Monday, August 29, 2011

Riding the Circle

Hurricane Update: Harley and his companions are safe and sound.  Thank you for all the well wishes!


Occasionally, my husband shows his coworkers video of Harley and me on his phone.  This is usually after something in the conversation leads to pets or animals and he states that he has a horse.  I like to think that he states this proudly.  ;)

Since non-horsey people do not generally know what to look for in a riding video, he tries to show them videos where Harley is doing something exciting, like cantering, little jumps, or a carrot trick.  Most people watch politely and ask a question like:

"Does your wife fall off?"
"Where do you keep him?"
"How much does a horse cost?"
"Is he a racehorse?"

and my personal favorite,

"When do you (meaning my husband) ride your horse?"

My husband has an answer ready for that last one.

"I just take the pictures."

Actually, he probably says something wittier than that like

"She won't let me ride him."
"He thinks I'm only good for pretzels."
"My parrot would get jealous."

If he read these, he would undoubtedly come up with something better.  I like to kid that I do not want him to ride my horse, because I do not want to have to share him in case my husband catches the horse bug.  I guess that would just mean we would need a second horse!  In all seriousness, I think Harley is too particular for a beginner, but I am probably not giving either of them enough credit.

On one of these occasions, someone asked:

"Why does she keep riding in circles?"

That is a perfectly valid training question.  Why the circle?

I was thinking about this the other day, because in the schooling video I stayed on the circle for most of the ride.  I have taught entire lessons focused on riding a circle and I have certainly received entire lessons on the shape and size of a good circle.  A corner in the arena can be thought of as the quarter arc of a very small circle or volte.  All lateral work, which incorporates a bend, is taking the circle along for the ride.  In fact, truly classical use of lateral work suggests that a 10 m circle be ridden before and after lateral movements such as shoulder-in and travers.

Recently, I rode a young horse who needs some gentle conditioning work.  I started off along the track, feeling how he handled the turns and how straight he was traveling.  I made sure that he was listening to me with some transitions and voice commands, then I popped on a large circle.  Riding a circle on an unfamiliar horse offers volumes of information.  It is immediately apparent if the horse is practiced in circles.  I am not just talking about the rider's aids and obedience.  Riding a circle and purposefully choosing a line of travel, gives the rider information about the balance and suppleness of the horse.  The horse's crookedness and flexibility become apparent as does the strength and coordination of the inside hind leg and the looseness of the muscles around the poll and down the length of the neck and back.  The circle can be made an easier exercise by increasing the size or only riding half of a circle.  The circle can also be made more difficult by decreasing the size, including transitions and changes of direction, or lateral movements and increasing the gait, with the epitome being the canter pirouette.

The only limit in the value of the circle as a training tool is the rider's imagination.

That being said, the rider should always be aware of how difficult even a simple circle may be for a horse based upon his level of training and fitness.  Improvement will occur if the horse is challenged, but riding figures which are too difficult can be detrimental to the horse's body and mind.  When I think again of the movie-viewer's question, he or she may have thought that I continued in a circle for lack of a better activity.  Like riding in a circle was mindless or boring.  I know that the question was innocent, but I cannot help feeling amused.  The circle is deceptively worthwhile and challenging!

So what this young horse told me was that, he was not practiced in circles, he was used to being steered with the reins, he was tight in many places in his body, and he generally did not know where to put his shoulders and hips in order to travel straight ahead, on the circle or along straight lines.  He was "jack-knifing" around the circle and in response to a single leg or rein aid.  This little guy had not learned how to cope with bend.  In my opinion, a well ridden circle comes down to training a horse how to bend.  A circle is simply the horse traveling straight ahead while maintaining a consistent bend throughout his body, from nose to tail.  If you can initiate the right amount of bend for the circle you want to ride, your horse should just "auto-circle".

Simple, but not easy, as most any rider will agree!

Harley, June 2007: Just learning about bend and cantering.
It looks like he has miles of hind leg!

Harley, June 2011: About the same moment in the stride four years later.
His hind end is much more organized and under his body.

A different view on the circle, but still with the last foot in the stride down.
And he has learned to bend!


  1. I am glad you all made it through safe and sound!
    I find it funny when I start speaking "horse" to a non horse person, they basically glaze over. A while back I was trying to explain to my children about lead changes and leads in general while watching dressage on tv (I think it was Rolex) I'm pretty sure they just nodded like they understood to get me to shut up...I never was able to instill the horse bug in my kids, oh well.
    Jack knife, that's a very interesting way to describe the stiff circle. Great post!

  2. Mary- I know what you mean! I usually skip the word "canter" and just say "slow gallop". Just trying to explain the canter is difficult enough. :)

  3. Glad y'all are in one piece up there! I thought the parrot comment was pretty funny, actually. *grin* There is a huge difference between the first and third circle photos (wow; and yay, go Harley! ;o)

  4. Jen- Parrots are possessive of their loved ones and my husband is his favorite. ;)

    Harley got a wow! Cool beans.

  5. Hear, hear! Circles are hard work! I know ... just did a BUNCH of them at Sunday's show. If you would have told me three years ago that riding a circle is WORK, I would have laughed my endurance butt all the way to the next vet check. Several humble years later, I have to totally agree. I can spend 45 minutes on circles and not know where the time went!

    Glad you're all safe and sound ...

  6. 50 to 100 miles of trail still sounds like work to me! My joints were screaming after 8! Thanks, Karen.

  7. So glad you all are okay!

    Circles are stupid hard, I feel like an idiot every time Coriander and I attempt one but I know we need to so I carry on. Want to come up to NY and give a lesson? ;)

  8. Hehe. I know!
    A friend was once having a circle lesson from my former instructor and she was really getting the grill. Later she looked at me and said "You know, I do this for fun." It was not very convincing, but a necessary evil I suppose!


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