Question: I’ve just started competing in Training Level dressage. In almost all of my tests, the judge comments that my circles are either too small or egg-shaped. Do you have any tricks for making round, correctly-sized circles?
Answer from JJ Tate: On my first day of training in Europe with Olympian Gyula Dallos, he got out of his chair to show me on foot a true 20-meter circle. I was competing at Intermediaire I at the time. Talk about embarrassing! I learned that day that riding correctly shaped circles is harder than most people realize. It takes a great deal of focus.
One of the best strategies is to choose four points on the circle. Let’s say you’re making a circle to the right at E. In a standard-sized dressage arena, that means your four points will be at E, 2 meters in from I on the centerline, B, and 2 meters in from L on the centerline. Start the circle at E when your seat passes the letter, then look up and find your next circle point 2 meters in from I on the centerline. Since there’s no visual object marking this spot, you’ll need to look for S and R in your peripheral vision. If you could draw a straight line between S and R, I would be exactly halfway between them, right where that line intersects the centerline. Your circle point will be 2 meters closer to X than that line intersection. Aim to ride a nice, curved path to it.
As you ride over that circle point, look to the next circle point, B, and plan to ride another smooth, curved path to it. I always tell my students to think of touching a letter on the track like this in three strides, rather than just one. The first stride happens as you arrive on the track; the second is the moment you pass the letter; and the third occurs when you begin to leave the track. As you complete this third stride, look toward your next circle point, on the centerline 2 meters in from L. This time, use P and V for reference points, drawing an imaginary line to find L in between them, then planning to ride your bending line to a point on the centerline 2 meters closer to X.
The end is in sight now! But as you head toward E, be careful not to let your horse fall in or drift to the track early. Again, you are in charge of arriving one stride before the letter so that you complete the circle just as your seat passes that letter. This is a skill that even my advanced students have trouble with: ending the circle exactly where you began it. It sounds very simple, but it’s not! It takes lots of practice and focus to get it right.
To aid in your practice at home, I am a big fan of cones. They’re especially helpful for finding those circle points on the centerline, out in the giant abyss of the arena. Having real visual aids exactly where you want to ride is also empowering because sometimes what feels right can be wrong. I love the small, flatter, flexible, colored training disks that soccer teams use for drills (available in sporting goods stores). Use a measuring tape to identify your two circle points on the centerline exactly 2 meters inside I and L and then place the cones several inches inside those two points. That way you’ll hit the right points when you pass just outside them.
Most horses like to fall out with the right shoulder, push against the right leg and overbend their necks to the left. To counteract this—or the opposite problem if your horse tends to overbend the other way—you must make sure he accepts your bending and straightening aids equally. That way he’ll be connected correctly and therefore balanced. It is always easier to control the shape of your circle when your horse is balanced and on the aids.
One of our major goals in dressage is to make the horse ambidextrous—equal in both directions. No horse on the planet is born absolutely straight, so it only makes sense that your circles to the right may ride totally differently than your circles to the left. Sometimes your horse’s natural crookedness can make a poorly shaped figure feel deceptively normal. Keep in mind that nothing is random; horses never wake up and say, “Today I will not turn for my owner.” Crookedness results from a slow buildup of muscle memory. To begin to correct it, you first have to know exactly where you want to go and then recognize when your horse is falling off that path to the inside or outside, turning the figure into a weird shape. By committing without a doubt to the correct shape, you’ll become aware of how he is struggling with his straightness and unevenly loading his legs. Only then can you begin to correct him and retrain that muscle memory.
A great alternative to the cone exercise is to make flat marks in the sand with the back of a shovel on your two centerline circle points. Just as you did with the cones, make the marks several inches inside the circle points so that you have to ride right outside them. When you do, try not to make any hoofprints on the flattened spots. This is a fun game that will give you excellent feedback on what’s really going on.
Using these flat marks, cones or the training disks to practice riding other figures will help to improve your eye and precision even further. For example, you can place a second cone or flattened mark on the centerline a few feet away from each of the circle points you marked for the previous exercise (so you’ll need four cones or flat marks altogether). Then ride three-loop serpentines, using the entire arena and making yourself go in between each pair of cones when you cross the centerline. This is much harder than it sounds! Once you get the hang of it in the trot, try a three-loop canter serpentine, changing your lead with a canter–trot–canter transition each time you pass through a pair of disks.
Remember, eyes up, plan your way and make it happen!
Originally from Wisconsin, dressage rider and trainer Jessica Jo “JJ” Tate made her FEI debut more than 20 years ago, at the age of 16, while training with her mentor, U.S. Dressage Federation Hall of Fame inductee Charles de Kunffy. Two years later, she relocated to Europe to train with Hungarian Olympian Gyula Dallos for two and a half years. Since then, she has trained eight horses to the Grand Prix level, earned her USDF bronze, silver and gold medals, and claimed many regional and national titles. In 2006, JJ was a World Cup finalist, the FEI High Point Champion at the Winter Equestrian Festival and long-listed for the World Equestrian Games. The following year, she and Donnermuth finished seventh in the Small Finals at the World Breeding Championships for Young Dressage Horses in Verden, Germany.
Now based in Landrum, South Carolina, in the summer and Wellington, Florida, in the winter, JJ recently became an ambassador for Brooke USA, a nonprofit organization dedicated to alleviating the suffering of working horses, donkeys and mules around the world. “What I most like about Brooke,” she says, “is that we don’t send farriers, vets or supplies over. We teach the owners how to take care of these animals themselves and become self-sustainable in the long run.” For more information about Brooke USA, go to www.brookeusa.org.
This article was originally published in the September 2017 issue of Practical Horseman.