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How to Ride Spiral Exercises

spiral exercise dressage

Although it’s not a required movement that’s included in dressage tests, the spiral exercise is an extremely useful and versatile training tool that you can use in your daily schooling sessions.

In this guide, you will learn the benefits and variations of the spiral exercise for the dressage horse, as well as how to ride it.

What is the spiral exercise?

spiral exercise dressage diagram

Basically, the spiral exercise involves riding a large circle, gradually spiraling inwards onto a smaller circle and then spiraling out onto the large circle again.

Where to ride it?

The spiral exercise is usually ridden around a central point, such as X (shown in grey), but can also be ridden at the A or C end of the arena (shown in black).

What sized circles?

The exercise usually involves starting on a 20-meter circle and spiraling down to a 10-meter circle, but you can amend the circle sizes to suit your horse’s current level of training.

For example, if a 10-meter circle is currently too small for your horse to be able to maintain his balance, bend, and rhythm, then you can spiral down to a 15-meter circle. Conversely, if your horse is more advanced, you can spiral down to an 8-meter circle.

What pace?

Depending on your horse’s level of training and the degree of engagement and suppleness he can achieve, you can ride the spiral exercise in the walk, trot, or canter.

What variations?

  1. You can spiral in and out on the circle in the usual expected manner.
  2. You can leg-yield in from the larger circle to the smaller circle and back again.
  3. You can ride shoulder-in on the circles.
  4. You can ride the exercise whilst allowing the horse to stretch on a long rein.
  5. You can ride transitions on the circles. For example, medium canter on the larger circle and collected canter on the smaller circle, or working trot on the larger circle and walk on the smaller circle.
  6. A combination of the above. For example, medium trot on the larger circle, leg-yield into the smaller circle in working trot, transition to walk for the 10-meter circle, then transition back into trot and leg-yield back out onto the large circle whilst allowing the horse to stretch on a long rein.

What are the benefits of the spiral exercise?

Riding spiral exercises has several benefits for the dressage horse, whether training a youngster, re-schooling an older horse, or improving collection in a Grand Prix animal. 

Those benefits include the following:

  • Improves your horse’s lateral suppleness. (Side-to-side bending suppleness)
  • Improves your horse’s engagement and collection. (Balance)
  • Improves your horse’s connection from his hind legs into the contact. (Throughness)
  • Improves the horse’s strength and carrying power.
  • Helps to get your horse securely in the outside rein.
  • Helps the rider to execute transitions within the pace e.g., lengthening on the large circle and collecting on the smaller circle.
  • Can help to control the tempo of a horse that is rushing or going too quick.
  • Improves the rider’s co-ordination and use of the bending aids.
  • Acts as a beginner builder-block for the more advanced movement of pirouettes.

How to ride spiral exercises

The aids for bend

Since this exercise involves riding circles, it’s important that you can aid your horse correctly and control his bend, because, without the correct bend, you will not get the above benefits of the exercise.

So, here’s a quick recap:

  • Your inside leg asks for bend through the horse’s body and maintains the impulsion.
  • Your outside leg guards your horse hindquarters.
  • Your outside rein controls the degree of neck bend, controls your horse’s outside shoulder, and manages the tempo (speed) of the rhythm.
  • Your inside rein indicates the direction of bend and asks for a little inside flexion.

At the same time, your weight should be in your inside seat bone and stirrup (but do not lean inwards), your shoulders should match the angle of your horse’s shoulders and your hips should match your horse’s hips, and you should always be looking ahead around your circle.

Your goal is to have the horse uniformly bend through his whole body with his spine following the circle line that you are negotiating.

How to spiral in and out in the usual manner (not leg-yielding)

The smaller the circle diameter, the more bend is required. The larger the circle diameter, the less bend is required.

Therefore, to decrease the size of the circle evenly, you need to gradually increase the amount of bend you require from your horse. The more bend your horse produces, the smaller the circle size will be.

You increase the degree of bend by asking the horse for a little more inside flexion, whilst turning your upper body more to meet your new circle line, shifting slightly more weight into your inside bone, and using your inside leg to ask the horse to bend more through his body, whilst prevents his quarters from drifting off the circle line with your outside leg.

To increase the circle size, you do exactly the same, but in reverse. So you reduce the degree of bend gradually and evenly in order to increase the circle size.

Tips and troubleshooting when riding spirals

Tip #1

At all times, you need to keep control of the outside of the horse’s body and have a connection between your inside leg and the outside rein.

Maintain the feeling that the horse’s inside hind leg is stepping through into your outside rein.

If you don’t keep this connection, the horse will either lose the correct bend and fall inward, or he will curl around your inside leg and lose any engagement of his inside hind leg.

Tip #2

It’s crucial that the horse is clearly increasing and decreasing his bend and isn’t drifting and leaning from one circle to the other.

If that happens, the connection is not established, the horse avoids having to engage his inside hind leg, and the suppling benefits of the exercise are lost.

Tip #3

Don’t spiral in and out too quickly, as that will unbalance the horse, and you’ll lose the benefits of the exercise. Instead, imagine that the ground around the outside of your circle is slowly crumbling, so you must keep gradually moving inward onto a smaller circle and safe ground.

If the horse tries to take over, then stop the spiral and just ride a constant circle to prevent the horse from anticipating before continuing on with the exercise.

Tip #4

Be sure that you keep the exact same rhythm and tempo when riding both the outward and inward spirals. 

Do not allow the energy to die! If the horse is not going forward, he can’t use his hindquarters properly. That usually leads to a loss of engagement and uphill balance since the pushing power of the hind legs is lost.

Tip #5

Remember to ride the spirals equally in both directions and intersperse the exercise with going large around the arena, giving the horse frequent stretching breaks, and riding other movements that the horse can do well.

In conclusion

Spirals are a gymnastic exercise that can be used in your regular daily schooling to improve your horse’s suppleness, connection, engagement, and collection.

Start by riding the basic spiral exercise from a larger circle to a smaller circle and back again. Once you and your horse have mastered this, you can then try out the other spiral variations such as leg-yielding, shoulder-in, and transitions.

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