Never Miss a Post

Join 10,000+ subscribers and get our latest articles via email.

How to (And Why) Ride a Good Circle/Volte

ride circle volte dressage

Circles are one of the first bending movements that a young horse will learn. They’re also one of the first movements you will ride on a horse that is not fully warmed up. 

Every dressage test throughout the levels asks you to perform circles of various sizes. And out of all of the dressage movements, a circle is a figure that you will ride more than any other. 

And yet, the humble circle is one of the most difficult movements for horse and rider to get right.

So, in this article, we will look at the benefits of circles, what makes a good circle, how to ride a good circle, and some of the common mistakes that are made. 

What’s the difference between a circle and a volte? 

Honestly, not much. The only difference is size. 

  • Anything sized 10-meters or below (10-meter, 8-meter and 6-meter) is called a volte. 
  • Anything larger than 10-meters (15-meters and 20-meters) is called a circle. 

Why are circles important? 

Circles are an exceptionally useful training tool, and they are fundamental to your horse’s progression.

When ridden correctly, circles provide the following benefits:

  • Improve your horse’s suppleness (especially lateral suppleness).
  • Help to improve your horse’s straightness and body alignment. 
  • Help to strengthen your horse’s hindquarters.
  • Encourage your horse’s inside hind leg to step further underneath his center of gravity (engagement).
  • Help to get your horse working into your outside rein.
  • Improves your horse’s balance.
  • Improves your horse’s core strength. 
  • Develops your horse’s ability to collect. 
  • Help to keep your horse focused and keep him attentive to your aids.
  • Tests the coordination of your leg, seat, rein, and body positioning. 
  • Allow you to assess your horse’s responsiveness to your leg, seat, rein, and body positioning aids.
  • Help to slow down an eager horse and control the tempo of the pace.
  • Help to prepare and position your horse for lateral movements.  

In essence, circles are fundamental to your training. If you can’t ride a good circle, you and your horse will not progress. 

Also, circles can be ridden in all the basic paces (walk, trot, and canter). They can, therefore, provide you with various additional training movements, such as transitions on a circle, changing the rein out of a circle, spirals, serpentines, etc.

What makes a good circle? 

For a circle to be described as good (or excellent), it must have the following six qualities. 

Quality 1 – Your circle must be accurate

The shape of a circle is perfectly round, and the circles you ride in the dressage arena must also be perfectly round. 

A perfect circle is always the same distance from its center, and it does not include any sharp turns or corners. 

Quality 2 – You must demonstrate the correct bend

When riding a circle to the left, your horse must bend uniformly through his body to the left. He must not be looking to the outside, falling in, falling out, or have more bend in his neck than the rest of his body.

Quality 3 – Your horse must be moving on one track 

Your horse’s hind feet should follow in the tracks left by your horse’s front feet. He should not swing his quarters out or cross over his hind legs. 

Quality 4 – You must maintain the same rhythm and tempo 

When riding a circle, the rhythm and tempo (the speed of the rhythm) must be the same before, during, and after. 

Your horse should not slow down to negotiate the circle. The pace can become more collected, but the tempo should not be any slower. 

Quality 5 – You must demonstrate the correct frame and balance 

While riding a circle, your horse must remain balanced and connected through his back to the contact, relative to his level of training. He must not drop onto his forehand or come above or behind the bit. 

Quality 6 – Your circle must flow

Once you have achieved qualities 1-5 as per above, then this quality should come almost automatically, and that is, your circle should flow. 

To the onlooker, the whole movement should appear smooth, consistent, and fluid. 

How to ride a good circle

Here are six steps to riding a good circle.  

Step 1 – Choose the correct circle size 

The standard circle sizes are 20-meters, 15-meters, 10-meters, 8-meters, and 6-meters.

During training, you can ride circles at any size your horse is capable of, but it’s essential that you choose the correct size. 

The smaller the circle diameter, the more difficult it is for your horse. Where 20-meter circles can be ridden on novice horses at the beginning of their career, 6-meter voltes should only be ridden on advanced horses that have achieved high levels of balance, engagement, suppleness, and collection.

During your schooling sessions, you should always start by working on large circles until your horse’s muscles warm up and loosen before progressing to smaller circles and tighter turns, but still keeping the circle sizes within your horse’s current level of capabilities.

Step 2 – Know the dimensions of your arena

Once you have chosen your circle size, you need to know the dimensions of your arena so that you can ride an accurate and correctly placed circle.

For example, if you want to ride a 15-meter circle at A in a 20mx40m arena, you know that your circle must;

  • start and finish at A,
  • be 5-meters away from X,
  • and be 2.5-meters away from the outside track on both sides. 
15 meter circle accuracy dressage

Think of riding a diamond shape where each point of the diamond (the green dots) touches a quarter point of the circle. Now ride the diamond and round off each point. This will help you to position the circle accurately and keep it round!

When practicing smaller circles, it can be helpful to position cones or buckets in your arena at home to mark out where each ‘point’ of your circle should be. This will help you to be more accurate.

Related Read: How to Accurately Set up a Dressage Arena

Step 3 – Prepare your horse

The smaller the size of the circle, the more collected your horse needs to be. 

Where 20-meter circles can be ridden in the working paces with some lengthened strides, 6-meter voltes should only be ridden in a collect pace. Therefore, it’s vital that you prepare your horse sufficiently beforehand, ensuring that you are approaching the circle at a suitable pace, balance, and tempo. 

Step 4 – Apply the correct aids

In order for your horse to negotiate the circle while staying balanced, upright, and on one track, you must ask him to bend uniformly through his whole body. To do that, here are the aids that you need to apply. 

Inside leg

Your inside leg should be at the girth. This stimulates your horse’s intercostal muscles (the ones between his ribs) and encourages him to pull the muscles closer together on the inside of his body (shortening and strengthening) and move the muscles further apart on the outside of his body (stretching and suppling). 


bending ribs how to dressage

Your inside leg also creates forward impulsion and encourages your horse’s inside hind leg to step further underneath his center of gravity. 

Outside leg

Your outside leg should be positioned behind the girth. This helps to guard your horse’s hindquarters and prevent them from drifting off the circle line.

Moving your outside leg behind the girth also allows your horse’s ribs to expand on the outside, thereby working alongside your inside leg.

Inside rein

Your inside rein should ask for a small amount of inside flexion. This helps to indicate the direction of the bend and helps to position your horse’s head and neck on the curved line. 

IMPORTANT: Your inside rein should not be used to turn your horse! This will result in too much neck bend and your horse falling out through his outside shoulder. 

ANOTHER IMPORTANT NOTE: Once your horse has given you the desired amount of inside flexion, relax your inside rein. Do not hang on to it because that can cause stiffness and resistance in your horse.  

Outside rein

Your outside rein is used to prevent too much neck bend to the inside, thereby helping you to control your horse’s outside shoulder, preventing him from falling out. 

Your outside rein is also used to control your horse’s tempo (speed of the rhythm) and to give balancing half-halts. 

Related Read: How to Use Your Outside Rein


Your head should be up and looking ahead and around the circle you are negotiating. 

Do not look down at your horse. Instead, focus on your next circle point to help you maintain accuracy and a consistent bend. 


You should have a little bit more weight in your inside bone and inside stirrup while still keeping a contact with your outside seat bone and the saddle. 

This slight weight shift frees the outside of your horse’s body, allowing it to expand, and encourages your horse’s inside hind leg to step under your weight and his center of gravity. 

IMPORTANT: You should remain sat up straight and central and not lean inwards. If you have put your legs into the correct position, you should feel this weight shift happen almost naturally. 

Related Read: How to Use Your Seat and Weight Aids for Dressage

Body positioning 

Your shoulders should be turned from your waist to the inside, matching the angle of your horse’s shoulders. 

Your hips should match the angle of your horse’s hips. Again, this should happen almost naturally as you position your legs correctly. 

Step 5 – Maintain the rhythm and impulsion

As mentioned, the rhythm and impulsion must remain consistent before, during, and after the circle. 

Many riders stop riding forward and allow the pace to dwindle, incorrectly thinking that their horses need to go slower in order to get around the circle. 

If you are riding a small circle, you will need to collect the pace for your horse to negotiate the circle in balance and with ease, but collection does not mean ‘go slower,’ and you should still maintain the same rhythm and level of impulsion. 

Step 6 – Ride out of the circle

After riding a circle, many riders think they need to pull on the outside rein to straighten their horses out of the inside bend and off the circle. Unfortunately, doing this only causes their horses to lose balance and alignment. 

Instead, to ride your horse off a circle, simply put all your aids back to neutral and ride forward. Your horse will naturally straighten out of the bend. 

Common mistakes when riding circles 

Here are six of the most common mistakes that are seen when riding circles.

Mistake 1 – Riding into the corners of the arena

There is a difference between ‘going large’ and riding a 20-meter circle at A or C. 

circles and corners dressage

If you are going large around the outside of the arena (blue line), you should;

  • ride straight down the long side, 
  • ride your first corner, 
  • ride straight along the short side, 
  • ride your second corner, 
  • and then ride straight down the opposite long side. 

If you are riding a 20-meter circle at A (green circle), you should;

  • ride straight down the long side, 
  • ride your first corner,
  • ride straight along the short side until you reach A,
  • leave the outside track at A to start your 20-meter circle (only touching the outside track on the long side for 1-2 strides before passing through X, touching the outside track on the opposite side for 1-2 strides, and rejoining the outside track again at A),
  • ride straight along the rest of the short side, 
  • ride your second corner, 
  • and then ride straight down the opposite long side. 

Unfortunately, many dressage judges witness riders;

  • ride straight down the long side, 
  • ride the corner, 
  • ride straight along the short side, 
  • ride the next corner, 
  • ride straight down the long side before riding an arch through X and onto the opposite long side,  
  • ride straight down the long side, 
  • ride through the corner, 
  • and ride straight along the short side. 
circle fault how to dressage

The above example does not include a circle! 

Mistake 2 – The rider does not plan and prepare

As per our steps above, before riding a circle, you need to have chosen your circle size, know your arena dimensions so you can ride it accurately, and prepare your horse sufficiently. 

Failure to do those steps results in riding around aimlessly, producing egg-shaped circles, and throwing your horse off balance. 

Because circles seem like a basic and easy exercise, many riders do not give them the thought they require. However, if you plan your circles with the same diligence as you would a canter zig-zag, you will produce a much higher quality of work. 

Mistake 3 – Little or no bend

If you do not bend your horse’s body enough to match the curve of the circle line, then in order to turn, your horse will have to lean inwards like a motorbike. 

Leaning and bending are mutually exclusive. 

  • If you bend your horse correctly, he won’t be leaning. 
  • If your horse is leaning, he is not bending correctly. 

If you struggle to create enough bend through your horse’s body, you’re probably asking your horse to perform a circle that is too small for your horse’s current level of lateral suppleness. Make the circle bigger and get the bend correct. You can slowly progress to a small circle as your horse’s suppleness improves.

Related Read: How to Stop Your Horse From Leaning (Motorbiking)

Mistake 4 – Trying to correct a horse that falls inward by pulling on the outside rein

When a horse is falling inwards towards the center of a circle, many riders pull on their outside rein in an effort to keep their horse out and on the circle line. Although this may seem like a logical thing to do, it will only encourage your horse to look to the outside and cause him to fall inwards even more. 

Instead, to correct a horse that is falling inwards, use your inside leg to push your horse out and up into your outside rein. 

Related Read: How to Stop Your Horse From Falling In

Mistake 5 – Turning the horse with the inside rein in isolation

When people start riding, they are often instructed to pull on the left rein to go left and pull on the right rein to go right. Although this makes things simple for a small child, it’s actually very bad advice. 

Pulling on your inside rein in isolation will not turn your horse. It will only serve to turn his head, creating too much neck bend, misaligning his body, putting him on the forehand, and causing him to fall out through his outside shoulder. 

too much neck bend circles dressage

To BEND your horse correctly around circles, you must use all your aids as set out above. 

Ironically, out of all of your aids (reins, legs, seat, weight, and body positioning), your inside rein is the one you use the least. 

Mistake 6 – Dilling the horse

Although circles are a fundamental dressage movement that should be ridden in every schooling session, you should not drill your horse on them consistently; by this, we mean constantly riding the horse on the same sized circle, in the same pace, going around and around and around. 

As mentioned, circles require a lot of suppleness, balance, core strength, and control from your horse, especially smaller circles. Drilling them non-stop will only cause your horse to fatigue and the quality of the circle reduce. 

Instead, ride frequent circles of different sizes and combine them with changes of rein, transitions, spirals, and stretches. 

The quality of your circle is much more important than the number of revolutions. 

In conclusion

Circles are a fundamental movement that are included in every training session from day one and form part of every dressage test. 

Although they are often overlooked, the ability to ride high-quality and correct circles is fundamental to your training and progression. 

Start by choosing the correct circle size and knowing the dimensions of your arena. Next, ensure that you prepare your horse for the movement, use all your bending aids correctly, maintain the rhythm and impulsion, and ride out of the circle smoothly. 

You should pay as much attention to your circles as you would other, seemingly more difficult, movements. 

Related Reads:

Leave a comment...

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

There's more where that came from...

Check out our selection of related articles. 

How to Ride Good Corners
How to Ride Half-Steps
How to Ride a 15-Meter Circle
How to Ride Medium Canter
How to Ride a Half-Halt
How to Ride a Good Canter-Walk Transition