Focusing on the details of riding correctly shaped 20-meter circles is important for two reasons: Firstly, if you don’t ride accurate 20-meter circles in your dressage test, you’re throwing away points. The less accurate the shape of your circle in competition, the more the dressage judge will penalize you. Secondly, riding a correctly shaped 20-meter circle helps your horse achieve the right balance for his level of training (see “The Right Balance” below for more on balance).
I have an exercise that I use with my less-experienced students and young horses to give them the feeling of riding accurate 20-meter circles. It involves setting markers at four points on a 20-meter circle. I also use two additional markers to delineate the corners. This helps riders feel the difference between circle and corner tracks.
The exercise is also good for more-experienced riders to recheck their skills or their horse’s skills. This is especially helpful at the beginning of the season or if your horse is coming back from some time off.
Set the Exercise
Study the diagram below, illustrating the exercise. I’ve set it in a standard dressage arena, but you can build it in whatever space you have using the measurements indicated below. You need seven markers in total—five for the circle track and two for the corners at one end of the arena. I use small disc cones that I get at a sporting goods store. The discs are typically used for drill work in tennis, soccer, football and other sports. I like them for riding because if a horse steps on one, it just collapses. Plus, they’re also harder for a horse to kick and move, so you don’t have to fix them as much as taller cones.
To start, in a standard dressage arena, place two markers on the centerline 2 meters from the S–R line toward X (18 meters from C). Leave enough room for your horse to trot and canter through the markers easily, about 4-6 feet. At the letter C, place another marker about 4-6 feet in from the arena rail. Next, from one of the corners, measure 10 meters on the long side. Place a marker at that spot, about 4-6 feet from the arena wall. Do the same on the other long side. You now have the circle track. Finally, in each corner, put one marker 10-12 feet from the corner diagonally into the arena.
Ride the Circle Exercise
Before you ride the exercise, warm up your horse in both directions until he feels loose and has a forward, even rhythm.
- Pick up a working posting trot to the right, asking your horse to move evenly from your leg to your hands. Remember that you use your aids in a pressure-and-release way: After you apply an aid and your horse responds, you stop using the aid as a reward. If you are using an aid all the time, it’s like driving a car with your foot on the brake and gas at the same time.
- Ride down the long side toward the marker between H and S. Pass to the left of the marker, so you’re between the marker and the arena wall.
- As your horse’s head and neck pass the marker, immediately look to the marker at C and ride almost directly to it. Stay just to the inside of the marker in the corner. As you head to the C marker, your horse’s momentum will carry you to create the circle shape. Pass to the left of the C marker.
- As your horse’s head and neck pass the C marker, immediately look to the marker set between M and R. Ride a track that is to the inside of the corner marker and to the left of the M–R marker.
- As your horse’s head and neck pass the M–R marker, immediately look at the point between the markers set on the centerline. Trot through the two markers. As your horse’s head and neck pass the markers, look immediately at the marker between the H and S.
Be sure that you look at the next marker as soon as your horse’s head and neck pass by the previous marker. That will give you about a horse’s body length at the marker, which is what you want. This will make it feel as if you’re almost creating a diamond shape instead of a circle, but your horse’s momentum will create the circle shape for you.
Once you’ve trotted around the circle to the right a few times and feel like its smooth, reverse direction and repeat the circle to the left. You may have a different feeling in one direction than the other. That’s because most horses, like people, have stronger and weaker sides.
Inside Leg to Outside Rein
Over time, your horse will become efficient riding the circle and attuned to your aids. Then you can start to use a little inside leg to outside rein to help further refine the circle shape and improve his balance. Using your inside leg helps to encourage your horse’s inside hind leg to come underneath his body. The outside rein helps to keep the horse from going out too far. If your horse does that too much, you might also need to use some outside leg to keep him on the circle track. The inside rein asks for a little bend. How much of each aid you use depends on your horse. I try to use enough aids to get the job done, but not so much that I’m doing all of the work.
Ride the Corner Track
After you and your horse are comfortable riding the circle, use the markers in each corner to feel the difference between riding the circle and a corner. Riding the corner will feel more like you are riding a square.
Study the diagram above, which shows the track for riding accurate corners for less-experienced horses and riders (solid line). The dotted line shows the corners that more-experienced horses and riders can work toward.
Pick up a posting trot to the right and head toward the marker set between H and S. As you pass the H–S marker, look at the marker in the corner and plan a track just to the left of it.
- Pass the corner marker, looking at a straight line down the short side of the arena.
- Ride a straight track passing to the left of the C marker. As you ride past the C marker, look at the marker in the corner and plan a track just to the left of it.
- Pass the corner marker, looking at the marker between M and R.
- Pass to the left of the M–R marker. Use your eyes to create your own corner at the spot that is 2 meters past R (which is 20 meters from the C end of the arena). Do this by remembering the feeling you created in the first two corners and recreate it in this corner without a marker. As you ride through this “corner,” look at the markers on the centerline.
- Pass through the centerline markers, using your eyes to create another corner 2 meters from S.
- Ride through the corner. Repeat the pattern.
Once you’ve trotted around the square a few times to the right, change direction. Repeat riding the square to the left a few times.
- Alternate between circles and squares. When you and your horse feel like you’re trotting the square comfortably, ride the circle track again. Feel the difference between the two shapes. Alternate between the circle and square tracks in both directions. Make sure to hold yourself accountable for when you’re riding a circle and when you’re riding a square.
- Canter the exercises. Once alternating between the two tracks feels comfortable, try riding the tracks at the canter. Start with just the circle track. Then ride just the square track. Finally, alternate between them at the canter.
Use the Markers to Help Your Dressage Test
When you and your horse have gotten very comfortable at the C end of the arena, set up markers at the other end of the arena in the same way to mark a 20-meter circle and the two corners. Additionally, set up markers to help you ride a 20-meter circle in the center of the arena. Practice riding accurate circles and squares in these spaces.
With the markers still set around the arena, ride your entire dressage test. Make sure that your markers are helping you figure out how the shape feels and where you need to be in the arena. This will help you maintain your circle shape no matter where you are in the arena. Once you feel comfortable riding the circle tracks in your dressage test with the markers, then you can take them away and see if you can maintain the circle shapes without them.
The Right Balance
In dressage, and riding in general, we’re always looking for a better balance with our horses. As we move up the levels, our horses’ balance improves. So a Fourth-Level horse is going to be in better balance than a Beginner Novice horse. A Fourth-Level horse is prepared to ride a very balanced 20-meter circle with bend. Comparatively, a Beginner Novice horse is just starting to make a semblance of a circle. And that all has to do with balance. Practicing accurate 20-meter circles whatever your level will help your horse achieve the right balance for his level of training.
About Colleen Rutledge
Colleen Rutledge is an international-level event rider. She currently holds the record as being the first person to complete the five Northern Hemisphere five-star events on the same horse, Shiraz (Luke). The events include the Kentucky Three-Day Event (USA), the Badminton Horse Trials (GBR), the Burghley Horse Trials (GBR), Les 5 Etoiles de Pau (FRA) and Luhmühlen Horse Trials (GER). She and Luke completed all of these with no penalties cross country. She made her U.S. Equestrian Team debut in 2015 riding her homebred Covert Rights at the World Equestrian Festival CHIO Aachen (GER). She is based in Mount Airy, Maryland.
For a limited time, watch a free training video of Colleen Rutledge demonstrating how to ride a 20-meter circle at practicalhorsemanondemand.com.
This article is brought to you by Cosequin. Check out articles in this series with eventers Colleen Rutledge and Phillip Dutton at practicalhorsemanmag.com and with dressage rider Matt McLaughlin at dressagetoday.com.