teach horses to bring the inside hind under the body and stretch and strengthen laterally. It is the beginning of a process that results in a horse well balanced across all four legs; straight.
To ride a circle, bring your outside shoulder forward and brush the inside leg lightly forward at the girth. Turning with the inside rein twists the horse’s head, and bringing it back blocks the inside hind from coming forward. Keep the rein soft and let the hands follow the position of your shoulders so you have an even contact. Your horse should give round the inside leg and keep the weight balanced across both shoulders.
If your horse puts weight on the inside shoulder, re-establish the inside bend and then move him back to the original circle, directing with your leg and maintaining the bend. If he puts weight in the outside shoulder, use the outside hand and/or leg aid to straighten him and bring the shoulder back under.
When you change the rein, make your change of bend over several strides. Move from one bend to straight by sitting straight. Then ask for the bend in the new direction. Give yourself plenty of space so your horse learns to maintain his balance throughout. The change will become quicker as your horse becomes stronger and more balanced.
Diane Followell - Training Riders, Transforming Horses
Diane Followell Classical Dressage Trainer
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