Make Ring Work Count

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Performance at any athletic activity without doing targeted exercises designed to improve specific aspects of your play. Yet many riders just wander around the ring, making some turns or figures, but rarely with a plan to work on anything specific.

To help you make the most of your exercise time, we’ve put together a group of exercises that will, in a variety of ways, increase your horse’s strength, suppleness and awareness of and obedience to your aids. They will also develop your use of your aids, your focus, and your confidence. And those elements, taken together, will help you improve you partnership with your horse.

The classic 20-meter circle (about 65 to 66 feet).

If you have a dressage ring, a 20-meter circle takes up the width of the ring and either half or one-third the length of the ring (depending on the size of your ring). No bigger, no smaller.

Now, ride a round circle (not an oval, an egg or a square), again and again. Yes, it’s hard. Use your inside leg and inside fingers to bend the horse and your outside leg and rein to keep the circle round, to keep him from drifting outward. And keep riding forward, with energy, with powerful, active strides — no mincing. Do it at all three gaits.

Now, while you’re concentrating on the shape of the circle, concentrate on keeping your horse continually bent to the inside throughout the circle. Do not let him change his bend.

Want to make it harder' Do the entire circle in counter-bend. This will require you to basically reverse your aids and to steer your horse with the leg to the outside of the circle, because he’ll naturally want to turn out, since that’s the direction you’re bending him.

A word of caution: Some people get stuck in the quest for the perfect 20-meter circle. You must move past it.

The circle, with transitions.

Still working on the geometry and keeping that continuous bend, add frequent transitions. We call it ”the festival of transitions.” Do a transition at each of the four letters (the fourth letter is the centerline) or count strides between transitions, say every 10 or eight strides (or fewer if you can). Now you’re working on three things at once.

Be sure that each gait is correct — don’t get so focused on making a transition that the gaits before and after are too lethargic, tense or unbalanced. When you do a trot-walk-trot transition, don’t trot again until the walk isn’t a jig or a shuffle. If you do a trot-halt-trot transition, don’t trot until the horse is standing quietly. But keep him at attention: Keep your legs and seat in contact with him so he doesn’t go to sleep. He should respond to slight pressure from your legs and movement of your hips.

Medium canter on 20-meter circle.

Make one to two revolutions at the medium canter, then do a transition to working canter for a loop or two. Then go into medium canter again. Do this exercise more in whichever direction the horse is stiffer.

This exercise will develop balance and pushing power, and if you’re brave and really go forward to a medium canter, it will develop trust between horse and rider. It’s a very good exercise for horses who aren’t sharp off the leg aids, but should be used sparingly with quick or sharp horses. Be sure you help the horse hold his balance with your inside leg — don’t let him tip to the inside like a motorcycle.

Figure-eight, using two 20-meter circles.

Now you have to ride two perfect, contiguous circles, one in each direction, changing from one bend to the other. Work on geometry, bend, keeping the forward rhythm, and changing your inside aids to your outside aids (and vice versa) to change the horse’s bend in a stride or two. If the horse becomes unbalanced or rushes on the change of direction, ride forward to a halt to teach him to keep the balance as you shift your weight.

Figure-eight, using the entire arena.

Ride through the arena’s short end and change the rein across the diagonal, changing the bend at the centerline. Do it again the other way. Keep doing it. The horse will learn the figure and relax, accepting your aids better and better. Concentrate on the bend, the straight line across the diagonal, and keeping a forward, energetic rhythm.

Figure-eight on a 20-meter circle.

This exercise, for more experienced horses and riders, will really develop balance, suppleness and obedience, especially by maintaining energetic impulsion through the turns. On a 20-meter circle, turn down centerline, then change direction and the bend just before the middle. You can make it tougher by doing half the circle, or the whole circle, in counter-bend.

Spiral in and out on the circle.

Basically, this is a leg-yield on the circle. Keep the true bend and, with your pulsating outside leg and slight outside hand to create a slight counter-bend, push the horse in to a smaller and smaller circle. Hold the smallest circle for a loop or two, change back to true bend on the small circle, and then leg-yield him back out gradually, feeling him stepping across, not just running sideways. Do it again, both ways. Do three or four straighter strides before you change from moving out or in to be sure you’re not bending the horse in two directions.

Your outside rein and leg must hold the horse’s shoulder and rib cage, while moving in and out, making him step across with the hind leg and not just go sideways. As in every leg-yield, be sure your hips are straight and level. If the horse won’t move in one direction or goes too fast in another, check your hips.

This basic but extremely useful exercise develops suppleness and strength, attention to leg, the rider’s use of leg and seat and balance. In a timid rider, it can develop trust too, especially at canter.

Serpentine on three to six loops.

Pay attention to geometry. (In a 60-meter ring, a three-loop serpentine is three 20-meter half-circles, so all the circle rules apply.) Be sure to keep the forward energy through every turn; don’t let him mince. You can do in this in a counter-bend, too.

This exercise develops strength and pushing power, balance, suppleness, and attention to the aids. You can add walk or halt transitions on centerline for greater attention and obedience.

John Strassburger
Performance Editor