Horse Training

Riding Circles

February 14, 2012

Increase control over size and speed while riding your horse in circles.

Using cones will help train you to feel the difference of your horse’s bend between a larger and smaller circle. Illustration by Jean Abernethy.

By Patti Carter-Pratt for The American Quarter Horse Journal

Riding circles correctly teaches both horse and rider balance. It’s a good training exercise because it teaches the horse straightness in his self-carriage while on a curve.

There are four main parts to a horse: the head and neck, the shoulders, the rib cage and the hips. To ride a circle correctly, you have to control all four parts. The horse has to give through the poll; he must be straight between the reins and guide through the shoulders; the rib cage connects the front and the back end of the horse, so he has to be correct and straight in the rib cage; and he must be engaged from behind.

The arc of the horse’s body will accommodate the size of the circle. If your circle is large, your horse’s body will have less bend; the smaller the circle gets, the more the bend in his body increases.

Circles require you, as a rider, to have consistently correct aids. The horse must understand and respond to your seat, rein and leg.

You need to keep your shoulders behind the horse’s shoulders and your eyes following the horse’s path. You should have weight on the inside seat bone, but not leaning in.

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Your inside leg should be at the rib cage to create the bend of the circle. The outside leg will be farther behind with enough pressure to keep the hindquarters on the track of the circle.

The inside rein produces a slight bend in the horse’s neck, and your outside rein balances and limits the degree of that bend. The reins should work in unison.

Common Problems

Circles need to be round, not oval or egg-shaped. In a reining pattern and some horsemanship patterns, you start and finish your circles, and change the circles’ sizes at the same spot in the arena. Some mistakes include:

  • Overlooking. A common mistake is to overlook the circle, which throws the rider’s position off and the horse’s position off.
  • Collapsing to the inside. When you put weight on your inside seat bone, sit tall and make sure you keep your ribcage up or you will collapse to the inside of the circle. This will throw your horse off balance.
  • Ahead of the horse. A rider who gets ahead of his horse’s shoulders can’t sit down and engage the seat to encourage forward motion.
  • Pointing into the circle. When you go to make a circle smaller, don’t point your horse into the smaller circle; instead, create a tighter bend in his body. If you point him into the circle, he’ll drop his shoulder. If you create the bend in his rib cage, his shoulders will stay up.

What to Do

When you’re working on circles, be sure to master your circle sizes first, big then small, before you do anything with speed. Keep a steady, medium rhythm while you are learning to control the size of your circles.

Your horse should have three rhythms at the jog and the lope: slow, medium and extended. A medium rhythm at the jog would take you through the correct strides over trot poles – two strides in a 6-foot space. Slow would be the pleasure jog; the extended jog would be a lengthening of the medium jog.

I have a great exercise I set up with cones to help riders work on maintaining circle size and rhythm, and then gradually increasing and decreasing speed.

Build a “cross” with cones, as in the diagram. Set the cones 8 to 10 feet apart. You can ride a circle within a circle, following a track between the cones; both circles start and finish in between the two cones at the top of the cross. The center cone is the center of your smaller circle.

When you are riding this exercise, you need to see your cones in your peripheral vision. Do not stare at them or you will throw off your position. Use them as a guideline so you can feel the difference in your circle sizes.

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In this exercise, you’ve got to start and finish in the same spot. You need to practice flattening the circles slightly at that starting/finishing spot, so the circles will be like a capital “D.” Doing that will help make your outside aids more effective and will prepare you to eventually change direction correctly.

Start riding the large circle at your horse’s medium speed and maintain that rhythm and cadence. Once you are consistent in rhythm and shape in the large circle, create the smaller circle, maintaining the same rhythm. You need to prepare your horse before you get to the starting/finishing spot. Increase the bend in your horse’s rib cage through your inside leg and rein and contain it through your outside leg and rein, making that circle come down into a smaller size. Then go back out to the larger circle.

Think about your aids as you change your circle size. Keep the outside leg on and your seat engaged to create and keep the same rhythm. If you lose the forward motion, you’ve lost engagement.

When you increase your speed, you lengthen the horse’s stride; you lighten your seat bones and bring your hand forward. When you decrease the stride, you close all your angles: sitting down, bringing your hand back as your weight comes into your seat without collapsing your upper body. Closing your leg closes the stride.

Practice changing the rhythm first on the large circle, and then add the bend down to the smaller circle along with the decrease in speed. As your horse understands the increase in speed, take away a little more speed in your medium circle to come back to a slower small circle.

Make sure you don’t over-drill your horse with circles or he will anticipate what you’re doing. Balance your circles with practicing straight lines. And work both directions.

Another excellent exercise is to ride your circle with your inside arm straight in the air.

If you’re circling left, put your reins in your right hand. Bring your inside, left arm forward and up until it’s straight up alongside your ear.

Riding that way will stabilize your upper body and will help you control your upper body in the circle. It will help you feel the weight on your inside seat bone without leaning to the inside.

This article from The Journal archives was written in 2009, before AQHA Professional Horsewoman Patti Carter-Pratt accepted her new responsibilities as AQHA’s executive director of shows.