Circles are a geometric challenge in dressage that, when mastered and well-ridden, can set the stage for a beautiful test. If ridden well, a circle will supple the horse and prepare him for movements that may come after the circle.
The diameter of the 10-meter circle is usually from the outside track of the arena to the centerline. A properly ridden circle is geometrically correct and should not become larger or smaller as it is ridden. There are no straight lines or corners in a circle. To ride a successful balanced circle, the rider must be correctly positioned while properly maintaining bend in the direction of travel. Perfecting one’s ability to ride a circle will improve the rider’s ability to utilize corners, prepare for lateral movements and ride more accurate tests.
Rider position has direct influence on how well a horse is able to perform a 10-meter circle. The most important aid of beginning a circle is the rider’s body position. Directing the horse for a turn should come first from the rider positioning herself in the direction of travel. This allows her to continue to use the rein and leg aids to ask for bend and flexion and to manage the balance of the horse. When the rider uses the inside rein for direct turning of the horse she can cause the horse to fall into the turn or circle, therefore losing proper bend and balance through the turn. Using the rein aid as a turning aid should be secondary to the position of the rider’s body and should only occur when the horse is not listening to the rider’s cues.
To achieve the correct position, the rider needs to have some awareness of her body and her own natural tendencies. It can be helpful in this moment to have a trainer on the ground to help correct the position of the rider. Ideally, when riding a circle, the rider should be balanced slightly over her inside hip with her shoulders pointed in the direction of the turn, carrying both hands directly over the withers pointing in the direction of travel, with her outside leg slightly behind the girth as the inside leg remains at the girth. This position will give the horse the best chance of being balanced in the direction of the circle. It also allows the rider’s aids to frame the horse for a correct bend.
The idea of being balanced over the inside hip should not be exaggerated to the point that the rider feels as though she is leaning or falling to the inside. Rather, it should be similar to the feeling that if the rider were standing evenly on the ground with both feet, she could lift one foot off the ground without leaning in the opposite direction. Standing balanced on one leg while on the ground, a rider can have the feeling that she is balanced over the hip without collapsing the shoulders in the direction of balance. This is an important feeling to understand because for a rider to be truly balanced in the saddle she must be able to keep her torso upright without collapsing her rib cage to one side or the other. Maintaining the correct position of the hip helps to keep the inside leg at the girth to create bend in the horse’s rib cage.
A couple of common problems a rider may have with her position on a circle are either not pointing her shoulders in the direction of travel or overrotating her shoulders in the direction of travel. Directing the rider’s shoulders properly is important in the guidance of the horse as you approach lateral work because it helps to direct the horse’s shoulders. If the rider is unable to direct her shoulders toward the line of travel, it shifts her weight in the opposite direction, making it difficult for the horse to perform the movement correctly. One image that can be helpful for a rider to achieve this feeling is the image of walking up a spiral staircase. In order to walk up a spiral staircase, a person must turn her shoulders toward the middle of the staircase. This makes it possible to step up onto the next stair without losing one’s balance and falling back down the staircase. As a contrast, if the person turned her shoulders away from the center of the staircase, she would fall backward down the stairs.
Balance of the Horse
Once the rider’s position is guiding the horse toward a turn or circle, the rest of the rider’s aids are free to enhance the his balance. A horse’s natural tendency when turning is to lean into the turn, carrying his head and neck to the outside while his rib cage remains stiff. This causes the horse to be on the forehand, which is not ideal for the purposes of dressage. Therefore, it is up to the rider to ask the horse to bend in the direction of the circle. Proper alignment of the rider’s position will enable her to use her aids effectively.
When picturing a correct bend, imagine looking down on the horse from above. There should be an even curve through the horse from the poll along the spine to the top of the tail. If the horse is carrying his head and neck too far to the inside, he will lose the outside shoulder alignment, making it difficult to avoid drifting out on the circle. Keeping both hands pointed in the direction of travel above the withers will allow the rider to use the outside rein and outside leg to prevent the horse’s outside shoulder from drifting out. The inside rein is then free to maintain flexion while the inside leg keeps the inside shoulder up with bend in the rib cage.
If the horse tends to swing his haunches to the outside, he will stiffen his rib cage and lean to the inside. The rider’s outside leg should be positioned slightly behind the girth to prevent the haunches from swinging to the outside. This will encourage the horse to keep his rib cage flexed around the inside leg without swinging his haunches to the outside. The inside leg at the girth will keep the horse’s rib cage bent and prevent him from stiffening and dropping his rib cage to the inside.
Exercise: Turn on the Forehand
This exercise is aimed at improving the feel for the connection from the inside leg to the outside rein. This connection is important for giving the rider the feel of slowing down the front end of the horse and connecting the hind end. It also gives the feeling that the rib cage will yield to the inside leg, which creates a connection on the outside rein. Once the rider has a good feel for the inside-leg-to-the-outside-rein connection, she can prevent the horse from leaning to the inside with his rib cage without drifting to the outside when riding a 10-meter circle.
1. Start with a halt parallel to the rail of the arena, positioned off the track.
2. Flexion of the poll should be toward the rail, making the former outside rein the new inside rein. (Note: “Outside” refers to the side opposite the flexion.)
3. Without losing the connection on the new outside rein, ask the horse to move his haunches away from the rail. The hind leg closest to the rail should step in front of the opposite hind leg.
4. Continue asking the horse to step away from your leg until he is facing the opposite direction from which you started.
Troubleshooting. A common mistake when riding this exercise is that the horse walks forward instead of stepping to the side with his haunches. To prevent this, make sure to half halt on the outside rein. If the horse still walks forward, make sure to ask him to halt quietly before asking him to step sideways again.
Overflexion of the head and neck should be avoided in this exercise. If this problem arises, the horse will fall forward onto the outside shoulder and drift to the outside. The outside rein will keep the horse straighter in the neck while the outside leg in this moment can give a soft impulse to keep him from drifting. The rider should also engage her core to prevent the horse from walking forward in this moment.
It is also a common tendency for the rider to sit too far to the outside of the saddle. It is important to be balanced in the direction of the flexion in this moment to prevent the horse from drifting through the outside aids.
This exercise gives the rider an understanding for keeping the horse in the “circle of aids,” which describes the connectivity and coordination of the rider’s aids. Mastering this circle of aids is necessary for successful 10-meter circles because it enables the rider to maintain an honest, balanced bend in the horse. As the horse and rider continue their journey together, the circle of aids is pivotal for clear communication between the pair. Next month: Transitions on a straight line.