The Spiraling Circle as a Suppling Exercise for Your Dressage Horse

Becky Langwost-Barlow explains the nuances of the spiral circle as compared to the half pass.

Q: What is the difference between spiraling out on a circle and half pass? My instructor told me to ride spiraling circles at walk and trot to supple my horse, which puzzled me since I always thought this exercise required as much collection as half pass. My horse and I are schooling Second Level. How do I teach him a correct spiraling circle? Is it better to do it at the trot or walk? —Lori Snyder of Henderson, Nevada

A: You have actually asked for quite a bit of information and I will answer by breaking up your question into specific sections:

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Used by itself, the spiraling circle is a suppling exercise, not a collection exercise. It enables you to determine if you are able to yield your horse to a larger circle while maintaining the correct bend. It encourages your horse to yield his body from your inside leg, stretching forward to the connection of your outside rein, and makes him more responsive to your leg aid. Only a supple horse will be able to correctly develop the ability to respond to your aids in a relaxed but active manner. In a spiraling-out circle, the weight of the horse is not necessarily shifted back toward the hindquarters; the inside hind leg is encouraged to step more under the horse’s body while he is being ridden out to the larger circle.

The half pass is a variation of the travers and specifically a movement in collection. The definition of “collection” is increased engagement by shifting the horse’s weight to the hindquarters. As this occurs, the hindquarters lower, the contact softens and the horse becomes more rideable. The shoulders become easier to maneuver and the tempo and cadence are more and more influenced by the rider’s aids (through half halts). To introduce collection, it’s best to use lateral movements such as shoulder-in and travers. I use these exercises a lot to develop more expression and ground cover. However, riding these movements presupposes that your abilities enable you to perform them correctly with the desired results.

Increasing then decreasing the size of the circle is an excellent exercise to develop the increased engagement of the hind leg. It combines the need for suppleness with aspects of collection. It is also a great way for you to feel a correctly bent horse. With your instructor watching you, he can make sure that you are bending your horse so his body follows the curvature of the circle you are riding. Since the goal is to develop more loading of the hindquarters, you must make sure that the haunches don’t fall to the inside of the circle. Your inside leg must keep the haunches traveling forward actively, encouraging contact with the outside rein. Likewise, your horse should not push out his haunches away from the circle. Your outside leg must always be ready to drive the horse’s outside hind leg more under his body and in the direction of travel. If you allow your horse to let his haunches fall in or out, not remaining on one track with the front legs, you allow him to throw his weight onto the forehand, which defeats the purpose of the exercise.

To help my students develop awareness for keeping the horse stepping straight on a circle line, I like to put out cones at the 20-, 15- and 10-meter marks with another cone at the center of the circle. I then ask the rider to ride the circles at the walk. Things happen slower at the walk, and the rider has more time to think about what is going on underneath her. Does the horse slow down as the circle gets smaller? If so, I have the rider activate the steps, sitting deeper in the saddle, trying to have her feel the footfalls of the hind legs. When this happens, I try to get her to give a little kick a bit quicker than the horse’s steps. This gives the rider the ability to feel the horse respond, stepping more forward into the contact. Generally speaking, the rider’s inside leg controls the horse’s inside leg; the rider’s outside leg controls the outside of the horse. Used together, they send the horse more forward. Does he try to cheat—pushing his haunches to the inside—or does he swing them out? Can you soften the tension on the inside rein yet keep the circle accurate? Can you feel the footfalls of each hind leg and determine when to add more inside leg or outside leg? Can you add a little activity to the horse’s steps and still control the accuracy of the circle?

Once I see the rider is getting comfortable with the exercise, I repeat the procedure in the trot. Things happen faster now, so I will keep the rider on a particular-sized circle until she can maintain the circle without any resistance from the horse or change of rhythm or speed.

I make sure that the rider is sitting up, staying vertical over the horse, not leaning in or allowing the horse to push her seat out, away from the direction of travel. In order to influence the horse correctly, you must be aware that your shoulders are over your hips at all times. Your inside heel is weighted, but you also have control of your outside leg—it is down and slightly back. You are sitting on both seat bones, your eyes looking up over the ears of your horse.

Although I don’t set up the cones for myself (but I have many times in the past), I train the circle decrease by essentially riding through the circles in the same way I just described. The difference, though, is that I will vary the positioning of my horse on the circle. I will ask for shoulder-fore for half a circle, encouraging more engagement of the inside hind leg, then straighten. I will then bring the circle to 15 meters and repeat, then 10 meters. As the circle gets smaller, I will think about keeping the cadence and forward desire, encouraging some expression from the horse. I will then work my way back out and let the horse stretch down, taking the pressure off.

I will then repeat the exercise with slight—emphasizing “slight”—haunches-in. It is imperative that I don’t lose control of the haunches to the inside. If I feel any change in rhythm or speed, I immediately bring the horse straight on the circle again. This is quite a difficult exercise to do well, and just a few steps to the inside is better than too many. However, it is a great way for you to learn to ride the outside leg, into the direction of travel while maintaining the bend with the inside leg developing collection. Always start with a good forward, steady trot. If your horse offers too much sideways, leave it and again focus on shoulder-fore. You want the horse to stay balanced in front of both legs at all times.

If you are a lower-level rider, being able to bring the shoulders of the horse to the inside of a 20-meter circle, and then, after reestablishing straightness, bringing the haunches slightly to the inside of the same circle, is a great precursor to decreasing the circle. As you become more aware of your ability to control the hindquarters of the horse, you can use the tools learned to ride the half pass.






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