When is a riding circle more than just circling?
The 20m circle, stalwart of the riding lesson and dressage test. The horse and rider continuously arcing round from C to X and back again, a picture of balance and harmony. Or at least that’s what we are all aiming for, but have you ever stopped circling to ask yourself why we circle at all?
The belief used to be that the bend was formed by a continuous arc from nose to tail but spinal lateral flexion studies show that’s impossible. Instead the horse uses a combination of bending, rotating and flexion/extension of the vertebrae to achieve the appearance of a continuous curve from nose to tail. The rotation is particularly present in the thoracic spine which has very little lateral bend. The horse needs to own movement in all three planes to be able to move freely around the circle. By ‘own the movement’ I mean he needs to be physically free of injury or scaring which prevents the motion, and also needs to feel safe and confident in he ability to move that way. His nervous system needs to know a movement is safe before it will release physical tightness and allow it to happen. It needs to feel like it could perform that movement at a moments notice, when the tiger does appear from the hedge, without any support or cueing from anyone.
Riding a perfect straight line is a proof of both hind legs pushing with the same amount of force. Given all horses are born asymmetrical it is easy to see why a ‘straight as a plum line’ centre line is one of the hardest things to achieve. The additional weight and physical stress of carrying a rider on an asymmetrical body is one of the leading causes of injury and movement dysfunction. The art of Dressage original arose as a way of helping the horse to become straighter so he could carry a rider without progressive loss of performance. And ultimately to support a rider whist achieving the most fluid and balanced movements a horse’s body can do. So, to achieve an even push from both hind legs we need both physical conditioning and also neurological permission to activate the push from both legs evenly.
I don’t know about you but trying to improve multiple things are the same time is much harder than strengthening one thing at a time. The old wisdom is to use the circle to focus on one hind leg at a time. To be able to walk the circle the outside hind needs to push and travel further than the inside hind, and the inside hind needs to be flexible and strong enough to hold the horse up through the longer flight of the outside limb. Adding to this with the modern knowledge of how the nervous system can regulate power output depending on the perception of safety and stability. We know that a “weak hind leg” can be one that has its power output restricted by the nervous system. It feels that the movement is unsafe, not that the muscles are less able to mechanically produce force than the other hind. Although this all becomes a little chicken and egg after a while. The muscles are controlled by the nervous system after all.
So, if your horse can not circle smoothly you need to ask yourself which part of your combined balance and communication is getting in the way? And then practice movements which allow you both to access the balance you need. For me, I start in hand. Feel deeply into where there are moments of resistance and start from there. The give it a week and try another circle. Use the circle as the proof of the balance not as a means of achieving it.
“If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten” Henry Ford