The Trouble with Circles

by Nancy Wesolek-Sterrett
Head of Dressage Department, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre

Circles play a major role in training for a reason. No movement tells a rider more about his or her ability to coordinate a corridor of aids. Keeping the horse straight (which means that the right hind foot follows along the same track as the right front foot and the left follows the left) on a truly round circle that does not change size at any point requires more than just choosing the right aids to apply. Riding a circle requires subtle, continually adjusted coordination of multiple individual aid pressures from stride to stride.

The full corridor of aids that keep a horse bending along a circle includes:

  • Sitting slightly heavier on the inside seat bone.
  • Positioning the horse's head slightly to the inside with the inside rein.
  • Driving actively with the calf of the inside leg at the girth.
  • Keeping the calf of the outside leg behind the girth to hold the horse's hindquarters on the track of the circle.
  • Positioning the rider's shoulders parallel to the horse's shoulders.
  • Keeping or taking with the outside rein to maintain the size of the circle.

Coordinating this full corridor of aids for a circle demands several things of the rider:

  • Theoretical understanding of the corridor of aids that encourages the horse to shape his body to match the bend of a certain size circle.
  • Sufficient balance to ride with relaxed muscles that can apply individual aids without gripping or stiffening.
  • Ability to follow the motion of the horse at all gaits without losing relaxation or balance.
  • Sufficient muscular strength to support the upper body and apply each rein, seat and leg aid independently without losing relaxation, balance, or the ability to follow the horse's motion.

Stiffness somewhere in the rider's body heads the list of issues that make accurate circles difficult. Riders must apply their corridor of aids stride by stride. With each stride the horse takes along a circle, the rider must rapidly evaluate whether any adjustments are necessary before applying the aids for the next stride. That takes mental focus. However, if the rider concentrates so hard on the mechanics of the aids that she holds her breath, her body will stiffen somewhere and that next stride will be a bit off.

Many riders tighten their thigh muscles when they apply their inside calf. This draws the leg up and pushes the rider onto his or her outside seat bone. When that happens, the horse drifts off the line of the circle. If a rider's buttocks muscles tense as she applies leg, she will bounce and change the rhythm. The rider's inside, driving leg must remain relaxed and long from hip to ankle.

Stiff ankles braced in the stirrups push a rider's feet in front of his hips and tip him back. When he tries to correct this mistake, he may tip forward as he tries to regain his balance. Depending on his personality, the horse may spurt forward or slow down. To ride nice circles, riders need to develop their balance so that stiff joints do not tip them forward onto their crotches, back onto their pockets, lock up their hips, or lock up their waists. Any stiffness inhibits a rider's ability to follow the horse's motion and makes it difficult, if not impossible, to correctly influence the horse on a circle.

If a rider needs to pull on the inside rein to keep the horse on the circle, her other aids are probably telling the horse to move to the outside. She may think she is using the correct aids. However, if just that slight positioning of the head with the inside rein is not enough to keep the horse on the circle, the rider needs to rethink and regroup. She is missing one of her other aids. She should assess each of her joints, looking for any stiffness or tension. She should check whether the positions of her eyes, head, shoulders, hands, seat bones and legs are sending mixed messages to her horse. Rider's can use their horse's feedback to develop body awareness and locate any stiffness that throws the horse off the circle. Anything that inhibits the rider's ability to follow the horse's motion makes it difficult for the horse to stay straight on a circle. Riders cannot follow the horse's motion with stiff hips, a stiff waist, stiff shoulders or stiff elbows—stiff anything.

Instructors sometimes describe the corridor of aids for riding a horse on a circle as a spiraling of the rider's body that helps the horse feel the correct shape of a circle. However, this image can backfire if riders exaggerate any part of the spiral. For instance, the rider's shoulders should stay parallel to a line through the horse's shoulders as they ride the circle. If the line of the rider's shoulders turns farther than that of the horse, the exaggeration typically stiffens the hips, lifts the inside seat bone, throws the rider's weight onto the outside seat bone, pushes her weight to the back of the saddle, and allows the outside rein to move too far forward. The result is that the horse's front end drifts to the inside or outside of the line of the circle. If the rider's waist or pelvis locks up in the spiraling effort, the rider, again, cannot follow the horse's motion correctly. Any of the above actions make it impossible for the horse to travel straight on the track of the circle with the right hind foot following the track of the right front foot.

To ride those perfect circles, a rider must be able to follow the horse's motion. That means sitting deep in the saddle with hips swinging freely, opening and closing with the movement of the horse. If the horse and rider get out of sync, the rider simply cannot affect the horse's next stride. If a rider does not follow the horse's motion, the horse will not be free and forward. If a rider does not follow his horse's motion, there will be no forward momentum for good circles. Riders must be able to follow the motion before they can influence it.

Coordinating a full corridor of aids all the way around a circle, stride by stride, is challenging. The rider's goal is to develop sufficient body control to stop thinking so much about each individual aid. Horses do not mentally analyze each individual aid in a corridor, add them up, and then think, "Oh, this is what the rider wants me to do." They are simply aware that the combination of whatever pressures a rider places on their body creates a feeling of a shape that releases the pressures. If one of the pressures in a corridor of aids is 'louder' or 'softer' because there is a stiff joint somewhere in the rider's body, the horse will react to that pressure more or less than to the others. The rider can use that feedback to make the next stride a little better.

When riders can follow the horse's motion and are in muscular control of their individual body parts so that they can use each of them independently, they can master the mechanics of the corridor of aids that creates a perfect circle. When they have mastered the mechanics, they can work on the feeling of that circle. Then they are ready to work on the nuances that really impress the judges such as bend, balance, and engagement.

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.

What I learned at Meredith Manor gave me the foundation to be successful in the horse industry.
Eric Nygaard: 1981 Shoeing Short Course Graduate