To ride a circle, which is different than just going around and around, is difficult but it can be done with diligent practice. To ride a geometrically round circle you must stay at an equal distance from a fixed center point all the way around with an even bend of the horse from nose to tail matching up with the curvature of the circle and with its hind feet tracking into the marks made with its front feet. You must finish the circle in exactly the same spot on the circle that you started from. It is a movement which will begin to teach the horse to learn to contract one side of its body while stretching the other side of its body.

The difficulty in riding a correct circle is that the horse will have an inclination to step with its front end more into the circle or step more to the outside of the circle or conversely, move its haunches in or out of the line of the circle by not stepping into the tracks of the front feet.

All of these evasions must be corrected through the rider’s use of all the aids, meaning hands, legs, torso shifting and weighing the stirrups as needed, in order to provide boundaries for the horse to move within. It is not so much telling the horse, “don’t do that, do this”, which is a negative after the fact reaction; but rather schooling the horse to work within the rider’s given aids which will give him limits that he must not transgress. This presupposes that the horse is immediately responsive to the aids so that with only slight touches we can move any part of the horse to where we want it to be.

Here is an example of the complexities involved in the coordination of the aids in, let’s say, riding a circle to the left:

  1. Your weight almost instantly comes into play in that you must slightly advance your right shoulder to keep you facing in the correct direction. Also, make sure that you are not inadvertently leaning to the left.
  2. Your left leg, in its normal place, is the one that drives the horse forward. This is the leg that the horse will bend around.
  3. Your right leg, placed slightly back from its normal position, keeps the hindquarters on track and prevents them from stepping to the right and off the track of the circle.
  4. Your left hand, using a slight 4th rein effect (also called the ‘shoulder’ rein), flexes the neck just sufficiently to bend the whole horse so that he follows the curvature of the circle. The horse’s head should be placed in line with its inside knee – no further. Using this ‘shoulder’ rein also keeps the horse from tending to lean into the circle.
  5. Your right hand must yield when you begin the circle so that the left hand can act without interference and, if needed, must regulate the action of the left hand when the horse’s flexion becomes too great. The outside of the horse’s neck should ‘fill’ this rein.
  6. Also, the hands must control the speed so the horse does not fall on the forehand but stays in proper balance.
  7. And these are but the basic elements that go into riding a correct circle as minor adjustments will be necessary depending on what you ‘feel’.

The rider must set up and preserve a uniform bend when riding circles. The most commonly committed error is for the horse to have an excessive bend at the neck (from too much use of the inside rein) and not enough bend throughout its body.

The conversation between the horse and rider will be continuous throughout the circle and subtle. To gauge the accuracy of your circle use a simple garden rake (about 14 inches wide). You should be able to erase the horse’s tracks when you are finished riding the circle.

To make the circle smaller, hold the same arc of the horse that you are riding (no hand movement) and drive the horse forward using only your outside leg behind the 14th Thoracic Vertebra. The “driving” leg should be used much like a windshield wiper, moving back and forth rather than pushing in on the horse’s side and should be timed with the horse’s planting of its outside foot on the ground under the mass of its body. You will be able to feel this because the horse’s outside hip will be in a raised or upright position. This synchronization will provide more thrust from the horse and will give him more power which will move him onto a smaller circle.

Eventually the horse will turn on its hind quarters and his inside pivot foot because the energy going forward will cause the horse’s shoulders to go faster.

Conversely, you can enlarge the circle by using your driving leg to engage the horse’s inside leg when it is off the ground so that it is not carrying any weight. You will use your inside leg behind the 14th Thoracic Vertebra in a ‘pushing’ or ‘touching’ manner when the inside hip of the horse is in a down or ‘falling’ position. The best results will be obtained if you touch and release with your leg with each stride of the horse as opposed to keeping your leg on the horse all the time, which will only dull him to your requests over time. This will allow you to place that leg more under the mass of the horse’s body so it pushes itself slightly forward and sideways.

Once your horse no longer tries to escape the circle to either side, a good exercise is to shift him back and forth between concentric circles from about a 25-foot diameter one to a 35-foot diameter one and back again keeping the bend commensurate with the appropriately sized circle.This exercise is very good for improving the horse’s balance, suppling him, putting him “between the reins” and correcting his tendency to lean either inward on a circle or simply on your leg.

Only after the horse has gone through this preparation and stays on either circle virtually on his own will it become possible to work effectively on one track on an unchanging diameter.

When cantering very small circles or riding a canter pirouette, change your head slightly from, (let’s say, when riding to the left) looking at the base of the horse’s left ear with your right eye to looking at the base of the horse’s right ear with your left ear. Do this when the size of the circle is about the length of a horse (about 8 feet) from a center point (assuming the circle is equal distance all round from that center point).

This will gain 2 strides in the pirouette and will also help the horse retain its balance.

By doing this, it also will move your left Ischium forward and a little to the right which will help the horse hold its shoulder up.

When cantering small circles (20 feet or less) adjust the horse’s shoulders to align with the circle – DO NOT move the horse’s hips in to the circle (like you were doing a travers movement). However, it is well to “think” travers so that you guard with your outside leg to prevent the horse from moving his hindquarters to the outside of the the circle.

When riding trot-canter or canter-trot circles there should be NO ABRUPT movements of the horse in transitioning from one gait to the other. His top-line should remain stable with only his legs changing sequence from gait to gait. For example, when down transitioning from a canter to a trot just ‘soften’ your legs slightly and keep the forward momentum going smoothly with no change of your pelvis. The horse’s back will slightly “close” in down transitions and will slightly “open” in up transitions.

In riding the canter, if the horse’s shoulders go more “up and down” rather than ‘flow’ more in a forward motion, then the horse has no drive and is “hobby-horsing”. A ‘flowing’ shoulder motion signifies forward drive.


In order to achieve a true roundness on a circle, the horse should first be correctly worked on the ground to teach him obedience and to strengthen his muscles for the mounted work to come.

This phase of the horse’s education is called GROUNDWORK as opposed to lunging.

It entails teaching him to do correct circles, of all diameters, using yourself as a fixed center point. The horse must also learn how to walk, trot, and canter both in up and down transitions and to change direction on a circle while retaining his shape on the arc of the circle. Additionally, he should be taught to move his hindquarters around his front end as well as moving his front end around his hindquarters (a more difficult movement). Halting as well as backing (with the horse’s legs moving as a diagonal pair) should be an essential element of your program.

These preliminary movements are necessary on the ground to ensure suppleness and accessibility to the horse’s parts when being ridden. Therefore, the handler himself must learn how to ask the horse to perform these things before mounting him and asking him to do these things with you on his back.


The more ‘bend’ on the horse, the ‘sharper’ the turn will be i.e., he will turn back on himself and you will feel the horse turn under you rather than around you. So, the degree of bend will determine the degree of turn.

Always hold the signal till the horse does what you want him to do. Then quickly release it.

Get the degree of bend in the horse that you want by contracting the horse’s oblique muscles with your lower calf muscles.

In executing tight turns, keep your lower inside leg (from the knee to the heel) straight down and step slightly into the stirrup as well as ‘softening’ it a bit (maybe even take your heel off the horse) to give the horse ‘room’ to turn. Otherwise, if you keep your leg ‘tight’ on the horse it will ‘block’ his shoulder and that will stifle the turn.

Whatever you do, DO NOT push your inside foot forward (which is a hard habit to break once started), as that action will definitely block the horse’s ability to execute the turn.


The mind of a horse works in the diagonal fashion.

It is a big deal to the horse to go from schooling him using two hands (diagonal mind) to using one hand, wherein the signal to the diagonal side of its mind will be very slight.

The horse will be straighter with less bend when it is carrying the bridle.

A more experienced horse in ‘working a cow’ will lead in a turn with its head in a lower position and with its nose rather than with its shoulder as a younger horse does.

Everything you ask the horse to do in the bridle – if you have schooled him to a “10” level in a movement – will be OK. BUT if you only schooled him to a “5” level, it will be a “3” level in the bridle.

The cannon of the bridle does not sit on the bars in a horse’s mouth, it is held by the horse’s tongue.

If you bang the bars of the horse’s mouth with the bit, the horse will always remember it and will not be the same horse – he will always “brace”.

Do not set a pattern when schooling a horse. He will quickly pick up on it and use it against you, i.e., if you only do lead changes then when you want to do something different, but in the same general manner, the horse will do lead changes and not what you asked for. So, mix it up in your work.

Give the horse some “slack” (a break) to relax him between schooling movements as his attention span can only sustain five or six minutes of concentrated work (it also gives you a break because your attention span also, more or less, parallels that of the horse), but you can do left and right turns without relaxing.

A horse’s ability to learn is limited by the human’s inability to know how to help the horse to learn because of lack of knowledge.

If a horse doesn’t understand something, then take a look at your explanation. The theory may be valid, but the explanation might be sketchy. Make sure you understand that getting a horse to do something and getting a horse to learn something are two different things. Getting a horse to do something at a weekend clinic has gotten a lot of people whacked when they neglected to revisit it the next week.

When you work on a specific movement, you must not only know what all the component parts of the movement are, but you must also know how to use your aids correctly to ask for it in a way that the horse can comprehend and respond to it. Having the horse understand the connection between the aids applied and the movement requested requires a great deal of focused repetition. To do otherwise, you will be just “wandering in the wilderness”.

It is well to remember that unless you demand a slight daily progress you will, after a year’s work, end up where you started from.

Every time you ‘make’ the outside of the horse do something, you lose something from the inside of the horse.

You must cultivate your ability to ‘feel’ your horse, i.e. to be sensitive to its every move, gesture, and thought, and respond accordingly. It is the one thing that no book can teach you and no teacher can give you. Although a teacher can tell you what you should feel, only you will be the one to ‘feel’ it. If you do not learn this one thing, your communication with the horse will always be somewhat stifled because your timing will always be off to a degree. In essence, it means acquiring equestrian tact. This is the ability to use the right aid at the right time with the right intensity and the right duration.