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How to Use Circles in Dressage Training

dressage circles


Circles of different sizes form a major part of all dressage tests from the basic training level right through to the more advanced levels.

So, it follows that circles should form a big part of your daily training regimen.

In this guide, we take a look at the benefits of circles and how you can maximize their effectiveness in your dressage training.

What is the judge looking for?

When judging a circle during a dressage test, the judge is looking for the following;

All those elements demonstrate to the judge that the horse is being schooling correctly in line with the dressage Scales of Training.

In order for the circle to be the correct size and placed at the correct marker, your horse must be supple enough to bend uniformly around your leg, remaining on one single track as he follows the line of the circle.

The horse must be able to remain balanced and connected through his back to the contact so that he maintains the correct rhythm and frame without losing impulsion and dropping onto his forehand or coming above the bit.

Related Read: How to Ride a Good Circle

Why circles?

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

When ridden correctly, circles provide the following benefits:

  • Improve the horse’s suppleness
  • Help strengthen the horse’s hindquarters
  • Encourage the horse’s inside hind leg to step further underneath (engagement)
  • Help to get the horse working into the outside rein
  • Improves the horse’s balance
  • Helps to keep the horse focussed and attentive to your aids
  • Allows the rider to assess the horse’s responsiveness to the leg, seat, rein, and body positioning aids.
  • Helps to slow down an eager horse and control the tempo of the pace.

Circles can be ridden in all the basic paces and can therefore provide you with a variety of additional training movements such as transitions on a circle, changing the rein out of a circle, spirals, etc.

Circle sizes

In training, theoretically, circles can be ridden at any size the horse is capable of.

During competition, the standard circle sizes are 20-meters, 15-meters, 10-meters, 8-meters, and 6-meters.

The smaller the circle diameter, the more difficult it is for the horse. Where 20-meter circles can be ridden on novice horses at the beginning of their career, 6-meter circles 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 the horse’s muscles warm up and loosen before progressing to smaller circles and tighter turns.

How to start with circles

A young horse or one that’s making a career change, for example, an ex-racer, should always begin working on large circles no smaller than 20-meters in diameter. A 25-meter or 30-meter circle is even better should your working arena be large enough.

Initially, you can begin training on the lunge, as inexperienced horses always find circles easier to manage on the lunge line without the handicap of a rider’s weight on their back. 

Ride large circles in the walk, trot, and canter, equally on both reins. Concentrate on keeping the horse working forward in a good rhythm and with a uniform bend to the inside of the circle.

The horse must remain on one track without swinging his quarters to the outside, crossing his hind legs over, or falling out through his shoulder.

Related Read: How to Ride a Good Circle

Note that riding too many straight lines with a young horse will only encourage him to run onto his forehand, whereas large circles will help to control his balance and tempo.

How to progress with circles

Once the horse is confident on a large circle, you can increase the degree of difficulty by making your circles slightly smaller.

Concentrate on maintaining the rhythm, suppleness, contact, impulsion, bend, and balance. Don’t sacrifice the quality of the pace to try to ride a smaller circle. If the horse begins to lose any of those essential qualities, make the circle larger again. 

Eventually, you want to be able to ride the smaller circles with the same quality of movement as your larger circles. This is a gradual progression that will take time; your horse needs to build strength, improve its balance, and increase its flexibility. It will not happen overnight.

Where to ride circles

The difficultly of a circle is not only depicted by its size, but also on the location in which it is ridden.

For example, a 10-meter circle ridden at A is much easier than a 10-meter circle ridden in the center of the arena around X. This is because the circle at A is easier to place since you are able to use a small part of the outside track to help maintain its accuracy.

So, once your horse can comfortably perform a circle of a certain size, you can increase the difficulty slightly by riding the circle in more challenging locations. This is a great way to up the ante without overburdening the horse.

Accuracy

It can be very easy to think that you’re riding a 15-meter circle when, in truth, the circle is actually 18-meters in diameter! To get the most benefit from riding circles (and good marks in your dressage tests), you must make the figures accurate.

Related Read: How to Improve Your Dressage Test Accuracy

Make sure that you understand the dimensions of the arena so that you can make your circles accurate. For example, the arena is 20 meters wide, so a 10-meter circle or a 10-meter half-circle ridden from the track must touch the centerline.

Before you begin riding, measure out your schooling area properly, especially if you’re schooling your horse in a field, and ensure that the letters are in the correct place. 

Related Read: How to Accurately Set up a Dressage Arena

Now, practice riding circles of different sizes in precise places in the arena, just as you would in a dressage test.

If you struggle to maintain accuracy along with all the other necessary qualities we covered earlier, then the circle is probably too small for the horse’s current capabilities. Make the circle larger until the horse’s suppleness and balance improve.

Linking circles together

Circles and half-circles of various sizes can be linked together to create schooling patterns such as serpentines and figures of eight.

These patterns and changes of bend help you to coordinate your rein, leg, and seat aids, encourage you to ride more accurately, and helps to keep things interesting for your horse.

Circle exercises

Here are some ideas for exercises using circles that you can use to develop your horse’s way of going.

Exercise 1 – Three-in-one

This exercise can be ridden at A, B, E, or C and in a walk, trot, or canter, depending on your horse’s stage of training.

Step 1

Ride a 20-meter circle at your chosen marker and at the pace of your choice, for example, at A in working trot.

Step 2

As you return to A, commence a 15-meter circle.

Step 3

On returning to A, ride a 10-meter circle.

All three circles must be accurate and of the correct size and shape, centered precisely at A.

Progression variation 1

Repeat the exercise, but each time you approach A ride a transition to walk. Walk for 3-4 steps before proceeding in the pace of your choice.

Progression variation 2

Ride the circles again, this time riding the 20-meter circle in medium trot, the 15-meter circle in working trot, and the 10-meter circle in collected trot.

Exercise 2 – Spirals

This exercise is designed to ensure that the horse is listening to your outside aids and it’s also useful for developing both lateral suppleness and longitudinal suppleness.

Begin riding the exercise in the walk, moving on to ride it in a working trot once your horse gets the hang of things.

Step 1

Ride a 20-meter circle at A, B, E, or C in a medium walk. Make sure that the steps are active and that the horse is working forward into the bridle.

Step 2

Gradually, leg-yield inward to make the circle smaller. Once you get to 15-meters, ride one complete circle.

Step 3

On returning to your starting point, leg-yield in again so that the circle is now 10-meters in diameter. Ride a complete 10-meter circle. 

Step 4

Leg-yield out again until the circle is 20 meters in diameter.

Note: Make sure that the horse is clearly leg-yielding to your aids and not simply falling in or falling out on the circle.

Exercise 3 – Serpentines and circles

Depending on how advanced the horse’s schooling is, this exercise can be ridden in all three paces. 

When riding the serpentine in canter, you can either ride the second loop in counter-canter, ride simple changes each time you cross the centerline, or ride flying changes when crossing the centerline.

Step 1

In a working trot, commence a three-loop serpentine from C on the left rein. 

When crossing the centerline for the first time, ride a 10-meter circle to the left before continuing with the serpentine.

Step 2

Continue to ride the second loop.

As you cross the centerline for the second time, ride another 10-meter circle to the left before continuing with the serpentine.

Step 3

Complete the final loop of the serpentine, finishing at A on the left rein.

In conclusion

Circles are used in dressage training to develop suppleness, engagement, balance, and throughness.

Concentrate on riding your circles accurately to get the maximum benefit from the exercises, and always have the requirements of the dressage Scales of Training uppermost in your mind. If any of the scales begin to fail, go back a step to reestablish them. 

For example, if you ride a 10-meter circle and the horse loses his rhythm and swings his quarters out, make the circle larger. Ride forward to correct the rhythm, and focus on using your outside aids to keep the horse working on a single track. You can make the circle smaller again as your horse’s balance and suppleness improve.

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