Q: When riding a circle at a faster gait, I tend to slide to the outside, even when trying hard to step into my inside stirrup. What can I do to make it easier for me to sit centered or keep my inside leg long? —Name withheld by request
A: Balance on a circle is a common problem especially at faster gaits. To understand why you are sliding to the outside, imagine that you are driving your car around a turn. The faster you go around the turn, the more your weight shifts to the outside. The same happens to you when riding on a circle. The faster your horse’s gait on a circle, the more you are pushed toward the outside. Consequently, your inside leg starts to draw up, you lose connection with your inside seat bone and you drop your inside shoulder, collapsing at your waist on the inside. Many riders compensate for this by trying to step more into their inside stirrup and balancing on the inside rein. This, however, causes you to lose connection with your inside seat bone even more, pushing your weight out even farther. You might also rely too much on the inside rein to bend your horse, neglecting your outside aids (rein and leg), which causes your horse to collapse in his body and causes you to slide to the outside. So, to stay more centered when riding on a circle, you need to focus on the stability of your midsection and how well your outside aids are working. Here are three things to try:
1. Empower your midsection. Use an exercise ball to practice how to stabilize your seat. While sitting on the ball, use your seat to push it to one side. Notice how you collapse your waist as you push the ball out from under you. Now try it again, but this time activate your outside seat bone and your outside thigh. Think about kneeling over your inside knee, shifting both your seat bones in that direction. Your inside seat bone is activated, but your outside one keeps you balanced. Because of this, the outside seat bone is almost more important than the inside one.
Next, imagine applying this principle to your riding. When riding on a circle, slightly shift both seat bones toward the inside of the circle (again activating your outside seat bone and your outside thigh and thinking about kneeling over your inside knee), keeping your core and back muscles active to prevent you from collapsing. If your core isn’t strong, you will compensate with your upper body or legs, which will only make things worse.
2. Forget about the bend—for now. Many times I will see a rider who unknowingly disengages her outside aids when bending her horse. She simply uses the inside rein to create bend but doesn’t balance that with her outside rein. The horse might go on a bent line, sometimes even quite harmoniously, but is usually collapsed in the bend (just like the rider). So try not to worry about bend for now. Let’s first get the horse straight and aligned underneath you by keeping his neck right between his shoulders. We will add bend later.
3. Ride a square. You can turn your horse without bend by riding squares, one turn at a time. Think of turning your horse from the outside, not the inside. Also, think of turning your horse from your seat bones and legs, not from the reins. Remember from our ball exercise, you need to activate both seat bones to make a balanced turn.
Look between your horse’s ears or even at his outside ear. If you turn your head too much to the inside, you may allow your outside shoulder to come forward too much. This causes you to lose the influence of your outside rein, leg and seat bone. You want to turn your horse from the outside aids by shifting your seat slightly to the inside and closing your outside upper leg at the same time. Make sure to activate your back muscles that are on the outside of the square from shoulder to hip to prevent you from collapsing to the inside. Make continual adjustments with your seat and outside leg in rhythm with the horse.
Start riding squares at the walk. Then add more and more turns to the figure until you have a circle.
Once you have mastered this at the walk, progress to the trot and canter. Use your seat and outside leg just as at the walk, but ride your circles with six corners, then with eight corners and so on. Eventually, you will be riding a balanced circle every stride.
When you have developed a feel for this exercise, you will realize that you are now starting to have your horse “on your seat bones,”—riding your horse off your seat. When you have mastered the connection from your seat, it will feel equal on both seat bones and you will not slide to the outside anymore when riding on a circle. If you are truly connected to your horse with your seat bones, you will be able to flex him independently, regardless of the direction of movement. And you will also understand that a correct bend cannot happen unless you have your horse on your outside rein and leg.
Keep in mind that you can use the half halt as often as necessary. If you feel something is missing, such as balance, or you lose the tempo, half halt. When you have connected your horse to your seat bones, the half halts become smaller and smaller.
Now you are ready to add bend. After all, a circle is supposed to be ridden on a bent line. If you have mastered your balance and the turning, you will be able to bend your horse without losing the outside of his body and you will easily remain centered.
Claudia Coley developed her passion for dressage in her home country of Germany. Since moving to the United States, she has earned her USDF bronze, silver and gold medals. She is a USDF “L” Education Program graduate with distinction and certified through Second Level. She resides in Walnut Grove, Missouri.