One of my pet peeves at shows is to see otherwise splendid riders and horses spoil an otherwise excellent test by riding terrible geometry! Circles need to be circles! This simple exercise will teach you how to consistently ride a perfect circle of any size, anywhere, even out in a field without dressage letters and a little white fence!
Why is a perfect circle so important?
Well for starters an inaccurate circle is one which is not forward and on the aids, it is one where every stride is different, perhaps a different tempo, a different bend – regardless the regularity of the gait suffers! Why? I have an opinion, of course! Because the rider is so busy trying to make corrections to the bend of the horse that they generally make it worse and then they overcompensate resulting on further loss of accuracy so they overcompensate yet again! The spiral continues and some rather interesting shapes evolve.
A perfect circle is easier for your horse to maintain balance and regularity. Basic building blocks for a classically trained horse.
Every stride of the circle should be as close to the one preceding it and as close to the one after it in order to be a perfect circle.
Your horse will be better balanced, much more regular in his stride and the judge will reward you accordingly.
So how do you fix your circles?
Here is an excellent exercise that I use regularly and havefound to provide a major “ahaa” moment for my students.
Start by walking a circle on your horse on a loose rein using only your legs and seat to steer, any size circle between 10 and 20 meters. Leave the track at E and return to E. Count the strides, out loud, of the inside hind. Your count should sound like a metronome, each stride should have a predictable regularity.
Is the tempo the same on all the strides?
Why is this important? Well, if your tempo changes, quick, slow, quick, slow etc. then you are probably interfering too much with his motion either by locking your seat when you apply a leg aid or perhaps your horse is walking like a drunken sailor swinging the haunches in or out, then drifting in or out with the shoulder. Try riding the same circle now and count the strides maintaining a steady tempo. Aim for Regularity.
Next, leave the track at E and count the strides of the inside hind until you reach the halfway point. Remember that number and start counting the inside hind again until you get back to E. Focus on regularity.
Are the number of strides the same?
Why is this important? Well, if you wish to ride a round circle, you will need an equal number of strides on each half of it. Chances are they are not equal. The second half could have more strides, or less strides.
If the first half has more strides than the second half has – then your horse is rushing back to the track and falling in on your inside aids. If the first half has less strides than the second half – then your horse is falling out the shoulder and drifting larger. Ride the circle again, counting and comparing both halves. Do you see a pattern developing? 9 times out of 10 your horse will cover the same incorrect path! And 9 times out of 10 we as riders are applying the same aids at the same time. Our horses are just doing what we ask them to do, make an incorrect circle!
How to correct this?
First we are going to ride a 24 stride circle leaving at E and returning to E. Instead of breaking it down into halves, break it down further into quarters. This means that we are going to ride 6 strides in each quarter. Generate an image in your mind of how a circle with 4 pie pieces looks, Overlay that on your school footing and imagine that there are 4 points to the circle, each segment the same size. This may be slightly larger than a 15 meter circle, slightly smaller than a 20 meter circle or it may be exact, it depends on the length of your horses stride. Don’t worry about how many meters it is at this point. Think of it as a 24 stride circle with 6 strides to each quarter circle. Now as you ride this 24 stride circle, pay attention to where your 6th, 12th, 18th and 24th strides fall. Are they at the quarter point, halfway point, three quarter point and finally at the letter E for the final stride? If not, keep trying to ride it paying attention to where your horse either falls in or falls out. Prepare ahead, chances are the horse will try to repeat coming off the circle in the same spot!
Many horses will be late leaving the track at E and quick to get back to the track in the final strides.
Now that you have a fairly accurate 24 stride circle, change the size. Ride a 16 stride circle, 4 segments of 4 strides each. Depending on your horses stride this may be close to a 10 meter circle +/- a meter or two. Again pay attention to where your horse comes off the circle. Chances are it will be late leaving the track and quick to finish. Use more outside aids for the first quarter and more inside aids for the last quarter.
Finally ride the smallest circle one can ride on one track. that is with the hind legs following in the exact same tracks as the front legs. This should be exactly 12 strides (4 segments of three strides) regardless of your horses length of stride or tempo. This is a Volte and can range from 6 to 8m in diameter. Volte is important because if ridden correctly – that is without haunches swinging in or out – it teaches the horse to stay engaged behind and encourages self carriage. We should ride our corners in 3 strides, like a quarter volte, once they are strong enough to do so.
So now that you are riding more accurate circles by counting strides, making the adjustment to current test diameters should be much easier. Count those strides in 10m, 15m and 20m circles (divide by 4 and ride your segments) and you should soon enough be able to ride perfect 10m, 15m and 20m circles anywhere without markers.
If you think of your circles in terms of the number of strides instead of the number of meters in diameter and ride an equal number of strides in each quarter of your circle paying attention to regularity your circles should improve quickly and your scores on the circles should also improve at your next show.