Updated: Mar 25, 2021
Circles come into play at every single level of dressage. We start with 20m circles at prelim and progress through to 10 and 8m circles at the advanced levels. As the circles become progressively smaller the horse needs to be more and more balanced, take more weight onto their hind legs, be in self carriage as well as it requiring the horse to be more and more supple.
Circles are great to incorporate into your training because they are fantastic for creating suppleness and building strength, sit and engagement in the hind legs. We use them a lot to help us introduce the collected paces too.
Circles can, when trained properly, be a really easy place to pick up marks but it’s also a really easy place to lose marks if we’re lazy with them in our training
In training we spend a lot of time on circles but most of the time we are too busy focussing on something else and the circles start becoming funny shapes or sizes. We’re less quick to pick up on our horses falling in or out of the circles and, generally our accuracy goes out the window. When we don't focus on our circles it comes back to bite us when we go to a competition and find we don't actually have control over our horses body. We cant tell them to make the circle bigger or smaller, we don't have the ability to ask for more or less bend and we are not able to control where the shoulders and hindquarters are.
So spending some time focussing on our circles and the accuracy of them will make your life so much easier when we’re allowed to get back into those arena boards at a competition.
What should a circle really be like
Well firstly, no matter the size of the circle the horses whole body should bend around the circle, the rhythm should stay consistent, the size of the circle should remain the same and it should be a definite circle, no ovals or squares. Circles are one of those movements where there are so many things you need to get right to have a good circle. You need a good level of impulsion and a good contact to create the rhythm, you need a good level of suppleness to create the body bend you need around the circle, you need a good inside leg to outside rein connection to stop your horse falling in or out of the circles. And that’s just the basics before you even go into hind leg engagement and self carriage and so on.
So I’ve come up with 7 really common problems people come across when riding circles. Well look at why the problem is there and then you can head to our 'exercise' post to find out how to fix each problem.
1. The contact becomes inconsistent and the rhythm gets lost
2. Horse slows down on the circles
3. There is neck bend but no body bend
4. The horse falls in or out of the circle with their shoulders or hind end.
5. The size and shape of the circle is irregular and inconsistent.
Problem 1: Horse drops of the contact and loses rhythm
This is a really common one, especially when introducing the smaller 15 or 10m circles. It could be because your horse isn’t balanced or strong enough yet for the smaller circles. It could also be because you have lost the impulsion. This happens because, whilst the circle encourages the horse to sit on their hind leg, horses generally find this quite hard and so their answer to making it easier is to slow down. It means they don't have to push or engage their hindleg. From here its very easy for them to slip behind the leg.
A good contact is created when the horse is in front of the leg and taking you forward. The combination of a good impulsion and a good contact is what creates a good rhythm. Having all this also helps your horse to be more balanced (which we know can be another reason we lose the contact or rhythm). When the horse is behind the leg the contact becomes inconsistent or there is no contact at all. This inconsistency in the contact is what creates an inconsistent rhythm.
So the answer to solving your contact problem is to work on keeping your horse forward and in front of your leg.
Problem 2: Horse slows down and leans
Another impulsion problem is when you feel your horse slows down on the circles but you don’t feel you lose the contact or the rhythm. This is a horse that is more strong, balanced and able to hold themselves round these circles but they’re being a bit lazy with engaging and pushing with their hind legs, generally these are the horses that also like to lean a bit.
Here, instead of the horse dropping behind the leg and the contact to avoid pushing with their hindlegs the horse still drops behind the leg but then pushes their weight onto their forehand encouraging the rider to carry them around the circle. It is just another way of avoiding having to sit and push from their hindleg.
Problem 3: Too much neck bend, no body bend
When a horse shows lots of neck bend and no body bend it is usually because the rider is using too much inside rein and not enough inside leg. Its very easy to think that to ride a circle you pull on the inside rein and the smaller the circle the more you need to pull. But all pulling does is move the neck not the body.
Think of it as anything from the whither forwards is controlled by the hand, anything from the saddle back is controlled by the leg. So if you have too much neck bend you’re using too much inside hand and if you haven’t got enough body bend you’re not using enough inside leg.
Problem 4: Horse falls in or out
This next problem is similar because we are looking at when our horse falls in or out. Now this could be a straightness/impulsion issue or this could be an ‘inside leg to outside rein connection’ issue.
If it’s a straightness/impulsion issue the reason will be because you don’t have a good leg to hand connection and by this I mean your horse isn’t pushing forwards with impulsion into a stable consistent contact. Generally, a horse that has this leg to hand connection is straight. It’s almost like your legs push your horse into a box and stop everything from falling out the back and your contact stops the horse from falling out the front end.
The other reason for a falling in or out of the shoulders or hind end is to do with the inside leg to outside rein connection. This is how all our circles should be ridden. With the inside leg creating the bend and impulsion and the outside rein catching that energy and channelling it around the circle, controlling that outside shoulder in the process. If you find your horse falls in you apply more inside leg, expecting the horse to step away from the leg and lifting their inside shoulder.
If you find your horse really struggles with falling in or out I would definitely recommend going back and reading our posts about the inside leg to outside rein connection here
Problem 5: Accuracy
Our final problem happens when the size and shape of the circles are inconsistent. Sometimes we have circles sometimes ovals sometimes diamond sometimes they look more like squares. Equally you might find that sometimes you aim for a 10m circle and it ends up a 15m or an 8m circle.
You will find your horse naturally wants to either make the circle bigger or smaller. Usually on one rein they’ll want to make the circle bigger and then on the other smaller as they favour leaning on a certain shoulder or curling their hindquarters in a certain way.
When it comes to accuracy it’s all about practice. You should know and be able to anticipate what your horse will do with each circle so you are ready to fix if or when you need to. So in a test you start your circle thinking ‘I know we have a tendency to fall in on this left circle so I’m ready with my inside leg if it’s needed’.
So, as you've probably gathered by now, the majority of the problems come from impulsion and this is why you will find me constantly talking about how important you being able to get your horse in front of the leg is. However, there are exercises you can do help improve each problem that we've discussed.
Head to our exercise post to find out about the 5 ways you can fix each of the problems we've discussed in this post.