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The wonders of circles

Dressage is all about suppleness. Without consistent bend throughout your horse’s body lots of exercises become difficult and you’ll struggle to get a respectable dressage score. Here we give you two simple exercises that you can work on that will ultimately help to improve your circles:

  1. Spice it up: Circles are the mainstay of every single flatwork session, but it can be all too easy to realise that you’ve been circling at C for the past 45 minutes and achieved remarkably little. Instead, you need to try and work on lots of circles of different sizes and in all areas of the arena, linking them together with smooth, sweeping lines and lots of changes of rein. This is a great way to supple your horse as well as keep him responsive to your aids. It’s almost impossible for your horse to zone out, when he can’t anticipate the next move and rapidly changing from one rein to another, with the correct bend, is a wonderful gymnasticising tool.
  2. Tiny turns: 5-10m circles in walk are a great exercise for any horse, no matter their age or level of education. Start with a 10m circle, aiming to only ever walk one or two full rotations before changing direction and creating a new circle.

From here you can start to gradually decrease the size to 5m, spiralling in and out while incorporating changes of direction in order to maximise the benefit of the exercise.

It is easy to forget about impulsion when you’re working in walk but in order to maintain even shapes and have your horse stepping through, you’ll need to keep your leg on and maintain a soft hand. Turn your shoulders, until they are parallel with your horse’s shoulders, to help him work around the circle, maintaining an even feel on both reins and ensuring his quarters follow his shoulders. These circles are much too small to be performed in trot or canter on a young or inexperienced horse, but by using the walk you’ll get the benefits without the potential loss of control and relaxation that can arise when moving up a gear.

Small circles offer a big boost to your training because they help:

  1. Supple your horse on both reins throughout his whole body
  2. Develop balance and control
  3. Create a stretch through the outside of his body
  4. Encourage your horse to step under himself with his inside hindleg
  5. Teach you to ride your horse’s hindlegs because you’ll be able to feel them following his front legs
  6. Give you an even feel in both reins, which can be difficult to achieve on larger circles
  7. Provide a stepping-stone for teaching pirouettes. Your horse will already understand being turned tight and learning to keep his feet moving throughout will avoid him losing impulsion in the pirouette. [end box]

Take-home message

The next time you find yourself circling aimlessly, while you work out your schooling routine for the day (we’ve all been there), instead focus on the circle itself and try one of the two exercises above to really help your horse to become more supple, stronger and (as bizarre as it may sound) straighter.