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Saturday, 23 July 2011

It's not the Shape, it's What you do With it

Do you think your horse is bored with going round and round in circles? Perhaps he is. The circle is after all the most obvious shape to use in the school. But have you ever considered it might not be the shape you’re using but what you’re doing with it?

Circles come in all sizes and because of that they can be ridden anywhere in the school. Be inventive! You can ride endless circles round the school without even touching the track. Repetition only becomes boring if it’s not variable. How can you repeat something that’s variable? Try this -

Ride a 20m circle at E/B. It’s the best place for schooling because without the fence to help him your horse will have to pay attention to your aids.

The aim of the exercise is to ride a 10-15m circle at each of the four points of the 20m circle. (B, E and the points where you cross the centre line) The size of circle is dependant on your horse’s experience. Use any pace but for this post assume trot.

The beauty of this exercise is the ability to repeat it. Don’t dismiss it and think your horse will soon switch off. You can still change it. You can ride it in all three paces for a start. So although you’re sticking to the same basic pattern you can swap between paces, throw in a direct transition or two when you feel like it and even peel off and go large.

Repetition has a calming effect on sharp horses. Even the most highly strung will settle once he knows what’s coming. 10m circles make all horses use their back muscles too. Once your horse starts to move his muscles he’ll start to relax his back. Once he’s relaxed you can start to work on other things.

If your horse is less than lively the 10m circle can still work in your favour. The tight curve of the circle means he’ll have to use his hocks to stay upright. It may not turn him into an Olympic hopeful but when you go large it will improve his energy.

If your horse likes to lean you’ll probably find he gets lower and lower the more circles you ride. Don’t let him! If he’s managing to get his head between his knees or his nose to the floor your reins are too long. Stick your thumbs down hard on top of your reins and don’t let them slip. Now the rest of your fingers are free to move on the reins. Do that and he can’t lean. He can only lean on something if it’s solid.

Establish your 20m circle first. Make sure your horse is moving forwards. Small circles need energy. He’ll have to sit back on his hocks so he can balance. If you’re struggling to keep him going at this stage tap him up with the whip or go large and have a canter to liven things up.

Ride forward from both legs to create energy but be ready with your outside leg if your horse drifts off the line you’re riding to. Use your heel to correct him in its usual place. Your outside leg should only be used behind the girth to correct him if his quarters are swinging out or when you’re asking for canter or quarters in.

Add one 10m circle at a time. Start with one at E/B. Here you have the track and the centre line to guide you. (With a novice horse ride 15m and take it to the ¾ line) Ride forward as you turn onto the new circle. Turn your head and upper body in line with the curve of the circle. Your horse will feel your weight change and do the same.

Your hands are crucial to your horse’s softness, straightness and balance. Keep them up in front of you, level and maintain an even contact in both reins. Your hands control his shoulders. Lose the contact on one rein and you lose control of that shoulder. You allow him to fall in or fall out. Keeping your hands together keeps his shoulders together as one unit.

Never back off a small circle. When you hesitate or take a check you lose energy for that stride. On a small circle that’s enough to tip your horse onto his shoulder. From there he’ll find it impossible to push himself forward and your circle becomes flat. If you feel the urge to interfere use your leg not your hand. You’ll be surprised what a difference it makes.

A common rider error is to draw up the inside leg. Do that and your seat slides to the outside. Your outside hip drops lower than the inside one and your horse will do the same. If his outside hip is lower than the inside one his quarters will swing to the outside. You can try to correct him using your outside leg behind the girth but you’ll only solve this problem by sitting square in the saddle.

As you ride onto or off the 10m circle ride forwards. If your horse drops onto your hand don’t be tempted to lose the contact on one rein. Using one rein causes unevenness in your hands. This will most likely lead to him tipping his nose to one side or falling in or out.

Horses have many reactions and resistances to the things riders do. An exercise like this will draw attention to them. Take time to concentrate on your own position and you’ll soon notice a change in your horse. 

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

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