Problem Solving – Circles

While it seems to be a simple exercise, there are many elements to making a circle.  These are basic to the progression towards other exercises.  Developed incorrectly however circle work will reveal the complexities of training as problems will develop later which  require seemingly more complicated solutions.

As we all know, the basic elements of a circle include:

  • Shape – Round, oval or distorted
  • Size – from 20 meters to 8 meters
  • Tracking and attitude – straight, leaning or leg crossing

Normally in dressage competition and training, as well as flat work in most disciplines, the young horse performs large circles beginning at 20 to 15 meters.  What do we hope to accomplish on these larger circles?  Basically to teach the horse to bend and find and maintain his balance while bending.  So what is a proper bend?

As we hear repeatedly, the horse “bends” through his entire body, not just the neck.  However, when we review video or pictures of most horses turning or on circles they reveal the following:

  • there is a slight (to gross) incurvation of the head and neck
  • the inside hind leg very often crosses under the horse, reaching to the outside foreleg
  • the outside fore often swings slightly (or glaringly) outside the circle
  • the rider’s stirrups may appear uneven
  • the horse appears to lean somewhat to the inside, taking the rider with him (forming a cone shape, rather than a cylinder if viewed from above)

The above description is extremely common, but indicates problems, which if not solved, will have a negative impact on the quality of more advanced work.  WHAT and WHY?

These factors indicate that the horse is not “straight on a circle“.  This sounds contradictory but is not.  In fact, a horse should track straight when   bending.  That is to say, left hind to left fore, and right hind to right fore, on a turn and throughout a circle.  The bend has nothing to do with tracking.  The bend actually comes from a rotation at the sacro-lumbar junction and at a point just in front of your saddle at the thoracic.  If the neck has not been disconnected from the withers (as many times happens when riders try to “supple” the neck) then the incurvation continues through the neck.  As a result of this correct bending your turns and circles will show:

  • “Straight” tracking (straight tail also)              
  • Even Stirrups with an upright horse and rider   
  • Fluidity in the rhythm
When this can be achieved in both directions and on all size circles, the horse can be said to be “supple”.    As a result, a round  circle is possible, as opposed to the cone shape mentioned above.   (Note: While nothing is ever perfect, in this photo, the inside hind tracks to inside fore, and outside fore does not swing outward, therefore “relatively straight” on a circle.)

Always remember, as you decrease the size of your circle, you increase the level of difficulty for your horse.  So when resistances occur at 12, 10 or 8 meters, go large and re-establish balance and suppleness (straightness) and try again.  (For more detailed information on the subject of straightness and suppleness, check

NEXT:  Now that we have discussed “circle criteria”  we can move on to exploring various problems with their possible solutions in my next post.  Not  surprisingly, “handedness” or laterality and its effects will dominate this analysis.