Circles, circles, circles… Dressage seems to be completely obsessed with the circle. Yet that is the figure that frustrates more riders than perhaps any other.
Why is the circle so important?
The main thing it does is develop the bend of the horse, stretching the tight side and strengthening the weak side. The inside hind leg has to carry more weight on the curve, and the outside hind leg has to push harder to make the turn. The smaller the circle, the more potent these effects. There is more, but this is the basic idea.
So why do people struggle?
Most people struggle with the geometry itself. I find the main reason is that people don’t really know where the circle is supposed to be. This manifests in what I call the “squircle.” The 20m circle is where most problems show up and where they can also be solved. People also worry about whether their horse is “round” or bent correctly, so they sacrifice accuracy for those other things. This kind of “micromanaging” gets to be frustrating for horse and rider.
How do we fix it?
The key to knowing where the circle should be is knowing the four quarter points of the circle. When making the circle at A or C, it touches the longsides 10m from the corner and crosses the centerline another 10m further from there. The challenge is the arena letters aren’t at those points.
So what do we do? The first logical step is to look at where the circle touches in relation to the letters. The corner letters are 6m away from the shortside, so you’ll want to touch the longside 4m away from those letters. If you’re in a 20m x 40m arena, you’ll cross centerline between B and E (on X). In the regulation arena, however, the next letters are 18m from the shortside, so you need to pass those letters by 2m. You can easily take a measuring tape and set up cones to mark these points and practice with those until you can visualize it without cones. If you circle at any of the letters on the wall in a regulation arena, you want to stay 2m short of the next letters where you cross centerline. Here’s a visual to see how that works.
Most of the time, knowing the quarter points is enough to fix the circle, but what follows next is a way to really perfect it, both inside and outside the arena.
But what if you don’t have a measured arena?
The Old Masters used to measure their circles by counting strides. Every quarter of the circle should have the same number of strides. The key is that at each quarter, you are “straight.” This is most easily seen in an arena, where at each quarter you’re parallel to one wall or another. You also want to make sure your circle begins and ends at the same point. If you can master this, you can ride a circle anywhere of any size, from 30m to 6m. Play with different sizes just based on counting strides to build proficiency. Eventually, you’ll automatically be able to ride a circle of any size you choose. As you get to know your horse and how big the strides are, you’ll know how many strides they take for a given circle size.
Keep in mind that the smallest circle a horse can make is 12 strides. The measured size of this will change as your horse gets more collected and flexible, but don’t force it.
So what about roundness and bend?
In my experience, most of the time, that fixes itself. If you sacrifice the accuracy for roundness and bend, you’ll find yourself in a vicious cycle. Instead, let the circle exercise the horse for you. You can take your accuracy a step further and make sure the horse is tracking straight. Look for the outside hind leg to track into the print of the outside front. The bend will sort itself out, and as the horse relaxes into the exercise, so will the roundness.
If you use these techniques, your circles will become as easy as they appear to be. Knowing where your quarter points should be is an excellent first step. After that, or in case you have no arena, count your strides. If you really want to test your skill, ride multiple circles in a freshly dragged arena. Try to make your track around the circle as narrow as possible. You’ll find that you’ll be able to ride a circle of any size, anywhere, with precision and ease.