Traveling in the Best Circles

by Faith Meredith
Director, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre

Before either horses or riders master the sequential stages of their respective learning trees, they will travel in endless circles. The circle is the basic school figure we use to develop the essentials of rhythm and relaxation in either horse or rider. As they school their horses, riders should strive to make every circle the best they possibly can.

Circle work helps horses develop the muscles necessary to carry themselves properly in balance. Paradoxically, riding circles is the best way to teach a horse to go straight. Going “straight” on a circle means that the horse’s hind feet follow the tracks of his front feet. In other words, if you imagine a line on the ground forming the circle, the horse’s inside front and hind feet stay on the inside of that line while his outside front and hind feet stay on the outside of it.

As the horse works to stay straight on a circle, he strengthens muscles on the inside while stretching muscles on the outside. Just as we are right- or left-handed, horses tend to have a dominant side, too. Working the horse in both directions on a circle helps him overcome that tendency and become more evenly muscled. The benefits of circle work for the horse include improved strength, balance, straightness, and flexibility.

Riders must not only understand the theoretical mechanics of the aids that direct the horse on a circle they must also learn to apply those aids correctly in order to achieve consistently round circles of the same size. Riders do not simply apply the correct mechanical aids and leave them “on” to keep a horse traveling on a circle. Keeping the horse moving in a consistent rhythm while maintaining the correct shape of the circle requires that the rider continually communicate with the horse by:

  • applying the aids,
  • assessing their affect, then
  • reapplying the aids, adjusting their pressures as needed to make them more effective.
  • Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Etc.

The constant evaluation and adjustment of the aids while repeating the circle shape gradually refine the green horse’s understanding of the aids. Repetition also helps refine the rider’s application of individual aids and her coordination of the corridor of aids as a whole. Like the horse, the rider also develops both sides of her body. Riding circles will help her improve her balance, her strength, and her ability to coordinate the aids while riding in any direction.

While the aids for a circle are always the same, their application becomes more subtle as the horse’s training and level of understanding increase. To start, the rider places just slightly more weight on her inside seat bone. Her inside leg lies at the girth where it acts as the “driving” leg. Her outside leg lies slightly behind the girth where it acts as a “keeping” leg to prevent the horse’s hindquarters from swinging to the outside of the circle. The inside rein positions the horse’s head slightly to the inside of the circle. The outside rein receives the forward motion initiated by the driving inside leg and maintains the horse’s straightness on the circle.

The inside rein does not pull the horse’s head in the direction of travel and the outside rein maintains just enough elastic contact to hold the horse straight while allowing free forward movement. Remember, moving straight on a curved line means that the horse’s inside hind foot travels along the same line as the inside front and the outside hind foot tracks along the same line as the outside front foot.

The rider asks the horse to walk on by increasing leg pressure while opening or releasing rein pressure so that the horse has a place to move forward. At the trot, the legs drive the horse in rhythm with the horse’s strides. The aids for a canter depart are identical to those for the circle itself except that the rider coordinates them and applies them with more energy. Weight increases slightly on the inside seat bone. The driving inside leg asks for forward movement more vigorously. The inside rein continues to position the horse’s head slightly to the inside while the outside rein becomes slightly more resistant.

One of the times the rider uses a half halt is when asking for a decrease in gait from canter to trot or from trot to walk. The rider momentarily increases her weight on both seat bones while driving with both legs and resisting the horse’s forward movement with both reins. The upper body stays tall and open and the back muscles are slightly braced. This resistance is followed immediately by a decrease in weight and an opening of both reins to allow continued forward movement. When the rider wants the horse to halt, she follows the same sequence of aids as for the half halt but does not open the reins after decreasing the weight in her seat bones.

In the beginning, riders struggle to learn the correct aids to use. As a rider continues to practice and progress, the difference between simple application of the aids and true coordination of the aids is the rider’s ability to feel the results of her application of aids, to judge the effectiveness of the aids she used, and to make adjustments in the degrees of pressure and their timing in order to get a better result the next time. A rider needs an independent seat to be able to correctly coordinate all of the aids while riding a horse on a circle. While working toward that goal, however, students will ride an endless number of imperfect circles. Make each circle the best you can, then try again. Just keep riding.

Meredith Manor is an equestrian career college dedicated to preparing students for hands-on, equestrian careers as trainers, instructors, equine massage therapists, stable managers, farriers and more. If you want a career with horses and are considering attending Meredith Manor, request an information packet to learn more.

My husband and I met at Meredith Manor and have been happily married for 16yrs! Still using everything we learned from Meredith Manor almost daily from the ranch sorting arena to giving lessons to lots of kiddos and adults!
Tonya Sylvester: 1995 Riding Master Graduate