An important element of most dressage tests are circles and half circles. The judge is looking for the correct amount of bend depending upon the size of circle being executed; how well the horse’s inside hind leg steps through and underneath him (engagement) and consequently how he maintains his uphill balance and self-carriage as he negotiates the figure. The horse must move on two tracks. If the horse is bent excessively through his neck rather than around your inside leg through his body, his outside shoulder will drift outwards. This will result in the outside foreleg taking up its own track and the horse then becomes crooked and will be travelling on three tracks.
Accuracy is also very important and it’s surprising just how many riders struggle with this aspect of riding circles. A 15m diameter circle at A can very quickly become a 16.5m egg wobbling drunkenly across towards the track! Here are some tips on how to perfect that most crucial and basic of school figures before you venture into the arena.
How to place your circle correctly
First of all, you need to know the geography of the dressage arena. A short arena is 40m long and 20m wide; the long arena is 60m long and also 20m wide. In both cases, ‘X’ marks the centre. Therefore, if the test requirements state that you are to ride a 20m circle you can see that you must ride out to touch the track at both sides of the arena, depending upon which marker the test states the circle is to be ridden from. The simplest way to work out your positioning is to study an arena diagram before you set out to practice riding circles in the school. You can then familiarise yourself with exactly where you need to be in order to be accurate.
Riding a circle effectively is deceptively tricky. As well as being accurate, you need to be aware of what your hand and leg aids are asking of the horse.
1. Your inside leg asks the horse for impulsion and energy; prevents him from falling in and also creates the right amount of bend through his body.
2. Meanwhile, your outside leg aid, which should be applied slightly behind the girth, controls the quarters and prevents them from swinging out and avoiding the bend.
3. Your inside rein maintains inside flexion – you should just be able to see your horse’s inside eye; more than this is too much neck bend and you risk the outside shoulder escaping.
4. Finally, your outside rein limits the amount of inside flexion, guards against outside shoulder drift and regulates the horse’s speed.
5. Your seat, back and weight aids all work on keeping the horse connected and in an uphill balance through the use of subtle half-halts.
As you ride around the circle, look up and around the circle and between your horse’s ears. Turn your shoulders and hips together around the circle. This will help to keep your outside leg back behind the girth and your inside leg on it. Keep your head straight; keep your chin in line with the zip on your jacket or buttons on your shirt as a guide.
Turn the horse with your outside leg aid and use your inside leg as a ‘pole’ around which you ask your horse to bend whilst providing him with some support. Make sure that you turn the whole of the horse and not just the forehand. He should move around the circle as though he were a train on a railway track.
Useful exercises to try at home
Set four poles out in a diamond shape so that their outside ends correspond with a 20m circle. Ride each portion around the outside ends of the poles following the same curve and you will end up with a perfect 20m circle.
Alternatively, set out four cones, one at each circle point and ride the exercise as above.
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