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The Natural Circle May 24, 2013

Posted by mikeschaffer in balance, contact, dressage, looseness, Riding, training.
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(A short excerpt from Riding in the Moment – Discover the Hidden Language of Dressage. It is from the middle of the so it relies on exercises and concepts mentioned previous to this.)

The Natural Circle

For every horse at every gait, there is a circle of a certain size on which the horse will find it easiest to learn to balance a rider. When you ride your horse on this circle, you’ll find it’s very easy to regulate his speed, engage his hind legs, and get him to relax and bend his back while he stretches to, but not through, the outside aids. I call these circles “natural circles.” The idea of riding a horse on a circle based upon his conformation is not a new idea — the classical “volte” was determined by a ratio of the length of the horse’s back to the diameter of the circle.

A horse’s natural circle is a circle just small enough that he has to move slightly laterally to stay on it. This puts him in a shallow shoulder-in or shoulder-fore position. If a circle is too small he won’t be able to move freely. If the circle is too big, there is no incentive for him to move laterally and the rider is left with nothing but the reins to try to mechanically regulate speed, tempo, bend, and frame.

Figure 13-5 illustrates this. Horse -D- is on a circle so small he has to go around it almost perpendicular to the circumference — very close to the lateral engaging step exercise. This has the advantages of the lateral engaging step but it doesn’t allow the horse to move freely forward. At the other extreme, horse -A- is on a circle so large he can go around and around on it for years and years (as so many horses have) without ever learning to bend and soften in his body.
nat-cir
Horse -B- would, at first glance, seem to be right on target. He’s on a circle that he can bend to stay on. With a horse that has already learned how to bend, balance, and move into the aids, this is the ideal. However, with horses not yet this advanced, it is not as helpful as the circle horse -C- is on.

Horse -C- is on his natural circle. To stay on this circle, horse -C- has to move at a slight angle. Simply riding on this circle helps to teach the horse how to bend and stretch into the outside aids.

Finding the Natural Circle

A good way to find your horse’s natural circle is to walk him in to a very small circle and keep him there until he begins to soften. Then give him a very light aid — a soft whisper of a cognitive aid — asking him to move out laterally. As soon as he responds by taking any outward step, drop the reins in reward and let him rest or a moment or two. Repeat this exercise until he begins to feel as though he wants to move out on his own as soon as you bring the circle in.

When this happens, you can find your horse’s natural circle by adjusting the diameter until your aids asking him to turn in are in balance with his asking for permission to move out. The dressage speak for this feeling is, “moving from your inside leg to your outside hand.” When he is on this circle and you have this feeling, you will find it very easy, virtually effortless, to hold him on the circle you want.

Teaching your horse to begin moving out as you’re turning him in may seem at odds with the previous exercises, which dealt with the horse running through and falling out. However , in those situations your horse was being stiff or hollow and going through the aids instead of into them. To do this exercise your horse must be working off cognitive aids to easily turn in and move out. If he isn’t, he isn’t yet ready for this so you need to go back to earlier exercises to make him more responsive to light aids.

As your horse begins to correctly move into the aids on the circle, he will become connected. When he is, you can spiral the circle in or out by just pointing your belly button to where you want to go. With a little practice you’ll learn to keep your horse on connected aids all the time regardless of whether you’re doing a volte or straight line. Furthermore, whenever your horse does begin to lose balance, you’ll be able to restore it by doing a small circle — a volte. This is the beginning of using figures and movements to correct your horse instead of trying to fix him with “more hand” or “more leg.”

Getting a simple circle right will give you and your horse the feeling of what a very well trained school horse is like. It is the basis of everything that is important in dressage, so it’s well worth the effort. From this you will have the sensation of physically moving your horse from your inside leg to outside hand and leg. However, you’re not physically pushing your horse into your outside aids — you’re experiencing connection — the effortless conversation of two beings fluent in the same language.

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Comments»

1. Bruce Peek - November 20, 2013

Mike: I have a question about the natural circle, and spiraling in and then spiraling out. I’m focusing on a barrel or a mounting block as a visual reference point for me, as I’ve found that going around a fixed point helps me avoid wobbling..Sidekick settles as good doing the circle in and circle out as he does doing short serpentines. No surprise there as both you and a lot of the Natural Horsemanship guys are really high school trainers who just happen to use slightly different tack. Is it an ok thing to do the spiraling? I like it because I get to release the aids after a response and my horse responds better to a release too..
thanks
Bruce Peek

mikeschaffer - November 21, 2013

Hi Bruce,

There are at least 2 parts to the answer for your question.

First, if you spiral into your natural circle (nc), get a release from the horse, you can then allow him to spiral out or move laterally out. The key in this circumstance is the release – just riding in and out on the circle with no release is kind of pointless – but you knew that.

Second, staying on the natural circle develops the strength and balance of the horse as it brings the inside him forward and under (engages the hind is dressage speak – disengages in NH which is really bizarre) and teaches him to move with his back up and stretching over his topline and around the outside ribcage to the bit. In so doing you make the horse stronger, more supple, balanced and coordinated – benefits that remain with him far beyond the time you spend on the circle.

You should stop by the forum or possibly join us for our wednesday night video chat. I think you would enjoy it.

Mike


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