To complete my discussion of the circle, I will focus on some solutions to problems I originally described. It is very important to note that the horse’s “laterality“ or “handedness” plays a HUGE role in finding solution. In short, we must teach the horse to be straight, and this means even on a circle. To quote Ulrick Schramm (The Undisciplined Horse), “crookedness is an everlasting curse. Even a very accomplished horse will evidence at times some degree of one-sidedness and this has to be corrected repeatedly by the limbering exercises on circles and two tracks” So let’s discuss those limbering exercises.
Reactions (or resistances) by the horse are nearly always related to his desire to balance himself, and when he begins a circle his lateral tendencies will magnify themselves. He will cross a hind leg and lean, he will drift out, speed up or try to avoid consistent contact. Therefore, the rider’s work is to teach the horse to relax and become supple through his body, not just his neck, in order to maintain, or regain, his balance.
Following are some exercises to be performed on a circle to develop this suppleness. (Here I assume the horse has learned to respond to the basic leg, seat and rein aids, and can perform a shoulder-fore and haunches-in on straight lines.)
- first, for purposes of perspective, mark a circle of 10 to 15 meters, making a clearly visible track.
- attempt to walk the circle keeping the horse, as well as possible, on the track. Review the hoof marks afterwards, and of course perform this effort in both directions.
- attempt a shoulder-fore on the circle (first renew your clean track). Remember, the shoulders move slightly off the track with the haunches on the track. This is really more difficult than it seems and only a truly supple horse can accomplish this and leave “correct” tracks (not wobbling or shifting or stepping wide).
- attempt a haunches-in, maintaining the front end on the track and without any leg crossing. Maintain the neck parallel to the shape of the circle (this will require a supple and soft activity of the reins, not holding or forcing the position of the neck).
- finally, attempt a counter shoulder-in on the circle. This movement, done correctly, really serves to loosen and supple the shoulders. It is not easy and can take sometimes weeks to accomplish with some horses. Be patient and do not expect good results on the first attempts. The horse has to learn how to move his body this way, and any forcing of the process will be counterproductive.
Once you can perform these exercises quite easily your ability to perform even the smallest volte will result in a straighter, more rhythmical and active horse , as he will be able to maintain his balance. As General DeCarpentry noted in his book, Academic Equitation, “there is no better procedure than bending work on the circle……..to obtain and to develop the lateral suppleness of the back–which determines suppleness in the vertical plane”.
Once good results can be obtained from the exercises described above, you can then begin to manage your bend on turns and circles with the use of your outside aids, and not just a bend in the neck from the inside rein. You can begin your circle by guiding gently the haunches to the new direction, and then maintain control of the shoulders with your outside rein. You are also able to support the horse with your outside aids to prevent the falling in on the circle without the horse stiffening and losing balance.
When the horse learns to performs these exercises on circles, not only will his circle work improve, but his laterality becomes much less of an issue in later movements because of his “learned” flexibility in both directions. And as an added bonus, you horse will very likely stay sound longer.